[RoundUp Update: A huge thank you to Adventures In... for hosting this past week's RoundUp! This next week's RoundUp will be hosted at the blog Nomads By Nature, and its theme is: Joyous Celebrations! What do you celebrate in December? And how do you do it?]
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A couple of days ago when I gave y'all an update on our family, I started off by talking about how folks keep asking me how Chinese is going. I always hesitate (sometimes for quite a while) because I honestly don't know how to respond.
Back before our Chinese classes began (for anyone new to this blog, I'm an EFM, not an employee. My husband is the employee), I scoured State blogs trying to figure out information about spousal access, etc., to the foreign language courses at FSI. How did these classes work? What times were they held? What sort of homework load is there? I had so many questions.
I've blogged a little bit about this before, but now that I'm into the classes I'm going to try to compile information here, in hopes that this information helps someone. So, back to the question I am forever being asked...
So, Ms. Adventure, how is Chinese going?
Well, here's the first thing a State Department spouse who is considering taking language classes needs to know: CLASSES HAVE GOALS.
Yes, yes, this is basic. But this is fundamental. FUNDAMENTAL. Let me explain why.
My husband's Chinese class is a 44 week Mandarin class. Its goal is to get its attendees to a 2/2 (a level 2 in speaking... the first number, and a level 2 in reading... the second number) by the end of those 44 weeks. This goal is stated before one even registers for the class, if one would like to find this information out.
HOWEVER, *my* Mandarin class's goal is to get me to a 2/1, and to offer enough information to get me/us to a 2/2 if its students would like or would need that. That's a level 2 in speaking (the first number) and a level 2 or 1 in reading (the second number). It's a 30+ week class (literally called "Thirty Plus"), which is interesting. My class has in it various students who have many different end dates. Some end earlier than others (close to 30 weeks total) and some are there for 44 weeks. But the class itself is tailored to the people who are leaving first (they must, of course, accomplish the goal, also), and therefore...
ALL of my husband's work that he does in 44 weeks is taken and scrunched into only 30 weeks for my class. See how that works? I will get everything my husband gets, and have FOURTEEN LESS WEEKS within which to do it. Therefore, on any given night, one night of my homework is equal to two or three nights of James's homework. No joke.
So. Back to your question. The one about how Chinese is going.
Chinese itself is an amazing language, and I am thrilled to be learning it. On one hand, TSA sure wouldn't have let me take any classes alongside my husband, and I know this darn well. I also know that there is a vast multitude of ladies who are... I don't know... home with babies and little ones and would love to take a language but just can't because of their family's needs. So yes, I am truly grateful for this opportunity. I am truly grateful that James has the job he has. Unemployment is terrifying, we could still be stuck at TSA, there are starving people in (insert anywhere where people are starving)... I know all this. However...
...On the other hand, EVERYONE ELSE IN CHINESE IS GETTING PAID TO DO THIS. That's EVERYONE else in my class and EVERYONE else in James's class. Out of all of those people, I'm the only one who is only doing it for the sheer personal enrichment of it all. And I can't help but look around and see the sea of faces in the Chinese department and know full goshdarn well that their JOB is to learn this - they they HAVE jobs - and I don't. I don't have a retirement (have you seen my yearly Social Security statement lately? Of course you haven't. Well, let me tell you how abysmal it is. At the rate I'm going, I won't even quality for Social Security or Medicare or whatever because you have to have paid in a certain amount for a certain number of years and I haven't even come close.). It's depressing. I don't have a TSP or pension... you get the drift.
James and I have class on the same shift. This means that our classes all begin and end at the same time. This means that we arrive at FSI together, have our lunch break together, leave FSI together, etc. There are two shifts in the Chinese department: the early shift and the late shift. Had this class not been on the same shift as James', I could never have taken it, for I would never have tolerated what that would have meant for our family.
Different departments have COMPLETELY different class times and class schedules. I used to think that I could comb someone else's blog who is taking French or whatever and figure out how life for me is going to be. Not so. There is a HUGE lack of space at FSI, so classroom time is scarce, so classes and departments have to share and shuffle and barter (or whatever) for classroom time and space. Therefore, you can't look at what is going on in my Chinese class and apply that to your Urdu class or what have you. Different departments, different classes, different class goals (2/2, 2/1, 1+,1+, etc.) different course loads, course times, etc.
I will say this to spouses considering language training: Dear GOD, make sure you know exactly what the class you're eyeing is going to mean for you. Call the department of the language and say to them, "You know that 25 week 2/2 class in Urdavenazwenistanian? How does that compare to the other Urdavenazwenistani classes you offer? Is is faster? Slower? More rigorous? Less rigorous? What's the schedule going to be? Is it on the early shift for your department? The late shift? What start and stop times would those be? When is the lunch break? Would you call this class accelerated compared to the other classes?"
The scary truth is that a VAST (yes, I am using the word VAST) majority of EFMs who take language classes drop out of them. Perhaps they drop out because the last however many weeks/months of the language are super duper job-related ("Ambassador, how shall we address the Gross Domestic Product in relation to the trade status of the uraniun enriched archipelago of the People's Urdavenazi Political Party's embargo..." You get the drift...) and maybe spouses decide - forget it, I don't need to memorize that vocabularic crap, let alone learn how to properly use it in a sentence.
HOWEVER, maybe they had no freaking clue that the random class they signed up for, which was on the only random date that they could have taken it, during the only scheduled time that any class for them was open was the ACCELERATED CLASS FOR GOD'S SAKE, and that their husbands and children would only ever see the backs of their heads while they scrunched over the dining room table doing their massive amounts of homework. Ahem.
With all that in mind, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Quite lovely, thank you. I am bound and determined that, even if it kills either Chinese or me, which it may full well before all is said and done, that I'm going to kick Chinese in the nads and then behead it and hold its head high above me and declare myself victorious. I am no longer aiming for it to be my beeyotch because I swear to you, with all the time and energy I'm spending on it, "beeyotch" isn't a lofty enough goal. I'm going to rip its beating heart out and eat it raw. If I live long enough.
I will say this: my two teachers (I have one in the morning and one in the afternoon, whereas James' classes seem to rotate teachers often) are the most amazing teachers I have ever EVER had. And I've had some amazing teachers in my life. They are thorough, kind, personable, brilliant, patient (anyone who tries to teach my lame self Chinese needs to be patient!), poised, highly educated ladies and I desperately love them.
Furthermore, the Chinese department (and leadership) is FULL of those sorts of people. They are talented, caring, and want to see you succeed. It's a phenomenal environment. If anyone had only 30 weeks within which to go from not even knowing how to say hello in Chinese to talking about trade deficits and what have you, baby, this is the place to do it! In addition to this, my classmates are brilliant/phenomenal/amazingly interesting, and it's a blast for this formerly-lonely-stay-at-home-mom to be out in the world of grownups again AND to be with my husband! At work! Together! O happy, happy day!
I have noted the complications for you spouses looking to enroll in classes, because I'm all about putting information out there for people who might need it, but the upshot to all of this is that if I can make it through, what an amazing feat will this have been?!
So, yes, Chinese is AWESOME. And Chinese SUCKS. And Chinese is EXHILARATING. And Chinese is DRAINING THE LIFE OUT OF ME. And Chinese is UNBELIEVABLY FASCINATING. And Chinese is quite possibly the single most amazing thing I've ever attempted, and I've attempted some amazing things.
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Technical Specifications (For Die-Hards Who Want the Nitty Gritty)
~ I have five classes every day, except for on Wednesdays, which are half days for the Chinese Department. On Wednesdays, I have two language classes and then Area Studies. "Area Studies" is when everyone in the Chinese Department gets together in an auditorium and listens to lectures about stuff pertaining to China (history, etc.).
~ Each of my five daily classes has homework the night before (this is different for James, whose classes progress at a slower pace). You then use the homework as the basis for the class the next day. You MUST do all the homework. In fact...
~ ...Before I started classes, I used to think (hope?) that if I did most of my homework or however much of my homework that my homelife schedule would allow, that this would suffice. That folks would just sort of understand my limitations and let me slide. No. NO. Do NOT approach language training as a spouse and think that you will be doing anything less than 100% of what the class requires. Of what the people getting PAID to be there will also have to do. You do 100% of what they do, or there's the door. Period.
~ Each of my five daily Chinese classes has its own theme (grammar/reading/speaking/etc.) and its own book. I have LOTS AND LOTS of Chinese books. A book each for reading, a textbook, a workbook that accompanies the textbook, a listening exercises book (with accompanying listening exercises)... the list of books goes on and on. In addition to the book-based homework, they assign us other homework, such as speeches to be delivered to the class.
~ Spouses are allowed to take any language classes that have space for them. Space is a tricky issue, for State will NOT open additional spots in a class for spouses; the class must naturally have empty seats. If you are thinking of trying to get into a language class, for goodness' sake, do the legwork yourself and please don't think that your employee spouse's CDO should do it. Your employee spouse's CDO gets hundreds of emails a DAY. Plus, you are your own best advocate and the one with the largest vested interest in the outcome.
I recommend you call the language department, figure out what classes are offered when, learn more about the classes offered (meeting times, class goals (2/2? 2/1? 1/1? No test?), etc.), ask the department if they think there might be space for you, and THEN have your spouse email their CDO with the class number and information and ask for you to be enrolled. But know this: even if you are enrolled initially, you can and will be bumped if your space is needed for an employee. On the other hand, a class that is initially full may free up even a day or two or three before (or into) class, allowing you to register at the last minute.