When I went to Moscow at age 17 as a student at the invitation of an American diplomatic family, I knew about five Russian words. For some reason the word “okno” or “window” was one of my first vocabulary words. Over the weeks and months I discerned where I might get something to eat, and figured out a PECTOPAH was a restaurant. Once the cyrillic alphabet made sense I could start to recognize other cognates, like restaurant, and so at least I could make out the Russian words borrowed from English. My son Bryan, many years later, took the Trans-Siberian railroad from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, using his 100 or so word vocabulary. He was already skilled in operating in a foreign language, having taken all of fifth grade in Spanish in Havana.
Languages don’t comes easily to most Americans. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American. That joke still applies unfortunately. The Foreign Service does an excellent job of teaching languages to American diplomats and their families when resources allow. My wife Kathy has taken Finnish, Spanish, Russian and Tajiki. Her classes were geared to her needs — transportation, schools, shopping. She shopped. I visited nuclear plants and talked foreign policy. The Foreign Service Institute will teach diplomats how to succeed in their specialty. So for me going to Moscow as Nuclear Affairs Officer, I learned the terminology for ядерная энергия, or nuclear energy, while Kathy learned how to buy грибы на рынке, or mushrooms at the market.
The credibility and access you get with language is immeasurable. On temporary duty trips to Kabul I talked with many Afghans through an interpreter. I never felt like I got the whole picture or really connected as fully as I would had I been able to speak the language. Language also helps families overseas succeed. It is probably the single biggest factor in morale. When you feel confident enough to get on a train, go to a play or visit a resort the world opens up to you and you avoid the fate of becoming a “compound rat” who lives on the Embassy townhouse row and never ventures out into the street.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? An American.
And some foreign words tend to stick in your own family vocabulary. “Paka,” Russian for see you later for example. It just rolls off the tongue. The Marshallese word for a feeding frenzy on the ocean is “unok.” That short little word describes the flock of birds, the fish feeding below and the fish leaping out of the water. For people who made their living off the sea, it’s not surprising that such an important concept would be expressed in just one syllable.
The language training course is not an addition to your job as a Foreign Service Officer. It is your job. For six months to two years you go to school everyday and are immersed in the experience. You have a native language teacher. Whether it is Pashtun or Parisian French, you have someone who has the accent and knows how to teach. You have tapes, movies, small classes of usually just up to four students. And for the really hard languages you might have a year in Washington and a year in the country of your assignment. The Russian program was ten months, Spanish six months and the really hard languages, like Arabic, are two years long. At the end of the training you are tested and you hope to get a 3/3, professional proficiency. A 4/4 is advanced professional proficiency. I managed that after a six years in Russian speaking countries and many months at the Foreign Service Institute, but it helped me to negotiate an emergency response agreement with my Russian counterpart and we could both haggle about words in each other’s language.
People interested in the State Department often ask me if having a language is a prerequisite. It is not. But I think showing you can be successful overseas is important to the recruiters and examiners, so having a language is a plus. I will admit that second generation Americans with many ties to their home country may find the security background investigation takes a long time. Investigators will see if you have ties to the old country that could complicate your life as a diplomat. But hang in there. Second generation Americans make excellent American diplomats, knowing a thing or two about visas, refugees, languages and how the world works.
People interested in the State Department often ask me if having a language is a prerequisite. It is not. But I think showing you can be successful overseas is important to the recruiters and examiners, so having a language is a plus.
The bottom line is keep plugging away at Spanish, or Icelandic, or whatever language you want. It enriches your mind and soul and will make you more competitive, no matter what you do. And I hope the new administration recognizes the importance of language training. If you are going to negotiate a better trade deal, you better know what they are saying in whispers on the other side of the table. And if you can tell a joke in the other language to break the ice, you might get down the road towards a deal a little quicker.
Of course, there will always be some linguistic and cultural mysteries you just can’t figure out. The Russian proverb, “It is hard to find a black cat in a dark apartment, especially when it is not there,” is one I’m still puzzling over.