(Warning: long post)
Both Paul and I passed our Hindi exams last Thursday and got the scores we needed – 2 Speaking/2 Reading. It is a relief because we can get on with our lives now and pay attention to the all things we’ve been ignoring for months (like kids, bills, the tax man, what have you… just kidding).
It’s actually been surprisingly hard to relax after the exams. The first three nights following the exam, I kept waking up in the wee hours and would catch myself flipping Hindi word flashcards in my head, wondering about genders and trying to put together sentences. Must have been half-asleep because it would take me a while before I’d realize that I don’t have to do that anymore. Try falling asleep after that…
But the exams are done and I thought I’d do a review of learning Hindi at FSI. As an FSO spouse and one in the process of joining the Foreign Service myself, I have to say that taking any class at FSI is a priceless opportunity to learn more about the FSO lifestyle, meet people and get some rad FSO skillz at no charge! It is fantastic that the State Department offers that to spouses. It works on space available basis and there are no guarantees but I highly recommend it to any spouse interested in working at an US Embassy/Consulate.
That said, the language program at FSI is intense and efficient. Is it perfect? No, but it does deliver results. We started Hindi in early September and we knew almost nothing – 30 weeks (7 1/2 months) later, we can read, write (however imperfectly) and converse on a bunch topics, important and mundane. Here’s how it works:
First of all, it is not an immersion program because it happens in the US but it’s as close to it as possible without physically being in the target country. There are immersion trips that you can take but they are at your expense and just didn’t make sense for us at this time because we had an infant. Besides the language classes, which in our case were from 7:40 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every day, we also had field trips and Area Studies. Those last two are intended to complement language classes by introducing us to a number of topics related to our language such as regional history, politics, diplomacy, culture etc.
We went on field trips with our language instructors on average a couple of times a month and we visited sites around the D.C. area where we could practice the vocabulary and grammar we were learning. Sometimes we got to talk to native speakers (visits to Indian stores and restaurants). Other times we just practiced with our teachers on various topics (government at the Capitol, celebrations at the Cherry Blossom Festival). In addition we had a couple of opportunities to participate in Indian/South Asian festivities (a wedding, Holi).
Area Studies was a weekly occurrence (separate from language class). For us it was every Thursday afternoon and on those days we had one less language class. We attended Area Studies together with the students going to other parts of India, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Shri Lanka. Although the material was not always presented in the most student-friendly format, overall we learned quite a bit in Area Studies. We visited a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Sikh Gurudvara (temple). We had presentations/discussions with diplomats and businessmen from the countries we were going to as well several representative of the US Government and NGOs, specializing in topics of interest to our class. We also watched several good movies relevant to the topics discussed.
But back to Hindi. So, when Paul and I started Hindi, we knew almost nothing. I said almost because I played with Rosetta Stone a little bit before we started Hindi class. About four months into it I hit a wall and found it impossible to continue on my own. Plus, our son was born around that time and that was that.
The pace at FSI is so intense that by the end of our first week of class, we had covered almost as much as I did after working alone with Rosetta Stone for four months. That is not to say that Rosetta Stone is useless. It is actually a very good complement to class, however, we were so busy that that after a couple of months we literally had no time for it, which is a bummer because I liked how it helps you reinforce what you learn in class. Anyway, about three weeks into Hindi class, we knew how to read the Devnagari (Hindi) script. We didn’t yet know what we were reading but because Hindi is a phonetic language, we could read pretty much anything. It was a neat feeling.
We started in a group of nine students. After we learned to read, we were split into groups of two or three people each, which was a little scary at first because we had gotten comfortable with the larger group but it was good because we could move faster through the material. We had a couple of advanced students in our larger group, who were alone in class, which is great in a lot of ways but also very stressful, because you are always “it”, so you usually have one less class per day than those in groups of two or three.
In Hindi, we had a different teacher for each class period. Our teachers sort of specialized in different aspects of the language. For example, one would always do reading, another always does drills, a third does speaking, etc. So each day we would work with four or five different teachers. That is not the case in every language taught at FSI. I know people studying Spanish as well as others studying and teaching Bulgarian and they have one instructor teach for a few weeks. Then a different instructor comes and teaches for another few weeks. There’s no specialization. Each teacher teaches everything. I am not sure why there’s a difference in the different language departments. There are plusses and minuses to each arrangement but in the end of the day, I don’t think it makes much difference in the outcomes.
After we learned how to read in the first month, we devoted 2-3 months to grammar, some speaking and some reading. Here I have to say that the Hindi grammar is pretty involved and differs significantly from English (or Bulgarian for that matter.) In my opinion (my husband and most of our classmates agreed) there is not enough time devoted to practicing the various grammar points and constructions. We felt that the practice time was not enough to learn the new grammar to the point where you use it correctly without thinking about it. But I think that’s a function of the limited time we have to learn the language.
Sometime around month 4 we started reading newspapers and developing more detailed verbal narratives. That was done within a topical context and the first topics were weather and crime/terrorism. Perhaps because those were our first topics we ended up spending a lot of time on them. At this point we had a little over a month left in Hindi. The last month was brutal. We raced through a whole bunch more topics like politics, health, human/women’s rights, child labor, economy, education, pollution, etc. Of course, each topic came with a bunch of new vocabulary and keeping it all straight became a tremendous challenge.
I want to mention that learning a language at FSI is pretty unique and we were given more resources than we could possibly use in the time allotted. That’s a blessing and a curse. When I studied English in Communist Bulgaria all those years ago, we had very little available in terms of resources and I can see that having more resources does make a difference. On the other hand, when your time is so limited, there’s only so much you can use but I guess it’s better to have more than you can use than not enough, right?
Among the resources FSI provides to language learners is something called Learning Consultation Services. These are voluntary but I don’t see why anyone would not use them. After all, you never know what will work for you. So, Learning Consultants provide group classes on various aspects of language learning (tips on how to handle grammar, vocabulary, reading, speaking etc.), as well as personalized advice in which you fill out a bunch of surveys and are provided with advice based on your answers. The beauty of it is that it is tailored to your learning style and the suggestions are specific to how you prefer to learn. One problem with it is that it works better for some styles than others.
For example, Paul and I took the tests, got our results and then had a meeting with a Learning Consultant. Our objective was to learn how each of us can maximize the resources available for optimal learning but also how we can learn together. In the process, we found that we are very different learners. We kinda knew that because we have very different personalities but had somehow managed to live together for quite a while without killing each other. We did however, have a hard time working together as far as Hindi was concerned. FSI actually makes a point of separating spouses during language training, which is probably a good thing. But it was after class that we had issues. That’s because I am an extrovert that needs to talk through everything in order to learn it and Paul is kinda the opposite. He likes to review things on his own and think everything through quietly. So, meeting with the Learning Consultant was good for us because she helped us realize that we are both ok but in different ways (and that I need to back off and let Paul be, which I did, reluctantly).
We also found that I am a more traditional learner and I was more or less ok with a lot of written homework and rote memorization, while those things didn’t work so well for Paul. He likes to learn by casually conversing with the teachers and there were more limited opportunities to do that. So, even though there are a variety of specialists at FSI, who provide a lot of information to help you learn, it is still more useful for traditional language learners. If you prefer more of a free-style approach, you may find it harder to adjust to language learning at FSI.
That said, we both managed somehow to come out of the process mostly unscathed and are here to tell you that you can too.
Best of luck!