Saturday, April 21, 2007

Urdu Is A 'Superhard' Language

At noon on Friday I became a fully commissioned officer in the United States Foreign Service. Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, the number three person in the Department of State after Rice and Negroponte, issued the oath of office to the 133rd class of Foreign Service Officers in the Benjamin Franklin Room on the eighth floor of the State Department building. Interestingly enough, the oath we give is the same oath used to swear in the president. We are sworn to support and defend the constitution of the United States and are now proud members of America's diplomatic corps. As our instructors constantly drill into us, when we're abroad the headlines will always begin, "U.S. Diplomat, Larry Gemmell, was found wandering the streets of Kafiristan in a state of bewilderment, wearing a small yellow hat and leading an obviously embarrassed pig on a leash". The message, of course, is that we will be identified first and foremost as U.S. Diplomats, as if me waving my Dip Passport around and screaming, "I have immunity, I have immunity!", would leave any doubt.

The photo of me at the podium is just an illustration of what I'd look like if I were the Secretary of State. The picture has been artfully cropped to exclude the two security gorillas closing in on me from either side. Subsequent photos, if they had been taken, would have shown 'U.S. Diplomat, Larry Gemmell' being dragged unceremoniously off the podium and sent in chastised shame back to his seat.

On Thursday we wrapped up the Orientation phase of our training, turned in our State Department laptops and said goodbye to the Orientation staff. For seven weeks we've been a group, chugging along together like a team but when the Swearing-in Ceremony ended today, we had just finished the last group activity in which the 133rd will ever participate. From the moment we were given our first assignments, we've all become pretty focused on our own futures and pretty anxious to get on with them. Each of us has an individually tailored training schedule designed to provide us with the tools to succeed at our first overseas posting. On Monday, for example, I begin Area Studies Asia. This is an examination of the history, culture, people and problems in that region of the world. In the coming months I'll also get job-specific courses necessary to perform the duties of a General Services Officer such as Acquisitions, Logistics, Real Estate and Contracts. I'm also scheduled for Duty Officer training, Emergency Medical training and a couple of FS computer courses. Towards the end of my training program I'll receive a security course that's mandatory for personnel headed to Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan and is known fondly around the State Department as the "Crash & Bang" course. And then I'll begin to study Urdu.

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has the finest language training program in the world. It is mandated by law that all Foreign Service Officers must demonstrate proficiency in at least one foreign language to receive tenure. The FSI has created a standardized test to determine one's ability to speak, read and understand any language in the world. The test takes about two hours and consists of speaking with a native speaker and reading several texts in the language of choice. I took the test on Wednesday in Bulgarian and found it to be a very interesting experience. By 'interesting' I mean, of course, excruciatingly painful, demeaning and degrading. The Native Speaker and I failed to achieve any semblance of rapport and, apparently, failed to communicate on any level which surprised me because I thought we were actually having a conversation at one point. I may have, inadvertently, chosen an inappropriate word or two during the question and answer part of the test. My clue that this may have happened was the look of shock, horror and disgust I got from the NS and her immediate refusal to speak another word to me. Lack of communication proved to be somewhat of a handicap when it came to scoring my efforts in the verbal part of the test. I also failed to achieve any meaningful connection with the written portion of the test, although I did have more rapport with the pieces of paper than with the NS. So, after two and one half years of Peace Corps language classes, private tutors and struggling along in the country, I scored a 1/1 on my Bulgarian test. In order to come off of language probation and qualify for tenure, I needed a 2/2.

My colleague, Denise Shen, took her test in Mandarin the same day and we met in the cafeteria to commiserate. I was still sulking and told her that I'd only scored a 1/1 and she said that she'd only scored a 1+/1 on her test. "Yes," I said, "but I spent two and one half years in Bulgaria."

"Larry," she said, "I'm Chinese!"

It's nice to have friends who can cheer you up.

The FSI divides the languages of the world into categories. Languages that are easier than others to learn are called, diplomatically, World Languages. I guess it would be insulting to some countries to say that their language is 'easy'. French and Spanish are a couple of World Languages and while the French seem proud of their reputation for being 'easy', their language is not. In order to come off of language probation in a World Language you have to score a 3/3. I can assure you that there are Spaniards and Frenchmen who don't speak or read their own languages at a 3/3 level. The next group up is the 'hard' languages. Bulgarian is a hard language, as are Russian, Polish and Czech. The qualifying level for 'hard' languages is a 2/2. That's a 2 in speaking and a 2 in reading.

The final group of languages are the 'superhard' languages. Chinese, Arabic and Urdu are examples of 'superhard' languages. Yes, Urdu. The bar on 'superhard' languages is lowered to 2/1. The full language course for Urdu runs about 44 weeks. I get a six week course to familiarize me with the language and then a year of working with our Pakistani employees at the embassy to hone my skills. How tough can it be? One hundred fifty million Pakistanis, some of them quite small children, speak Urdu effortlessly. So my plan will be to speak only Urdu every day while I'm engaging in facilities and motorpool management. Because the traffic in Islamabad is reputed to be among the worst in the world as far as observance of any of the rules of the road is concerned, I'm sure to learn a colorful phrase or two and this time I intend to fully commit them to memory so they don't suddenly pop out during an FSI language test.

Now that I know that I'll be at the FSI until late October or early November, I'll begin to look around for a more permanent apartment to rent. The weather is getting nicer and I want to spend a lot more time on the weekends exploring Washington, DC. I have six months to get to know the city and complete all my training. Then I'll be off to an incredibly interesting and exotic part of the world where I can, hopefully, make a contribution of some kind.

A final word on Diplomatic Immunity, as one of our instructors put it, "If you find yourself in a situation where you're wondering if your diplomatic immunity will cover you, you're already somewhere you should never have gone."

The gentleman in the photo with me is Ambassador Harry Thomas, a senior official in the State Department who spends his mornings briefing Condoleeza Rice and his afternoons being, among other things, our class mentor.