Monday, October 15, 2007

Urdu Field Trip

I have one month left before I depart for Islamabad and begin my new job. I'm still grinding away at Urdu and, after four months of Early Mornings and two additional months of full days, I have a fairly decent grasp of the most basic grammar and about two hundred vocabulary words. The first month of full days was a review of everything I'd learned during the long summer days of Early Mornings and the second month of full days built slowly on that foundation. Two of my colleagues are receiving Full Urdu which means between thirty-six and forty-four weeks of full days. My eight weeks of full days is called a FAST course and is supposed to prepare me for basic communication.

If, by 'basic communication', we mean that I am able to tell someone that I have a blue house or that I am from America, then FAST has served its purpose. The past and the future cannot exist in my communications nor can I have basic telephone conversations, ask directions, order a meal, offer or solicit help, or schedule a meeting. The things I've been taught, I've been taught very well but my window for learning was always too narrow for me to learn the language perfectly.

It occurs to me that, rather than simply give me the first eight weeks of the Full course, I might have benefited more from a curriculum designed specifically for the FAST course. So, here's the suggestion I'm making to the Urdu Department; build a FAST course that crams survival Urdu into eight short weeks. Sample phrases using basic simple Past, Present and Future sentences would be useful, as would learning the basic sentence structure for Declarative, Interrogative and Imperative sentences. Lists of verbs (two or three hundred would be nice) should be provided along with lists of adjective pairs (big-small, wide-narrow, smart-dumb etc.). Crunching vocabulary would be mandatory and lists of words in categories like Greetings, Time, Numbers, Directions, Family, Food, Places, Body Parts and Daily News could be used to augment the basic sentence structure lessons.

On the other hand, last week we went on a field trip to the National Zoo. It was a nice break from the routine of the classroom and gave me an opportunity to try out my new telephoto lens on the still camera and the new HD video camera I plan to take to Pakistan. We learned the names of many of the animals in Urdu and dodged unruly groups of school kids who also seemed to be on field trips. I can say, "The lion is yellow", but not "Hey, get out of my way you little b@#$%*d". Some of those words would be useful too.

A week or so ago I had dinner with some friends at a restaurant called "Mini-bar at Cafe Atlantico". There are only six seats and you have to make your reservations one month ahead. Three chefs prepare the meal, one course at a time, across the counter from you and describe each dish as it's set before you. There are approximately thirty courses and all but one or two are consumed in one bite. The meal begins at six o'clock sharp and winds up around nine. By the time it's over you're reasonably full and have experienced an encyclopedic range of tastes and flavors, each more delicious than the last. It's one of the most interesting dining experiences in DC and I heartily recommend it.

Now all I have left to do is finish two more weeks of Urdu, one week of Crash & Bang (a personal security course) and a short course on Duty Officer responsibilities. Oh, and I have to buy a tux. Thirty course dinners, field trips to the zoo and diplomatic black tie events, just another day in the life of a Foreign Service Officer. I am also now able to lean over to the diplomat seated next to me in Islamabad and say with complete confidence in slightly accented Urdu, "My pencil is on the table, Sir".