Monday, August 03, 2009

3/3 In Italian!

Camden Yards, Orioles vs Twins

If you speak three languages you are tri-lingual, if you speak two languages you are bi-lingual and if you only speak one language, you are an American. So goes the old joke. I am now, apparently, fluent in Italian! After managing to not learn Bulgarian for the two years I lived there and then avoiding the burden of knowing Urdu for the year I worked in Islamabad, I have acquired the ability to deny a visa, order an espresso and claim diplomatic immunity in nearly understandable Italian.

I began language training last February and finished today. Tonight will be the first night since the course began that I won't study Italian in one way or another. Our class is scheduled to continue to meet for the rest of this week and these last few classes should be a lot of fun. Actually, the entire course has been a lot of fun. Except, of course, for the whole 'learn Italian or lose your job' thing. In the Foreign Service you are required by law to master at least one language other than English within your first five years in order to be eligible for tenure.

Because Italian is a "world" language we are expected to acquire the ability to understand, speak and read it at a 3/3 level with 24 weeks of intensive training. My days at FSI followed a routine. I would arrive early to check my State email account and then review anything I had prepared for the morning class. Over the course of the 24 weeks the composition of my class changed several times, as did the hours, but the routine never varied. After reviewing and preparing I would report to our room and receive a two hour lesson. We were asked to read the Italian newspapers online every night and the first thing we would do in the morning was to report on our selected "notizia del giorno". This accomplished three things, first it gave us a great deal of practice in reading, second it gave us an uninterrupted ten to fifteen minutes every morning to speak and third it gave us a constant insight into Italian culture, politics, economics and gossip. After the 'news of the day', we would be given some grammar point or an exercise to do in class or any other thing that the teacher had readied for us. At the end of the two hours, we had a two hour self-study/lunch break and we usually received an assignment to complete during that time. If we didn't have an assignment, we were free to use the language lab, the library or grab lunch. I found a desk in the lower floor of the library where I could sit in privacy and weep quietly to myself over my total lack of comprehension. Then we reported back to our room and sat patiently while one or another of the teachers attempted to cram ten pounds of Italian into our four pound capacity brains.

The Italian section is located on the back corridor of the third floor. There's a lounge area on the front corridor by the French classrooms. The lounge has four or five computers and a padded bench of seats under the window. It also has one old faded green easy chair and a table. I would frequently use that easy chair to catch a quick nap. I discovered that I have the ability to fall sound asleep while surrounded by people talking on phones, using the computers, eating lunch or doing any of the many other things people tend to do in lounges. Once I fell so soundly asleep that I was snoring, not softly or gently, but raucously and loudly. In fact, I was snoring so loudly that I woke myself up. There were a dozen or so people in the lounge and, without exception, they were all staring at me. The only think I could think of to say was, "How's a man supposed to sleep with all this racket going on?" and I got up and walked slowly back to my classroom. Dignity, it's all about dignity and being able to discreetly wipe the drool off your chin without anyone noticing!

We had three regular full-time teachers and two or three teachers who came in as needed and they were all excellent. Each had a different style but they all followed the same course plan and they switched around between the three groups of students every four weeks or so. This gave us an opportunity to experience different voices, cadences, accents and speaking speeds. In Italian, speaking speeds vary from machine-gun rapidity to something that almost resembles speech but is actually indecipherable to the human ear. We also had a class on hand gestures, because it is impossible to speak Italian without making the accompanying and appropriate gestures. Two hours of class in the morning, a two hour self-study period and two hours of class in the afternoon every day except alternate Wednesdays, that was our job for twenty-four weeks. On alternate Wednesdays we were given the afternoon session off so we could meet with our colleagues at State, arrange for packers and movers, get our visas or attend to any of the hundreds of other details required to allow us to depart for post.

After the second classroom session I would head back to my apartment and begin to work on the homework. As I said, every night we were expected to read through several Italian newspapers and magazines and to select one article to discuss in class the following day. In addition to the news of the day, we were given assignments from the textbook and its accompanying workbook and, often, were asked to prepare a five to ten minute presentation for the following day on some topic of interest such as immigration, the environment, or the reasons for anti-Americanism in the world today. Sometimes the teacher would give us a topic to debate during class and we'd be expected to take a position and argue it against our classmates, or she would give us seven minutes to prepare a ten minute extemporaneous presentation or would challenge each of us to speak for two minutes without pause on a word she would throw at us off the top of her head. Frequently, we'd be given articles to read that the teachers had found and these, invariably, were much more difficult than the softballs we chose for ourselves. Every Friday afternoon we'd watch an Italian movie with English subtitles and by the end of the course most of us found ourselves understanding more and more of the spoken dialog.

So for 24 weeks that's been the routine, a very intensive program designed to take us from 0/0 to 3/3 with all the language resources of the Department of State at our disposal. And then they test us.

The test is a very formal structured event. FSI has a suite of rooms specifically designed to host the tests. You sit in one of those rooms with two testers for the six part exam that takes approximately two hours to complete. During the exam, one of the testers will only speak the foreign language and the other will only speak English. The first part of the exam is called the 'conversation' and you and the native speaker are expected to talk about anything at all. This is a warm-up and you can lead the conversation or let the tester take the lead. After the testers are satisfied that they've heard a fair sample of your ability, you move on to the second part of the spoken test, 'speaking at length'. The testers give you half a dozen or so topics and you pick one to speak on for no less than five minutes and no more than ten. They leave the room and give you five minutes to prepare your thoughts, then they come back in and you start talking. The third part of the test is the 'interview'. Again, you're given a list of topics to choose from and you select one. Then you interview the native speaker on that topic and translate his replies for the English speaker. For the fourth part of the exam you are given a sheet of paper with six short written pieces on it and you have six minutes to read them and then tell the testers what each of the six was about. The reading selections are written in the foreign language but you explain them to the tester in English. The six pieces will vary in difficulty and length and you're only expected to know what they are about, for example an advertisement for a boat, a recipe for clam sauce, a political announcement or a short newspaper article on a country fair. The fifth part of the test is a long written piece that you select from a stack of pieces. You're given seven minutes to read it and then report on it to the testers. This time, however, you have to be able to talk about it in some detail and demonstrate that you understand the tone of the article and any messages that are implicit but not stated. The sixth part of the exam is exactly like the fifth except that the testers select an article for you to read. Then you're done. I am still uncertain as to how your use of appropriate or inappropriate hand gestures factors into your final results but never let it be said that I was timid in my use of flailing, waving and gesturing meaningfully during my exam (even the reading parts!). You leave the room and they come to an agreement between them on your score. The tests are recorded so you have an opportunity to challenge the score if you're not satisfied.

As you might imagine, the tests are fairly stressful no matter how high your level of self-confidence might be. I went into mine with a strategy that required perfecting the phrase "I'm having a small heart attack now" in a blatant attempt for that sympathy point or two and "the envelope I'm sliding under the table has several hundred dollars in it" in an attempt to influence the testers in a more time-honored manner. In the end, neither faking a medical emergency nor bribing the testers was necessary and I managed to achieve the required 3/3.

I don't want to give anyone the impression that all I did was study for 24 weeks. I also went to two ballgames. I saw the Orioles play the Twins up in Baltimore and I saw the Nationals play the Phillies in DC. I went to an opera, saw three movies and a parade and I drove out to a farm for a barbecue.

Camden Yards is a great ballpark.

Thanks to my classmate Terrie and her husband Willie, I got to sit in the CNN suite for the Nationals Phillies game at the new stadium in DC.

My car is on its way to Rome and the packers will be here on Thursday to pick up my stuff. I'm running around saying goodbye to my friends and completing the FSI checkout sheet. There's always last minute paperwork to finish and last minute consultations to attend, then I'll be off to Rome. I've been assigned an apartment up by the Villa Borghese and, they tell me, I can walk to the Embassy from there in about twenty minutes. Although I assume I'll have to actually work while I'm in Rome, I don't intend to let that inconvenience prevent me from fulfilling my self-appointed mission to find the best gelateria in the city.

This morning before my test I sat in that old green easy chair in the lounge to go over my notes one last time. Now I'm concerned that I might be sound asleep in that chair just dreaming that I've passed the exam. If you happen to be near the lounge on the third floor of FSI and see a man snoring peacefully in the chair, please don't wake me up because I'm having a great dream!