Tuesday, December 21, 2010

الحمد لله!

You can apparently say “I no love winter! I like ice in the sky nevertimes!” without ruining your chances completely on the Foreign Service Arabic Exam, because, against all expectations, I seem to have passed. I’m very, very pleased. This time last year, I had just finished the introductory Arabic course at Qalam wa Lawh, a language school in Rabat, Morocco. We used Alif-Baa, a book designed to introduce the Arabic alphabet to English speakers with no background in the language whatsoever. One year, hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars later, everything has finally paid off and that I will received word that I’ve received my Super Critical Needs Language points.

I’m not sure where that puts me on the hiring lists, but historically, a score above 5.8 on the Econ register has been a fairly sure thing. I’m on the do-not-call list until August - or, more accurately, until I just get too impatient and walk out on the judge. It’ll be hard to sit through this job over the next eight months, which is a shame, because two weeks ago I would have described it as the best job I’ve ever had.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll describe some of the tools I used to prepare for the exam, just in case they’re of any use to anybody going through the same thing. I’ve been keeping track of what worked for me and what didn’t, but I thought it was probably a bit premature to recommend my approach before there was any evidence that it worked. Thanks to everyone, particularly the immensely patient Ms. C, who helped to prepare me for this thing, I really am grateful.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Maybe Ten Years Ago

I was misinformed as to when the State Department would give me my Arabic exam results. It looks like the contractor who runs the tests only provides scores once a week - every Monday morning. Having taken my test on a Monday morning, I’ll have to wait the longest amount of time possible. Fortunately, waiting is a skill I’ve perfected during this whole process.

The wait has also given me a chance to review every piece of my performance over those ten minutes, at least to the extent that I can remember anything that happened at all. I realized that my answer to one of the questions was actually pretty good, given that I understood barely a word of it. I answered “maybe ten years ago...” and then trailed off unintelligibly. That’s actually a reasonable answer to a lot more questions than you’d think, for example:

“Do you exercise or play sports at all?”

“Are you satisfied with your work?”

“How long ago did you begin the process of becoming a foreign service officer?”

The more I think about it, the more convinced I’ve become that I might have nailed that one. Only another few days until I find out. Do you think I can handle the stress?

Maybe, around ten years ago.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Han al-waqt!

I just finished my Modern Standard Arabic test with the people at BEX. What a disaster. I knew my nerves were getting the better of me when in my regular early morning lesson with the folks in Cairo, I could feel my consciousness start to sort of float away. I don’t know whether other people experience this or not: that part of an oral exam where you drift off and spend more time thinking about how you sound saying something than you do about what you’re actually saying? I’ve stress-tested this technique across a wide range of environments, and I can confirm that it’s a guaranteed way to sabotage yourself.

I called about five minutes early, only to have someone pick-up the phone and hang it back up immediately. It’s nice to see that government employees are the same in DC as we are here in the courthouse. We’ll stay late if we have to, but by God we will not start earlier than scheduled. If I’m in before 9:00, it’s because I want to read the newspaper for ten minutes, not to get a head start on serving the public.

I called back a few minutes later. This time, they answered and took down my information before passing me along to the testing team. Now, I won’t go into too much detail about the test’s subject matter - nobody mentioned anything about an NDA during my test, but the notoriously conservative folks on the A-100 Yahoo message board have me so completely terrified that I’m breaking some sort of Foreign Service code just by admitting the existence of the test (or the Yahoo message board, for that matter), that I’m going to hold back a little.

We began with a pretty simple dialogue. There was surprisingly little opportunity to go off-topic on this “interview” portion of the test. Basic questions about the weather would get cut off before I had an opportunity to expand on, say, exactly why I hate winter so much in New York, or whether or not I think the summer here is even worse than winter. I felt like I was cruising along until I hit a question that I just didn’t understand at all. The tester rephrased it three times until I finally sort of understood and I apologized and stammered out an answer. When I asked for that second repetition, I could hear the two or three testers whispering with each other and writing stuff down. It was like a scene in a courtroom drama where the prosecutor has just revealed evidence that’s going to get a man hanged.

Having failed that section, we moved on to open discussion. This is where you’re given a topic and you talk, for at least a couple of minutes, on whatever topic you’ve been given. I think “open” is intended in the same sense that the ocean or a desert are “open.” The subject they give you is your means of survival, and you have no idea what it is or how useful it will be until they toss it to you. If they asked me about, say, my job, than I’ve been given a life-raft. This is because I can happily talk at some length about what I do every day and what I think of it - I can survive the open water with this subject. Now, I wouldn’t say that the topic they gave me was an anchor, exactly, but it sure didn’t float. If this were a desert scene, it would have been a bag of salt.

My answer included an unflattering discussion of the Republican Party. I referred to them as “Hizb Republican” (wherein I say "Republican" in English, but with some bizarre accent that’s meant to convey a certain foreignness). At one point, the tester said, in English “what is 'Republican?'”

I said, in Arabic, “well, there are two principle parties in the United States, the Democrats are liberals, and the Republicans are the opposite.”

She said again in English, “no, that is an English word, what do you mean by ‘Republican?’”

I answered, again in Arabic, “It is a proper name, like my name, Chadha, it is the same in all languages, like Hezbollah.”

She didn’t agree, and really, I was just stalling because I have no idea what they call the Republicans in Arabic countries - they probably consider them left-wing radicals or something. I compromised by turning the Arabic word for “Republic” into an adjective, but I think it was too late by then, as the damage was already done. The test ended directly after this and I’m to call tomorrow to get my results. There’s probably some rule that if the tester has to switch into English, than you automatically fail. One year of studying for twelve minutes of semi-coherent dialogue, trouble with a technicality, and probable failure as a consequence of both. Next time I’ll limit my discussion to the wicked “Hizbashay.”

My greatest hope (and my worse fear) rest on the fact that scoring a two really shouldn’t be so hard. Low bars are the worst though - they don’t let you feel that great if you pass, and you feel that much worse when you fail. The way I feel right now, I’d be very surprised to hear any good news. So I probably would feel pretty fantastic about making it through. And really, let's be honest, they have yet to make a bar so low that I’m not delighted to jump over it. I get a little thrill just crossing the lines sometimes.

When I get the inevitable bad news tomorrow, I don't think I'll feel too badly about facing another six months of hard-out study. The temptation to slack on my studies and lose all of this progress would be too great if I didn’t have a terrifying test to motivate me every waking minute of my life.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Vocabulary Discrimination

A major difference between language learning in a defined setting and language learning on your own, is that when you’re on your own, the size of the universe is pretty much unlimited. If I study at the Foreign Service Institute, on the other hand, I can rest fairly assured that if I simply learn and know everything that I’m presented with (I know, easier said than done), that I stand a good chance of getting to where I need to be. After all, the folks teaching the language are the folks testing the language, and I’m not sure that you can avoid teaching with the test in mind if you’re already familiar at all with its contents.

Self-directed study raises a whole host of other questions. What to focus on? What is relevant? What should I emphasize? As my phone exam draws near, I find myself running a bizarre probability calculation as to what I think is most likely to be on the test. Should I be focusing on political vocabulary? Economics? Media? Particular current events? Is there an Arabic word for “Wikileak”?

I’ve developed an elaborate system of flashcards where words move in and out of various stacks scattered around the apartment, based on my how confident I am that I know how to use them appropriately. The goal for any self-respecting card is to finally make it onto the window-ledge in the spare room, which means I can pretty much ignore it forever. The problem is that some particularly stubborn words who refuse to be learned keep resurfacing - for example, I might be working on a set of new business meeting vocab I’ve thrown together, but because of my stragglers, the set might include the words: delegate, meeting, settlement, rabbit, authority, furry, representative.

To deal with this issue, I’ve had to create a new pile of cards, which is located on the floor between the headboard of my bed and the wall. This pile is for cards with vocabulary that I once thought important enough to learn, but now clearly have no place in an increasingly crowded study regime. “Spokesman” and “salary” can stay, but “zombie-fight” and “aquarium” are out. “Criminal” has to be learned, but “frosting” can wait. “Frisbee” can stay, but only because the Arabic word for that is probably just “frisbee.”

I guess we’ll find out soon enough if I made the right choices. I’m going to be pretty disappointed if the first question is “Candidate, could you please tell me if this is just about the furriest rabbit you have ever seen in your whole life?” I guess the best thing about this test is knowing what to expect when I inevitably have to take it again.