Learning my first hard language: Lao

The State Department organizes languages in four categories: category I (romance), II, III (hard), and IV (super hard). I am required to learn a hard language for my first diplomatic assignment overseas. Typically, for a hard language like Lao, State Department requires diplomats to spend 44 weeks in language training. Yet, since I am an entry level officer, I get a shorter version of the course – 33 weeks. The goal of language training is for diplomats to reach a “professional working proficiency” in the language. In order for this to be possible, FSI keeps language classes small – about 4 students per class.

I started language training in September 2020 and finished in April 2021. And guess what? All my language training was online because of COVID. I had language classes Monday-Friday; we were expected to do 6 hours of Zoom classes each day, plus 2 hours of review and homework. Yet, homework and reviewing usually took me longer than 3 hours. When I initially started the language classes, I was worried and overwhelmed because it’s a different script and it’s a language with 6 tones!

The first couple of weeks, I took a 30min-1hr break after class. Then, I sat on my desk until 8-10pm writing the alphabet multiple times, watching whatever YouTube videos I could find, and reviewing the class material.

After a couple of months, I felt burnt out and I knew I had to find a better balance. I realized that I was doing much better than I thought, and I could afford “relaxing” a little. I also decided to make learning fun by creating digital content. I shared a little about my language learning experience on Instagram and YouTube. This helped me feel more confident with speaking the language and surprisingly entertained others as well.

My Lao class had 4 students – 2 new diplomats (including myself) and two diplomats that had been in the service for more than 10 years. Out of the 4 of us, only one person had learned a hard language before – Mandarin. Then, for the rest of us, it was the first time learning a hard language. I mean, I took summer language courses when I was in high school (Japanese, German, Swahili) but definitely not as intense and long as this!

Some days I felt very confident with the language and there were other days that I felt disoriented because I could not recall all the basic vocabulary. We spent about 2.5 months covering the “beginner” vocabulary – introductions, family, numbers, telling time, shopping, traveling, etc. Then, the “intermediate” level felt like I was starting at 0 again. It did not build on the previous book – it was completely new material. Particularly, words related to governance – the only vocabulary that State Department requires us to learn. We started covering topics like geography, the economy, education, government, and immigration. Our textbook had passages that covered these topics, so we can learn about the country of Laos while learning new vocabulary. Then, we were required to make presentations about the United States using the same vocabulary.

Besides online training, we had the opportunity to have some in-person learning. When the weather started to get a little better, the instructors organized some in-person cultural activities, which they would typically have during non-COVID times. We gathered at a park to eat some Lao food and to celebrate Lao New Year, which falls in April. During this celebration, I had the opportunity to learn the Lao circle dance, learn about their “baci” ceremonies (a good luck ceremony conducted for various festivities), eat traditional lao dishes, and wear traditional clothing like the Lao traditional skirt called “sinh.”

Throughout my language training, I had 3 evaluations – at 12 weeks, 26 weeks, and 33 weeks. The purpose of having the first two evaluations is to make sure are on track to meet the required score by the end of the course. For my 33-week language training, I was required to get at least a 2/2 (2 in speaking and 2 in reading). Thankfully, I was proficient in Lao by the expected deadline.

During my review period, I decided to get a personal tutor online. This tutor was based in Vientiane, Laos which means the lessons were more affordable and the experience was superb because I had the opportunity to practice speaking with a native and learn more about the culture and life in Laos.

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