Learning a language as part of your assigned job duties is a tremendous benefit of a cleared career. “Thomas” is an active duty serviceman assigned language training for his upcoming assignment overseas. He offers us a look into the world of full-time language training in the federal service.

Thomas has been studying for six months now, and is supposed to test at level 2 in reading, speaking, and writing by the end of his course. Level 2 on the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR), the scale used by federal agencies to measure language proficiency, represents the ability to handle everyday communications needs. Thomas will not need to discuss complex technical matters with his foreign colleagues, but superiors want him to be able to function independently in that country. The length of a course depends on the level the student needs to reach, with easier languages and lower levels requiring a few months, and difficult languages and higher-level courses lasting over a year. Thomas is glad his course is not too long, since he is eager to get to his new post, but he knows the length of the course is ideal to help him prepare for the demands of the new assignment.

What to Expect During Language Training

The class starts at 9. The teacher is a native speaker of Thomas’ assigned language and has impressive teaching credentials both in her home country and in the U.S. They start with a brief conversation in the target language, talking about Thomas’ plans for the weekend in order to practice future tense. The teacher never asks about work-related topics, since the security of both student and teacher are protected by discretion. After the conversation, Thomas and his teacher will proceed according to a personalized lesson plan his teacher has developed according to his needs.

At noon, Thomas meets his wife for lunch. She is studying the language with another teacher at the language school so that her transition into her husband’s new duty station will be easier. They enjoy practicing their new language together at home, and more than that are thankful for the time they get to spend together during the day. They have another three hours of classroom instruction together before they head home in the afternoon, where they are expected to spend at least 2 hours on homework. This language ranks level 3 (hard) on the Defense Language Institute’s 4 level scale, but it is proving easier for Thomas and his wife since they studied a language in the same family for their last assignment.

What should you expect if you are among the federal personnel assigned language training?

“Expect to study hard,” says Thomas, “since in many cases your career depends on you passing a test. Your assignment is to learn the language, and how well you’re able to do that determines whether you get a particular assignment, or a particular promotion. Some of my colleagues find it stressful, but for me, it’s an amazing way to let me experience other cultures in a way you can’t do with just English.”

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Keith Prushankin is an up and coming (read: beginner) defense contracting professional. His ideal day involves deeply pondering the international relations issues of the day and getting into fierce debates in foreign languages. Keith found himself battling DC traffic after a few years living in Central Europe, and hopes one day to be able to commute by metro (or helicopter).