Language and the Trailing Spouse

One of the hardest things about being a trailing spouse in the Foreign Service is the language.  As an EFM, we are eligible for language training at FSI, but many of us, for whatever reason, cannot or choose not to learn the language of the host country.

In my case, I had a little Spanish from college when we were posted to the Dominican Republic and I chose to go through language training.  It helped me immensely, as there is little English spoken in the D.R. outside of the Embassy community.  My motivation to learn the language, however, was only so-so, and after a couple of personality-conflict episodes in my class, I ended up dropping out of the classroom setting after about 4 months.

Indonesian training was a disaster for me from the start, as my motivation was at an all-time low and Indonesian is just so vastly different from English.  After three weeks of being beaten over the head with Indonesian, I was miserable, and decided to go the self-study route.  As of this moment, I think I’ve maybe picked up ten words and looked at my textbooks once or twice.  I will be at a severe disadvantage at post, as few Surabayans speak English.  This, in turn, will culturally isolate me and make navigating everyday life incredibly difficult.

In my Indonesian class, I was that guy, you know, the one who didn’t study at all and made mistakes left and right on things that we had just been taught.  I wanted to learn the language, honestly, but I also had other things to do.  For my wife, it’s different, as it’s part of her job and she’s getting paid to do it.  Also, for the Diplomat, failure in learning the language is not an option.  She argues that I’m getting all this free language training so I should look at it that way, and while I somewhat agree, it doesn’t work that way for me.

One of the hardest parts of language training for the spouse (for me, at least) is finding the time and motivation to study at home.  As the trailing spouse, one needs to keep up with all the domestic BS (cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, bills/finances, and, if applicable, childcare) while supposedly also finding the time to put in 4-5 hours of homework and study time in order to acquire a new language.  By the time you get home from a 6-hour day of intensive classes, you’re exhausted.  But you still have to get dinner ready, entertain the kid so your spouse can have some study time, do some laundry, and pick up the toys strewn all over the house.  As I write this, I’m waiting for the dryer to buzz so I can change the laundry over (and listening to salsa – great for staying motivated to do housework).  Once I’m done with the laundry, I’ll probably go for a quick workout, then start planning dinner while trying to distract the child away from Mama.  See?  Where do I fit in studying at night unless I stay up until 1 a.m.?

Basically, I’m screwed.  I’m going to start looking at the (literally) thousands of flash cards my wife has, try to interpret her sometimes-sloppy handwriting, and drag out the self-study materials.  But I’m going to struggle mightily with the language, and have to rely on my wife for much of the communication over there (difficult when you’re the one tasked with supervising and instructing the domestic staff who will most likely not speak any English).  Unfortunately, there will not be an option for a FAST course until late February, so even if I enrolled in it, I’d only get about 3-4 weeks of the course under my belt before we departed for post.

I think this is a huge issue for a lot of spouses.  Whether it’s lack of childcare (the waitlist at FSI Daycare is almost a year long and it’s expensive), lack of time, or lack of motivation, many spouses struggle with the language learning process.  For me, it’s a combination of the two latter components, but I’m starting to see how important learning the language is.  Hopefully I can overcome the lack of motivation and start hitting the books.  Otherwise I will be miserable for our two years at post.


5 thoughts on “Language and the Trailing Spouse

  1. Once you get there you will pick up some bahasa, thankfully the Indonesians are pretty tolerant and eagerly to help. You can get by with only a very little. It will be fine. Becuase my husband is IMS we don’t usually come if or any language training, for either of us and other than a memorable mistake involving MSG mistaken for sugar and the morning coffee we really had few problems.

  2. When time usage is critical and overly vied for, it is nearly impossible to compete with a language course that targets you to topics/vocabulary you won’t be using. Since you know the basic reasons you would want to have the language, maybe just pull those phrases out to study. When you get there, there are options from Embassy language classes to finding your own tutor to cater a trailing spouse’s needs lesson. I swear, necessity and relevance are the best motivators for language learning. Be gentle with yourself too. If you really want to learn the language, you will! Also, when in China CLO had a packet that was Chinese/pinyin/English with several expressions and variations to communicate with hired help. It was a great help those first months.

  3. If you can do the 3-4 weeks of FAST I’d recommend it, the whole course is only 8 weeks so you’re getting a good chunk of it. We did FAST before heading to Russia and the little bit made a lot of difference (and I was in my first trimester, so I did, literally, zero homework and had little retention). Another option if available is the Distance Learning, which is all self study except for 1/2 hour each week on the phone with an instructor. Also the benefit of FAST and DL is they are geared towards actually living somewhere – you learn to ask directions or call for an ambulance, not give a speech on nuclear proliferation. Good luck!

    • The more I think of it, FAST is less of an option. We’ll be in the middle of the throes of pre-departure (an undertaking that will doubtless land on my shoulders), and the first 2 weeks of Indonesian were a group setting that really had no value other than learning only the most simplistic stuff (My name is…, colors, compass, weather, 1-10, etc.) with no real opportunity to speak/produce unless it was standing up and singing childish songs as mnemonics. And the first week of group class was a bombardment of vocabulary (literally 100’s of words, though the professors admitted that we really only could learn 7 new words a day). I don’t know… I think I’ll just have to bust my tail and try to go the self-study route over the next 3 months and hope the options for training at post are as good as they seem.

  4. You have no idea how much I understand where you are coming from! This language thing is a guilt that eats away at me as a “trailing spouse.” I feel like I *should* take the courses at FSI when we are there, but it is hard to sit through classes about 6-party trade talk vocabulary when I know that I will need vocabulary about how to buy noodles and where to find a dry cleaner.

    I did ten weeks of Chinese and then happily hopped to ConGen when an EFM seat opened up!

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