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.