Tongue-Tied in Surubaya?

Language Training and the Foreign Service Spouse

One of the hardest aspects of being a trailing spouse in the Foreign Service is the challenge of learning multiple languages. As family members, we are eligible for language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and most of us should probably take advantage of this. But for many, undertaking full-time language training is a daunting prospect.

Our first post was the Dominican Republic. I had some Spanish from college and I also chose to go through FSI language training. It definitely helped. For a variety of reasons, I decided to drop out of the classroom setting after about four months. Even with that training, however, it was still difficult to ask for items in the supermarket, to ask the housekeeper to sweep the floor, or to ask the gardener to trim back the bamboo that was encroaching on our patio— extremely important in domestic life. There is little English spoken in the DR outside of the Embassy community.

Now we’re heading to Surabaya, Indonesia, another post where almost no English is spoken. This time around, the biggest barrier to language training has been finding the time and motivation to study at home. As the “trailing spouse,” I needed to keep up with all the domestic chores (cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, bills/finances, and childcare) while 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 I got home from a 6-hour day of intensive classes, I was exhausted (and so was my wife, the officer). But I still had to get dinner ready, entertain the kid so my wife could have some study time, do laundry, and pick up the toys strewn all over the house. As I write this, I’m waiting for the dryer to buzz. Once I’m done with the laundry, I’ll probably squeeze in a quick workout, then start dinner while trying to distract the child away from Mama. Where do I fit in studying unless I stay up until 1 a.m.?

Indonesian is just so vastly different from English. 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. It’s her (paid) job to learn the language and failure is not an option for the Diplomat. She argues that I should be glad to get all this free language training. While I agree somewhat, it still doesn’t do much for my motivation.

After three weeks of being beaten over the head with Indonesian, I decided to go the self-study route. I’m using a few texts purchased for my Kindle, the FSI distance-learning resources, and my wife’s thousandplus flashcards. 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 once we get to post, as few Surabayans speak English. This will isolate me and make navigating everyday life incredibly difficult. I’ll also have to rely heavily on my wife to communicate for me, despite the fact that her position is travel-heavy. It’s not an attractive prospect.

Whether it’s lack of childcare (there is a year-long waitlist at the pricey FSI day care center), lack of time, or lack of motivation, many spouses struggle with the language learning process. For me, it’s a combination of the latter two. On the other hand, I’m starting to understand how important language training is for all spouses.

Unfortunately the options for us EFMs aren’t particularly flexible, especially if young children are in the equation. If other avenues were to be opened to us such as gearing a language course at FSI to the spouse and domestic matters, or a stipend to use as we see fit for private sessions that fit into our busy schedules or to attend classes at the numerous cultural centers and Embassies here in the DC area, language training could be a much less daunting endeavor. If the State Department is willing to invest tens of thousands of dollars into us attending classes at FSI, why not invest a fraction of that for us to learn the language outside of the rigid confines of FSI—in our own way and at our own pace?

Dave Pernal is an accompanying spouse in the Foreign Service. He follows his wife around the globe along with his son and two dogs. Dave is also an aspiring chef and entrepreneur. You can follow his antics at davepernal.com and theexpatchef.wordpress.com.

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