About the Author: Aaron Snipe is among a group of Foreign Service Officers studying Arabic in preparation for their next assignments.
The State Department's Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is where American diplomats come to learn the tools of their trade. A wide range of courses prepare Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) to engage the media, speak, read, and write in numerous languages, and to draft efficiently and think critically about political, economic, and human rights issues. Yet, in all the courses taught at FSI, there is a common thread: cultural competence. This critical component of diplomatic engagement is best gained when FSOs can communicate in the language of the host country. Currently FSI hosts over 1,000 students studying more than 70 languages. From Azeri to Vietnamese – and every language in between – FSI is preparing diplomats to engage foreign audiences to explain America's policies as well as our values.
It's a unique environment to study language. Each day, before 7:00 a.m., you can find students sitting in the FSI cafeteria with coffee in hand pouring over flash cards in Spanish, conjugating verbs in Farsi, practicing introductions in Czech, and explaining trade agreements in Chinese. Before I began studying language at FSI, I often found it strange when my colleagues would roam the halls between breaks, talking to themselves. That is, until a teacher stopped me in the hall one day recently to ask me (in Arabic), "Who are you talking to?""Atakalem ma nafsi." (Talking to myself), I told her.
The Arabic Language Department at FSI is busy churning out students to staff our embassies across the Middle East and is always finding new and innovative ways to teach. Recently, I was able to attend a one-week, Arabic-language immersion course for advanced students. Accompanied by two professors, six students, who are headed to various countries in the Middle East, piled into a van to make the long drive from Washington, D.C., to Dearborn, Michigan, where the largest population of Arabic-speaking Americans and Legal Permanent Residents live in the United States. The trip was a fantastic (and very cost effective) opportunity to utilize a great American resource in our own backyard: an Arab-American community eager to assist U.S. diplomats in preparing to better understand the language, cultures, religions of the Middle East.
The group visited an evening Bible study session at a church, attended afternoon prayers at two local mosques, met with university students, and even worked behind the counter of one of Dearborn's finest Middle Eastern bakeries. In all of our interactions, the group found proud Americans of Arab decent eager to speak with us about our upcoming diplomatic assignments. "You are great representatives for America to work in the Middle East," one parishioner from a Chaledean Church in Dearborn told the group. "You know the language, and even more than that, you understand the culture. This serves America well," he noted. Among the many meetings with civic, religious, and law enforcement leaders, the group also attended a celebration of Lebanese Independence Day sponsored by the Lebanese Consulate General of Detroit.
While all of my colleagues (author excluded) did a tremendous job of speaking Arabic, non-stop, for the entire week, one of my Foreign Service colleagues distinguished herself as a truly outstanding linguist. Headed out on her first overseas assignment next year, Samantha took the trip's coveted “Linguist of the Immersion” award by handling the most difficult of all tasks: driving over 1,000 miles to and from Michigan, all the while taking her queues from our vehicle's GPS system . . . in Arabic. Not one wrong turn, not one missed exit; there and back again . . . quite an accomplishment, Sam.
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