Back at the MCESG schoolhouse, I heard tell that the cost of training one Marine for Embassy duty is roughly $75,000. The post-Benghazi expansion of the program, including 30 new detachments worldwide, is estimated to rack up infrastructure costs of $1.6 million per Marine. With all of the extensive training and resources provided to Marine Security Guards and their families, there’s a notable absence: language training.
Most Foreign Service Officers (and often their spouses) receive extensive language training at the Foreign Service Institute prior to reporting to post. (You know, as long as their position rates language training and their spouse is actually available during working hours, but that’s a different battle.) This can range from 24 weeks for “Level 1” languages like Spanish to 88 weeks for “Level 5” languages like Mandarin. For diplomats in particular, this intensive training is a requisite for doing their job. But when you’re living in a country where almost all of your daily interactions are going to be in a language other than English, it only makes sense that spouses would opt into language training as well.
Unless you can’t opt in. While our State Department counterparts were learning Spanish full-time for 24 weeks, we were twiddling our thumbs wondering where the Marine Corps was going to send us up until about 4 weeks before we left.With such a high attrition rate for Detachment Commanders at the schoolhouse, it’s impossible for MSG to make post assignments far in advance. So we showed up in Honduras speaking barely five words of Spanish between us. Our lack of language skills is problematic for practical, professional, and even political reasons.
Practically speaking, every time I head into town, I need Spanish. This isn’t Costa Rica or Panama where there’s usually an English speaker around. Even service industries here have a hard time staffing English speakers (except the big name hotels, of course.) This also isn’t tourist life where all you need to do is point to an item on a restaurant menu. This is that big scary “real life” thing where you have to go to the hardware store and pay bills. Hand gestures and smiles only get you so far when it comes to getting your car inspected or asking about a discrepancy on your phone bill. Not to mention all the things we miss because we can’t read Spanish – road signs, festivals advertisements, race flyers, etc.
Professionally speaking, a spouse who doesn’t speak the local language is at a disadvantage when it comes to finding employment. If the post has a bilateral work agreement, it’s fairly obvious why you would need language skills to find a job on the local economy. But even those seeking jobs within the Embassy community are often expected to speak the language to a 2/2 level. It’s not always the case, but for remunerative, rewarding positions, I’d argue it’s pretty common. At larger missions where EFMs’ job hunts equate to fighting over scraps, it’s a problem.
Politically speaking, every American abroad is an ambassador in some small way. Cliche as it sounds, in a country like Honduras that isn’t exactly crawling with American tourists or businessmen, sometimes Embassy folks are the only exposure Hondurans get to America. Imagine how it looks to them when an American associated with the Embassy can’t even speak Spanish. Even among locals employed within the Embassy, it’s a sign of goodwill to speak to them in their own language sometimes.
Earlier this year, President Obama addressed a gathering of U.S. Ambassadors at the Chief of Mission Conference, reminding them that:
“for so many people around the world (both foreign governments and foreign publics) you are the face of the United States. You represent our values, our diversity […] what determines people’s impressions of the United States is you and your teams.”
Obviously, I’m not a part of said “team,” but to a Honduran that may not actually be so obvious.
There’s no elegant solution. Post does everything they can to help once you’ve already arrived. Our Embassy, for example, has a free post language program, though it wasn’t active when we got here. But nothing compares to those 24 weeks of full-time training.
few six months are rough. We got a lot of eye rolls and faces ranging from incredulous to quite literally offended when Hondurans realized we didn’t speak any Spanish (actually, we still get those). Even for those eager to learn, you can only progress so fast. I’m learning butchering Spanish every week with a private tutor, whom I don’t mind paying whatsoever, and I get noticeably better less terrible each week. But with such a short tour, by the time I actually get comfortable and competent enough to use the language in the complex situations that demand it, we’ll be packing out. I’m lucky that I have a decade of experience with another romance language and only have to contend with Spanish. Arabic or Mandarin or Vietnamese? Yikes.
All of this is to say that even without training, you’ll survive. Having never lived in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, it’s been very humbling and degrading at times. But you can learn, someone at the Embassy is always willing to translate, Google Translate is there in a pinch, and pointing really does work wonders. There will be times you just have to admit defeat, but you can’t win ’em all. (Sorry, water delivery guy, but no entiendo.) Without language skills you will always survive… but you likely won’t thrive.