My Adventures as a U.S. Diplomat and Family Man

First Stop: Tel Aviv, Israel (July 2012)!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Polygots R' Us

Here's a snippet of a recent conversation I had in my elementary Hebrew:

Teacher: What is this?
Me: This is picture of Jerusalem
Teacher: Good, Oren (my Hebrew name). Were you in Jerusalem?
Me: Yes, I go twenty years ago.

Not bad for one month of Hebrew, right? Well, that's what I thought I said. It turns out my seemingly innocent response raised my teacher's eyebrows because I mistakingly used the word for "circumcision" instead of "about." Oy vey!

Such is life these days in intensive language training. I imagine that language instructors at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), where I attend every day, share other humorous sayings over lunch with their native-speaking colleagues. I can't be the first diplomat-in-training to bring up the topic of his foreskin inadvertently. I figure it's much better to make these kind of mistakes now then, say, when I'm meeting with a member of the Israeli Knesset next fall. Until then, it's back to the safe confines of the classroom.

FSI represents that protective bubble in many ways. Every day hundreds of other trainees toil and triumph during intensive language training which, as the name suggests, is all encompassing. I'm often amused seeing other seemingly deranged students wandering around campus and talking to themselves in some foreign tongue.  Chinese flashcards, not the sports page, appears to be the common reading material on the early morning shuttle bus to FSI. English may be the lingua franca in the long corridors but a retreat in the teacher's lounges will encounter Farsi, Hindi or Thai. A few of my classmates from A-100 are receiving training in even more exotic languages such as Mongolian, Somali and Tibetan.

As for me, the Hebrew department is small but packs a lot of chutzpah. My day begins bright and early at 7:40am and finishes at 2:30pm (not including several hours of homework and independent study). During that time, I have two Israeli teachers with very distinct styles but they complement each other really well. There are about a dozen Hebrew students but only three others in my section. We all speak multiple languages and often a word from a different language sneaks in. I've actually been surprised how similar Hebrew is to Arabic. This has both helped and hurt. More on that later.

The big news is that there will soon be a new language learner roaming the halls of FSI when my wife begins studying Arabic next month. Why, might you ask, would anyone want to inflict this on himself or herself? There is a very good reason!

On September 9 my wife passed the Oral Assessment and received a conditional offer to join the Foreign Service! Since the register of eligible Foreign Service candidates has become very competitive and hiring will be drastically reduced over the coming years, the only hope for my wife is to acquire what the State Department refers to as a Critical Needs Language (CNL). Just as Arabic was my ticket, it will hopefully be hers as well. Two semitic language learners will make for even more interesting internecine relations in the household. We may try arguing with each other in Arabic and Hebrew to simulate what we may hear out at our post. It may also come in handy to broker agreements among our two young children, especially if they resort to incitement and continue to occupy portions of our two-bedroom apartment.    

So don't expect to see our (much more boring and unattractive) version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith anytime soon. We have a long ways to go before becoming a tandem couple. In the meantime, I'm hoping Mrs. DiploDad will do a guest blog. She has plenty to share and a keen sense of wit that I adore. Speaking of which, we got engaged nine years ago today. Back then she probably thought that she would be marrying a future diplomat but I can safely say that didn't imagine becoming an Arabic-speaking diplomat herself. That's dedication for you!


  1. YAY!!! Congrats to Mrs. DiploDad! That's awesome. I'm so happy for you guys.

  2. congratulations to your wife! Very smart to get on the CNL train. And congrats on your posting to Tel Aviv! what a great assignment.

  3. So exciting! Tell your wife congrats for me!

  4. A great style you have here, witty yet sensibly declarative. I'm so jealous, not of you but of your teachers(!) Must be fun to help you grab this screwy language. I'm fluent in Hebrew, but it sure didn't come easily. And like you, my love of metaphor sneaks into almost every sentence, causing dumb looks. Not my fault, they are invited to get up on *my* horse, ha.
    I will say (and I'm sure you already know) that you'll probably always have a discernible accent. But Israel is so full of accents; no one is without one, in fact.
    I'll try to follow your blog here and your progress./ Yonatan Solberg/ Near Netanya/IS.