By David Sawyer and Thomas Conners
Communicating in local languages and/or dialects is an integral part of many foreign affairs professionals’ daily work. The Department of State seeks to enhance the ability of its staff to work and live abroad by providing full-time, intensive language training. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, language instruction was only conducted in person. At the start of the pandemic, the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) School of Language Studies (SLS) pivoted over, over just one weekend, to fully virtual instruction—a truly remarkable feat, considering that language training is eight hours per day. SLS is now evaluating new models of hybrid—also known as blended—language instruction and implementing lessons learned.
Located at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Va., FSI trains more than 1,500 students in over 60 languages annually. The SLS dean and three associate deans lead approximately 700 staff, who are divided into instructional and functional divisions. Five instructional divisions focus on training in the languages for which there are language designated positions (LDPs) overseas. Language sections are grouped geographically and linguistically within the divisions, each with a large—in terms of enrollment—anchor language. The divisions are: East Asian and Pacific languages with Mandarin Chinese as the anchor language; European and African languages with anchor language French; Near East, Central and South Asian languages, with Arabic; Romance languages, with Spanish; and Slavic and Eurasian languages, with Russian.
Each instructional division has a division director, deputy, and a team to support students in meeting their language training goals. Members of that team include: language training supervisors, who supervise instructors and students, and oversee language programs; training specialists, who provide expertise in curriculum development, instructional coaching, educational technology, and language assessment, and help implement program goals; and language and culture instructors, who are native or native-like speakers and provide classroom instruction as well as out-of-classroom support.
The work of the instructional divisions is complemented by a range of overseas programs and field schools offering advanced training in Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
In addition to the five instructional divisions, five functional divisions support the mission of SLS. The Learning and Technology Innovation (LTI) functional division leads SLS in evidence-based innovation in language teaching, language learning, and instructional technology for application in the Foreign Service use context. LTI keeps staff engaged and current through rigorous professional development and is the home of SLS’ Learning Consultation Service.
A second functional division, the Evaluation and Measurement Unit, helps all staff members systematically collect and analyze information to understand how programs are performing and use evidence to inform division and SLS planning and decisions. The Foreign Service Programs (FSP) functional division supports continuous, career-long language training overseas (virtually and in-person) for Department employees and the foreign affairs community through Distance Language Learning and Post Language Programs. SLS encourages the participation of qualifying Eligible Family Members, Members of Household, and interagency colleagues. FSP also offers a practicum to train officers for effective public speaking engagements in local languages. A fourth functional division, the Language Testing and Assessment (LTA), administers the language proficiency testing program, providing test administration oversight, testing records maintenance, and quality control. LTA ensures that tests are valid and reliable for all examinees. For example, LTA was responsible for the guidance FSI sent recently on updates to the testing process and previewed future changes on test format. And finally, the SLS Administration functional division is responsible for the central administrative needs of SLS, such as contracting, finances, and procurement.
SLS language training aims to help students develop the functional language ability that they will need to do their jobs at their onward posts. For example, they will need to attend meetings in foreign languages and build social relationships with native speakers of those languages. This needs-driven approach is implemented via experiential learning, such as in scenario-based, task-based, or project-based courses.
Language instruction and testing were fully virtual for two years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fully virtual instruction allowed instructors to be innovative in using new technologies and collaboration tools to engage students through online experiences, such as virtual museum visits or guest speakers from every corner of the globe.
“SLS instructors were on the path of bringing online technologies into the classroom even before the pandemic. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we started to use them to make our online classes and learning processes even more engaging, immersive, and efficient than before. We used this opportunity to reevaluate our materials and how we present them to students. It also allowed us to bring students to our homes, to meet our families, and cook together in our kitchens (yes, we had cooking lessons too!) It ultimately helped us to find a new balance between work and life,” said Russian Language and Culture Instructor Olga Maroz.
It also allowed for increased interaction with posts, enabling in-depth understanding of the language needs in the host country. Staff and students benefited from logistical efficiencies afforded by virtual work, including the lack of a commute, ease of attending online meetings, and increased digitization of paperwork.
When comparing the benefits of virtual and in-person learning, SLS concluded that some key learning goals are best achieved through in-person engagement. The ability to engage in free-flowing conversation, fluency practice, and building comradery are among those goals that are best served in the physical classroom. SLS believes that hybrid instruction—specifically mixing some days of full online work with some days of fully in-person instruction—best supports development of the full range of functional communication skills needed for success at post. A hybrid model allows SLS to take advantage of the benefits of both virtual and in-person learning. In-person activities might focus on pronunciation and conversational fluency, engaging students in role-plays, different scenario-based learning with rapid turn-taking, and the use of the innovation lab—a center for experimentation and incorporating new and changing technologies into the classroom. Virtual activities might focus on vocabulary building, extensive reading, and moderated turn-based activities. Now, in addition to adapting our synchronous learning—in-person or virtual time with an instructor—to the hybrid environment, SLS continues to take advantage of new expertise in educational technology to improve asynchronous learning—time without an instructor—through extensive meaningful input activities, such as listening to podcasts or reading extensively.
SLS is currently operating under a hybrid instructional model with three days in-person and two days of virtual instruction per week. National data on hybrid learning for adult learners in long-term language programs are sparse. Thus, SLS continues to collect and analyze data to ensure instruction is best adapted to serve the needs of foreign affairs personnel. Information is gathered in a variety of ways, including via an ongoing hybrid instruction evaluation project and regular pulse-check surveys being sent to all students and all instructors throughout FY23.
For more information on the School of Language Studies, please visit the SLS website.
David Sawyer is the division director for language testing and assessment. Thomas Conners is the division director for Near East, Central, and South Asian Languages.