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Teaching the Foreign Service to Speak Foreign Languages

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the primary training institution to prepare American diplomats to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests, teaching, among other things, the languages of the countries where Foreign Service Officers will serve. At the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia, FSI’s School of Language Studies provides 25 hours of classroom instruction per week in 24-week courses for languages such as French and Spanish, and 44 weeks for “hard” languages such as Russian and Thai. For Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean, considered the most difficult to learn, FSI has Field Schools abroad that provide an additional 44 weeks of instruction.

The State Department’s language program got a boost after a 1954 study by scholar Henry Wriston pointed to problems of low morale and levels of recruitment into the Foreign Service. Wriston called for the integration of certain Civil Service employees into the Foreign Service and a requirement that Foreign Service Officers spend part of their careers in Washington. A process that took several years, “Wristonization” tripled the size of the Foreign Service and emphasized training. Part of the process included increasing language teaching.

Among the pioneers in this endeavor, Raymond E. Chambers taught languages in Haiti, France and Lebanon, as well as at FSI.  He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on January 12, 1995.

To read more about Foreign Service life and FSI, please follow the links.


“I had unlimited funds. I never had to request money at all”

Raymond E. Chambers, Language School Nice, France 1958-62 and Beirut, Lebanon 1962-67

Chambers:  A lady from FSI came down [to Haiti, where Chambers was directing a binational center] because FSI was enjoined to start and develop language training programs throughout the world, to standardize proper language training throughout the posts. So she came down, a linguist, and got the language training program in Haitian Creole and French going. I said that I would be glad to help her. I even set the program up so that it could operate at the embassy or at the binational center.

She said, “What are you doing here?”

I said, “Well, I’m working for the binational center program and will probably go to another country when this is finished.”

She said, “Don’t do it. We need you.”

She went back to Washington and the next thing I knew, she said they (FSI) had three positions now and we are going to have ten more next year and nobody to fill them. This was the big push, you know, after the “Wristonization” of the Foreign Service. (Wriston is seen at left.)

We had already started the Nice (France) language school, the German language school and the Mexico City language school. So she said, “Come with us,” and I did it by telephone. In those days you could do a lot.

When I called I said, “I can’t pin you down to this because I understand how these things work, but if I leave one job because they are offering me stuff in South America, what is going to happen if you guys are not going to pick me up? Can we have a non-conversation?”

And they did. They said, “Yeah, you come here and we will work it out.” So when my tour was over I resigned in November and in January I started with FSI.

I went to France. I was the first one. I had been a student in France before. I had my choice and I preferred Western Europe and they said, “Take it.”

I had a wonderful, wonderful charter letter sent to Ambassador (Amory) Houghton in Paris which in essence read, “Mr. Chambers has an enormous responsibility and we aren’t sure exactly what he has to do to accomplish this responsibility, but please give him all the support you can to do what he has to do in such order as he has to do it.”

It was a marvelous letter. I had unlimited funds. I never had to request money at all. I was based at the Nice language school…

It goes back to the Wristonization era. Eisenhower told Harry Wriston to make a study of the Foreign Service and see what has to be done. Part of that study was – there are Civil Servants in the Department who are performing as desk officers, who never served overseas. They have no idea what it is to be a Foreign Service Officer.

Wriston recommended that this group of people become Foreign Service officers and serve overseas. So, when that was passed, dingdong! overnight we doubled the size of the Foreign Service and we also brought down the percentage of competence in the speaking of foreign languages to a very low level.

My job was to reestablish that. The Nice language school was designed to help that in French, the Frankfurt school in German and the Mexico City school in Spanish. Part of that program was to establish post language training programs.

So what I did was to use the Nice language school as a base of operation. This school was a marvelous institution, yet had students for 12 weeks, 5 ½ days a week, 7 hours a day….. (Nice is seen at right.)

At the Nice language school then, students were assigned from embassies primarily in Europe, some from North Africa, to come for 12 weeks. They worked 7 hours a day, 5 ½ days a week and they were hermetically sealed in a place called the “Villa Wood” in Nice which had been purchased for a home for the consul but was too big for the consul to really maintain.

That institute would house 25 people in individual bedrooms, all of which were about 15 x 20 in size. They were beautiful. Plus work places, salons, dining space, studio space.

The students studied between four and six hours a night. And we were extremely successful with that. The average of each class was about 25 students and the average return on the investment as far as language competence was concerned was that, of the 25, at least twenty would make S-3 [ability to speak another language on a scale of 0-5] regardless of what their level was when they started. Then we had some 2+’s and some 2’s.

So it was a very successful program that lasted from before I got there. I think there were two classes before I got there in 1958, to April, 1959, at which time the school was closed down and we transferred the school to Paris on a smaller degree, still doing the same thing, but as part of the post language program. All of the language schools were closed down by 1960. The French school came first…

We moved into Paris and continued it there under part of the intensive training program under the post language program. At that time I moved to Paris. Instead of operating out of Nice, I operated out of Paris.

I traveled extensively at that time. When I was back in Nice I would support them as a linguist for the students in class. When I moved to Paris I did the same thing. Part of the staff from Nice came to Paris. I was traveling about 85 percent of the time at that point. For five years, in fact, I traveled about 85 percent of the time…

“There was no such thing as a “language designated position” at that time”

What we were trying to do was two things — standardize the teaching and raise the level of the competence of those who were studying. That meant training teachers, teaching people to administer the program and making sure that they were tested in the programs, or when they came back to the States were tested. So the major concern was to be sure that everything was operating in accordance with FSI’s desires as far as teaching procedures are concerned, and that is what I did.

The interesting thing about this was that there were a lot of people who really didn’t understand what we were trying to do. My job was to sell DCMs (Deputy Chiefs of Mission) and ambassadors and, of course, section chiefs, but basically the ambassador and the DCM, on the need for language training and the need to give time off from work to study language.

And I was very successful at that. My experience in dealing with vice presidents and general managers of GM for three years fitted me perfectly to talk to ambassadors and DCMs. I was used to talking to the top brass. The arguments were very sound if they would listen. And it was very successful.

The major argument I would use was that this was mandated by Congress and we have to do it. But I didn’t hit them over the head with a two-by-four; I tried to convince them that it was in the benefit of the post to have people who were competent at the desired level for their job.

There was no such thing as a “language designated position” at that time. In order to do that, I interviewed some 700 people in Paris, not just the embassy, but UNESCO, all the “embassies.” There were five ambassadors in Paris at that time under Amory Houghton. I interviewed all of them. (U.S. Embassy in Paris seen right.)

Then I set up a job requirement for the position based on what the people told me they were doing and what I found out from the people above them and below them. I would say that “this job required a 2+; this job requires a 3.” Then I tested them all and found out where they were as far as language training was concerned and then we put them in training. We had tremendous support.

Glenn Wolf was executive director coordinating all the five embassies’ activities. Glenn said, “Whatever you need, we are going to do. So if you need to have the Counselor for Economic Affairs take French for three hours a day, we are going to do it.” It was fantastic support.

So I got the commercial officer and the consular officer, etc. and they would come and would study. We had a really active post language program until we raised them to the level that was required for their job and then we would release them, although they could continue if they wanted an hour a day or whatever. The concern was to raise it to the level required by the job. I did that in every embassy in Western Europe.

[Americans coming into the Foreign Service often did not have the language background required] especially with the conversion from Civil Service to Foreign Service, absolutely. There was a big problem with this and a lot of them resisted it like mad.

Those who took it willingly welcomed the opportunity to study and learn. But some of them resisted, never intending to go overseas. There was a caveat — You don’t have to become a Foreign Service Officer, but if you stay in this position as a Civil Servant, you will never get promoted. So there was a little pressure to make people convert…

“We taught them to speak as people speak”

We were using the audio/lingual method which had come out of the Second World War… There wasn’t any such thing as a linguist, really, until after the war; they evolved during the war, at least as far as practicing linguists are concerned.

FSI got a hold of several of them and built a staff. We had a really good staff and developed the audio/lingual method for training in language. What that means is we didn’t teach them about the language, we taught them the language. We didn’t teach them what the grammar was per se, or what they were supposed to say, we taught them to speak as people speak and not the way they are supposed to speak.

They learned the grammar, but not before they learned to speak. They learned it by learning how to say things, and then the grammar was extracted from what they had learned to say.

Now that didn’t happen overnight. It was an evolution and it was rough. Some people were just memorizing sentences and didn’t feel they could say anything, because nobody was there to help them draw the paradigm of what they really had learned…

[Previously,] we were bad. We were almost like the Brits who said, “If you don’t speak English, we aren’t talking to you.” But that changed in the ‘50s and that was part of what it was all about, to get rid of the image of the “Ugly American.” And people in the host country were very receptive to officers who could speak to them in their language…

The old-time officers in this period had an attitude, not to be ignored or denigrated, that didn’t help us, which was, “Well, I learned [the foreign language] by myself, why should we give time to help them get it?”

Once I broke that down — and that was part of my job to break down this resistance — they could see that it would help them get their job done better at post, which was what I sold them on…

I would go to a place where they were listening in, say, a chamber of deputies or something like that and then I would talk to them afterwards. I would ask, “What did you get?”

“Why, I didn’t get very much.”

“Didn’t you hear that speaker say such-and-such?”

And he would say, “I really didn’t catch that.” And here he is coming back as a reporting officer but didn’t really get it. Well, that was devastating. That was really telling. At that point you start to break it down, and it broke down quite quickly after that because the word gets around that this guy is here to help us…

“They knew that they would be Middle East hands and that’s it for the next 25 years”

I did this for five years in Nice and then Paris, then I was transferred to Beirut in December, 1962. The job in Beirut was a little different. I was not an Arabist at that time. I had to learn Arabic. But the job was essentially the same. It was managerial and administrative and linguistic. I had two other linguists who were specialists in Arabic. The school had some real administrative problems which was why I was sent… (at left is Beirut in the late 1960s.)

The records were very good, but the dealing with the students left a lot to be desired. And it was not structured well. It was a two year course and these guys were there six hours a day, five days a week studying Arabic, and nobody was taking into consideration that they were burning out. One of my jobs was to see what could be done about that.

Another job was that nobody was taking into consideration — and I set this up too: the instructors who were being paid for teaching didn’t get a vacation either and were burning out. How do you take an hourly employee and make sure that the hourly employee has money set aside for a vacation?

So I set up a trust fund and asked them all to contribute 6 percent of their wages every week, which turned out to be no strain. At first they thought it was going to be a strain. But what that enabled me to do was to draw on that when we took our vacation period and I made the school regularize its vacation periods so at Christmas everybody had a week off.

When we sent students off on a field trip the instructors were paid, and when we had a summer vacation they were paid. So they were paid year-round instead of suffering in between. There were administrative problems of this nature that had never been resolved…

[The Foreign Service people studying Arabic were] a different breed of cat in some respects. A great interest in the Middle East. But what it was, was that people who went to the Arabic language school in Beirut — this was right in the embassy, itself, and I was a member of the Country Team — said, “I intend to be an Arabist and realize all my career will be spent concerning the Middle East. Whether I am back in the States, whether I am assigned to post, whether I am assigned to Paris, London, Germany or Moscow, all of my work will be related to Middle East affairs.”

That is essentially what they were agreeing to, so the result was that guys would be assigned to a post in the Arab-speaking countries and then they would be assigned to London, where they might be assigned to oil with regard to the Middle East, or they would be assigned to Paris and watch the Middle East from there.

So they knew that they would be Middle East hands and that’s it for the next 25 years. And that’s what it was… but the result was that we produced some tremendous language and area people.