Chat Like a Diplomat: How to Learn Languages with the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)

Ever wonder how diplomats get their language groove on?

Citizens sent abroad to represent the United States need to navigate important diplomatic affairs with cultural awareness, and often they need to survive among a population that doesn’t speak English.

That’s why one vital part of the diplomatic program is the language program.

The U.S. Department of State has a facility for diplomats known as the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). There are four schools and one center. One of the schools is the School of Language Studies located in Arlington, Virginia.

The FSI has a long history of teaching diplomats how to speak and survive in foreign countries. How else would they do that if not by specialized programs?

Diplomats attend the training facility to learn through instruction, but there’s also a lot of self-study that takes place during their courses. To complete this additional self-study in their own time, they use language modules designed for solo learning. We’re going to focus most intensely on these self-study materials, but first let’s look at the program at large.

How the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Can Teach You to Chat Like a Diplomat

What’s it like to study in an actual FSI environment?

The actual environment is a cool and diverse—but quite intense—place where students undergo rigorous language training. The FSI offerings are incredibly expansive. For example, the Arlington, Virginia school offers over 80 languages to Foreign Service Officers.

Every day, the diplomat-students at this institute study for a minimum of five classroom hours, are assigned homework and must work independently as well to supplement these lessons. Sounds grueling, but the process works!

How can non-diplomats benefit from the FSI?

The good news is, non-diplomats can utilize FSI coursework—without getting a job with the U.S. Foreign Service.

The country’s primary training for diplomats works just as well for civilians.

Of course, civilians can’t access the same classroom settings or intensive training, but the solo learning materials can be accessed and used online on an individual basis.

All this information is free for the taking.

Among hardcore language learners, the FSI material gets high marks. In fact, many consider these the best free language courses available anywhere.

The courses in the public domain can be accessed by anyone with a desire to master a language. Some material may be vintage but the majority is still on point and useful. A handful of idioms or cultural references have grown old but grammar and vocabulary remain the same.

The Arlington school offers 80+ languages. There isn’t such a wide range of choices online, but even this less extensive digital selection is still amazing.

Dozens of languages, most with multiple, in-depth courses, are available.

It’s a veritable language learner’s paradise!

The Simple Action Plan for Learning Languages with FSI

First, browse the courses and investigate what’s available in your target language.

1. Start with the first course.

It’s almost an extra windfall that most languages have more than one course available! Some have as many as a dozen. But of course, the best place to begin is at the beginning, even if you already know a bit of the language.

There are a couple of ways to access the courses.

  • Yojik shows the courses and provides a link to learn more about FSI.
  • Live Lingua hosts the courses to keep the material from becoming lost. There are 49 languages available through the site. Many have more than one course in the target language.

Your progress will be determined by your desire to learn rather than limited by the materials at hand. What’s not to love about a setup like that? Then download the next level, and then the next, doing the work in steps until all levels of proficiency are achieved.

Materials vary from language to language so take into consideration how deeply you want to pursue the language. If you’re only looking for a basic or intermediate functionality, almost every language provides materials to accomplish that mission.

2. Download all the course materials.

You can access the courses on a come-and-go basis, but you can also download the e-books and audio files to keep them on hand. That way, you’ll have all the coursework right at your fingertips whenever you want to use it. Downloading makes for a no-excuse, travel-friendly language experience. Wherever you are, your lessons are too. Win-win!

Each course has an outline included in the files that sync with the audio files. It’s independent study, but very self-explanatory.

There are courses that have little “extras,” so look for those. My favorite? Some courses include flashcards which I find particularly helpful. Use the resource!

3. Check your pronunciation with every lesson.

It might be painful to hear yourself speak when you’re first learning a language but that’s a hurdle worth clearing. Record responses to the language drills and compare them with audio files.

Diplomats record themselves when studying at the Institute. It’s been proven a valuable exercise so don’t skip this part.

4. Supplement your FSI course.

If you’re like most of us, your schedule is crazy busy. A job, family, school, travel or any number of responsibilities keep spare time to a minimum.

Often, the lack of time leads to lackadaisical language learning habits. But there are so many ways to incorporate language learning into even the busiest schedule.

Learn from experts such as Russian translator Olga Dmitrochenkova who advises that you should “use every opportunity to get exposed to the new language.” She suggests inviting the language into everyday life by labeling objects in your home, reading books in the target language and even holding conversations with imaginary friends in the new language.

To get started with some of these practice ideas, you can spend an hour writing vocabulary words on Post-Its and sticking them all over your house. And you can outsource your label-making for the most important words by using a Vocabulary Stickers set, which gives you well over 100 words to put on items you use and see every day around your home and office.

You can also use FluentU to supplement your learning.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

FluentU Ad

The point is—don’t use just the FSI courses—do as the diplomats do and add language exercises whenever you can to enrich the coursework.

With So Many Languages to Choose From, Which Will You Learn First?

Included in the more than 40 languages the FSI has made available to the public are some uncommon ones.

Fula is spoken in the Senegal River Valley. I’m not sure there’s a huge demand for it, but I did listen to some of the tapes and it’s interesting to hear.

Hausa is spoken in a handful of African nations, so if you plan to travel to one of those countries, there’s a good way to learn to speak like a local!

Spoken in the Philippines, Tagalog is represented well in the FSI courses. If you’ve ever had a heart for the language, there’s more than enough material available to get you beyond the basics.

Some of the more common foreign languages have many courses on the FSI language list. There are book lessons, audio material and flashcards to take some learners through basic, intermediate and advanced levels.


There are eight French courses available! These courses will give you hundreds of pages of text and hundreds of audio files to work with over a long period of time.


Spanish language learners hit the jackpot with the FSI courses. There are eight courses for this language as well, including a few specialized for use in particular parts of the world, such as Puerto Rico.


If you’re interested in learning to speak German, you’re in luck. There are five courses, including one FAST course designed to let learners hit the ground running!


Chinese is a specialty at the FSI. There are so many courses to choose from, there’s bound to be one to suit any learner. You’ll have the opportunity to freely explore all 16 Chinese courses, including modules that deal with very specific linguistic and cultural topics, as they’re all free for your learning pleasure.

For example, the FSI Mandarin Chinese Car Module, along with an assortment of other interesting modules, teach learners how to manage in a Chinese-speaking environment even when dealing with unexpected emergencies. Not a bad resource to have at your fingertips!


For Japanese learners, there are two FSI courses: a FAST course and a Headstart course, which clock in with a combined ten hours of audio learning and six e-books.

How FSI Taught Me Conversational German in 28 Days

Learning, speaking or even just listening to a foreign language makes my heart beat faster. And I’m curious by nature.

So you know what happened next, don’t you? That’s right—I had to give these FSI resources a test.

German has been something I’ve flirted with for about a year but there’s been no actual commitment. Hey, we weren’t even going steady. You could say I had no real prior German language skills. None. As in, pretty clueless about the language.

FSI has five courses available. I didn’t expect to become fluent within a short time span, so that seemed more than adequate for my experimental purposes.

The course selection includes:

  • Headstart
  • FAST Course
  • Basic Course: Volume 1 and 2
  • Programmed Introduction Course

I perused the selections and chose to do all the courses, beginning with the Headstart course. I figured that Headstart and Programmed Introduction Course might be repetitive so I decided to skip the latter.

Of course, learning is a personal adventure and someone else might have discounted Headstart instead. Or you might opt to try both! There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach this.

Anyhow, I added up the materials: Eight e-books, 129 audio files with a run-time of over 52 hours and over 1,000 pages of coursework. It was daunting to look at it this way, but I felt pretty safe knowing that I wasn’t going to run out of lessons!

Leading a busy life, and not being a diplomat able to devote every day to language learning, I decided that for this short-term experiment I could commit four hours daily to learning German. Two hours in the morning and two more in the evening.

As I said, languages make my heart beat in double-time, so I dove right in and stuck with that study routine. The material is relevant, despite some of it being beyond the social expiration date. I skimmed past references to outmoded issues and concentrated on learning the core language.

The basic course, which I took on after the Headstart program, was assembled more than 50 years ago but the stated goals of the course—to speak accurately, fluently and easily—are still relevant and attainable.

The e-books break each lesson down so well that it’s nearly impossible to get lost. The material is divided into sections, and learning builds upon what has been already absorbed.

Verbs and tenses are covered so well that, by the end of the drills, I was able to conjugate with very little hardship. The material is a bit formal, but I’ve got to hand it to those who wrote the course—the repetition and the strong presentation of various tenses did make it all sink in.

Getting the hang of making sounds that are incomparable to anything I use in the English language stumped me at first. Long and short vowels were honestly a bit confusing but the textbook explanation allowed me to eventually decipher the nuances. I’m not totally on top of reading and properly pronouncing unfamiliar German words but I’m managing to get most of them.

Progress, even in small measure, works!

I did have issues, but not with the courses. Squeezing the time I’d committed to language learning was the main challenge, but I managed.

The outcome of my 28-day test? Actually, it’s positive!

I’m not fluent in German by any means but I’m certainly able to conduct basic conversation and read a bit. I’m capable of discussing everyday topics, asking for (and giving!) directions, ordering in a restaurant and dealing with grammar issues. I’m reading basic level graded readers now. Comprehension is greater than I’d hoped so I’m feeling pretty successful.

The courses do work and they’re not at all difficult to follow. Everything is presented in a logical way and it’s no big deal to move between the different courses.

Would I recommend taking the FSI courses? Absolutely! I had a blast in my four weeks doing this. Sure, it was work. Were there times I was discouraged? Definitely. But I pressed on and am so glad I did. I think anyone with a love for languages could benefit from checking the FSI material out.

Taking It to the Next Language

I’m already planning on my next language courtesy of the FSI courses. Why not take full advantage of a resource that’s time-tested and has been shown to work with both diplomats and ordinary language learners like myself?

And if I can do it, anyone can!

If you’re adventurous, try learning two languages at once from these dynamite courses.

Grab your passport, put your diplomatic language dancing shoes on and test out your new skills.

Me? I’m headed to Germany!

Auf Wiedersehn!

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