Skip to comments.Uzbek or Dari? Military learns new tongues
Posted on 01/03/2004 3:23:50 PM PST by Holly_P
Defense Language Institute alters its curriculum for soldiers in post-9/11 world.
MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA - When 1st Lt. Aaron Wiggins graduates from language school, proficient in Pashto, he knows an Afghanistan deployment won't be far off.
And Airman 1st Class Jennifer Burnside, a student of Arabic, expects she'll soon be flying 18-hour eavesdropping missions over the Middle East as a "listener" with an airborne intelligence unit.
Insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with a broadening terrorist threat, are increasing demands on the ranks of US military linguists capable of gathering intelligence in foreign languages.
Indeed, an Army report released last fall found that "the lack of competent interpreters throughout the theater impeded operations" in both countries. "The US Army does not have a fraction of the linguists required," concludes the report by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
To ease the crunch, the military's main language-training center, the Defense Language Institute (DLI) here, is dramatically altering the mix of foreign tongues it teaches. With a faculty of more than 1,000 and 3,800 full-time students attending classes each year, DLI teaches 80 percent of the government's foreign language classes.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, DLI has added ten new languages to the curriculum, which it anticipates will be vital to curbing terrorism, such as the Afghan dialects of Dari and Pashto, as well as Chechen, Uzbek, Armenian and Urdu.
At the same time, the Institute has sharply increased the number of students learning Persian (up 70 percent), Korean (up 50 percent) and Arabic (up 40 percent) - as if tailoring the production of linguists for the three countries dubbed "the axis of evil" by President Bush: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
"Korean may seem disproportionately high compared to Arabic, but there's always the potential for things to go bad on the Korean Peninsula and we'd need that pool in place," says Col. Michael Simone, Commandant of DLI.
Meanwhile, DLI is adapting new technology and instruction methods aimed at speeding the study of difficult and obscure languages while making the content more realistic and relevant.
Many of the advances come together at DLI's newest branch, the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Task Force, set up soon after the Sept. 11 strikes. "There was a lot of leaning forward in the foxhole, guessing what might be needed," says task force Associate Dean Maj. David Tatman.
Urgent needs On one hand, the task force responded to urgent demands for translations from the US military in the field. For example, it translated the Army's Ranger Handbook into Dari for use in training the Afghan army, and also translated letters home from detainees classified as "enemy combatants" at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Meanwhile, in order to launch new DLI programs quickly in rarely studied languages such as Dari, the task force had to create curricula from scratch, hunt for the few qualified faculty, and begin training students at the same time.
Mahmood Taba-Tabai, dean of the task force and a native of Iran, says he quickly realized there were few commercially available Dari materials. Chapters on "picking cherries in spring" and "how to cut mullah's beard" were ill suited for his US military students.
"We can still cut the mullah's beard, but we also have to clear the minefields," quips Mr. Taba-Tabai. DLI students must learn a range of military terms along with basic proficiency in a language.
An innovative technology introduced last year known as the "SMART board" is also helping DLI compress the time needed to master foreign languages. The SMART boards are large classroom screens that take the place of blackboards, overhead projectors, and the language lab. The boards can display Internet content, textbook pages, or even the zigzags of sound waves, allowing teachers to dissect individual phrases.
Lessons designed on computers by teachers are saved on a server, then broadcast on the SMART boards, as well as to tablet PCs used by each student in the classroom and to the students' dormitory work stations.
"We can get streaming video from Al Jazeera, BBC in Arabic, and newspapers from the Middle East and import it into the classroom," says Dr. Christine Campbell, head of one of DLI's Middle East departments. "This lets us expose students to what the natives are seeing and listening to every day."
Today's news not only keeps classes lively but also provides a grounding in current events for students, 90 percent of whom will take jobs in military intelligence. Of these, 70 percent specialize in cryptology, or signals intelligence, and 20 percent in human intelligence.
After DLI, students have additional training in skills such as number dictation, reading hand-written texts, and weapons vocabulary before deployment to overseas hot spots.
"I wish we had the ranges to do weapons training," says Col. Simone from his office on the DLI campus at the Presidio of Monterey, which traces its origins to an 18th-century Spanish fort. "So many of our graduates are going off in short order to dangerous places."
Hilly campus Set on a hill overlooking the rocky Pacific coastline, DLI has the look of a community college but the regimented feel of a military base. DLI courses are highly demanding, students say. "It's definitely a full-time job," says Lieutenant Wiggins after a Pashto class in which his teacher role-played an Afghan refugee seeking help after an earthquake.
Students have more than six hours of language training and two to three hours of homework per day. On average, each class of 30 students is taught by a team of six teachers. Reaching proficiency requires 18 months of study for the most difficult languages such as Arabic, Korean and Chinese, compared to six months for Spanish and French.
"This is the most intensive education I've ever received. It makes the college courses I've taken look ridiculous," says Airman Burnside from Yuma, Ariz. "I try to talk and all that comes out is Arabic."
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The Defense Language Institute is expert at teaching languages in a short period. My first husband was a graduate of the Russian program, and was quite fluent in Russian by the time he graduated.
I myself was the subject of an investigation due to my marriage. They even interviewed my grandmother.
Central Asian languages and Arabic is where the action is these days.
If a youngster wanted to be on the fast track, that's what I'd recommend they study.
People who spend the next couple years in Uzbekistan, or some such place, are the people who'll will have stories to tell their kids and grandkids.
At this point General Tailback starts screaming for GI linguists, only to find the Army doesn't have any. Or he gets one, so that he can get his restaurant menus translated, but the MPs at the gate of the base and the SF teams out in the boonies have to rely on local hires.
They never learn. After 1989, they very quickly dismantled an excellent series of programs in Eastern European languages. In the late nineties, those nations joined NATO or Partnership for Peace and we had linguistic problems again.
Then, the military takes the graduates and in many cases assigns them to duties that have little bearing on their language skill. A foreign language is a skill that erodes quickly if not maintained. Some leaders think that when their linguists are reading foreign-language papers or magazines, or watching a foreign movie, they are "wasting time" and they'd rather see them in the motor pool packing wheel bearings -- real soldier's work. So the retention of linguists is probably the lowest of any speciality in the military, even though they have some of the longest training (over a year, minimum) and to pass the school need to have high test scores.
There is no royal road to foreign language skills. Especially in a society like ours that does not value foreign languages and that has mostly purged them from the public schools. You need a long and intensive course like this, or total immersion in the language for many months, or both.
And then, because things change, unless you train a wide range of language skills, and not just those that are involved in the immediate crisis, you still risk having the wrong linguists.
Criminal Number 18F
Parents with service age, bright kids -- this is a good program. All four services send people here, albeit for different languages and different purposes. A majority of the graduates will work in some aspect of intelligence collection or analysis -- they might wind up with stories they can't tell the grandkids.
Criminal Number 18F
Milestones of language study.
- Dreaming in a foriegn language, with better vocab and grammar than I had when I was awake.
- Listening to someone speak in another language not realizing that it's wasn't English until they switched back to English.
- Answering a question reflexively in target language and then being amazed at what came out your mouth.
That doesn't even get into the joys of travelling in a country where almost no foriegners speak the local language. (Or some of the more interesting job related uses)
I guessed wrong, back when they phased my old language out. I decided to jump ship to either Chinese or Arabic. At the time, I figured, man, Arabic is old news, China is where the action's gonna be.
That was in the late 90's. Who knew? Of course, for the longer term Chinese is a smarter move, but I had all but flipped a coin to make my decision.
This well-known actress is half-Persian, speaks fluent Parsi (Farsi), and would likely make a fine instructor...
Oh, man... Tell me about it.
When I was an MI LT in 1991 (force-branched MI, can you believe?) they gave us the DLAT (Language aptitude test).
I damned near aced it. I loved that goofy test with the made-up vocabulary and stuff...
I talked to my branch officer and told him I want to learn a 'Cat IV' language--I want to learn Arabic, Mandarin, Korean--whatever there is a need for...
No dice. I couldn't get in by hook or crook...
I guess I ended up using that language skill by teaching myself to play the bagpipe...
The Army 1991-1996 was misery. So politically correct and stupid ('specially MI) that, honestly, I have had a hard time feeling at all proud of my service. I look back on it and think: "What a stupid, stupid waste of time that was..."
I've always wanted to visit China. I took a Chinese history course in college from an inspiring professor and in high school hung out at Joyce Chen's restaurant in Cambridge. China rocks.
But I can't rationalize a visit to a country that still has so many totalitarian, undemocratic cooties.
I feel guardedly optimistic though, that I'll be able to visit China and take my family there while they are still school aged.
- Lauging at a joke that you weren't supposed to understand.
- Catching someone complain about the presence of foriegn devils, turning around, and agreeing with him completely. "Yeah, I thought this was such a nice place, but I wish they would do something about all these dirty foriengers."
- Haggling with someone in English, then switching to target language and saying 'Okay, enough of the tourist prices, I'll give you half or I'm leaving'.
- Making a joke in a foriegn language that would make no sense in English.
and my personal favorite
- Catching someone tell you one thing in English, then try and double cross you when he talks to his buddy next to him. Relpying with "Don't worry, it's safe to speak xxxx in front of me, I don't understand a word" in xxxx, and watching the phrase register with one guy but not the other made months of effort pay off. (It also helped in avoiding a nasty double crossing, but that's another story entirely)
They will try and rip you off, though. Not violently, but they'll try and trick you at literally every turn.
As far as totalitarian shenanigans, I did get to see their police in action on a few occasions (which they try and hide from foreigners) and I felt very, very thankful that I was an American.
Beat me to it. I was gonna say that. Sure I have loads of stories, not a one am I gonna remember for my grandkids under penalty of Fort Leavenworth.
2. Why on earth hasn't the military perfected babelfish? It seems that it would be alot cheaper for the military to issue a small recorder device that can determine what language is being spoken and translate to English and back to the foreign language.
1. Not everyone has the aptitude for secondary language acquisition (they are doing really well just to be proficient in English!) A lot of people rock out of DLI and end up doing other jobs, more suitable to their abilities.
2. Babelfish is a national security risk that US is not ready to take. It would be cool though. Remember those gremlin-looking stuffed animal dolls that would "learn" to speak to you? Those are considered a national security risk, and were outlawed from MI installations (and confiscated from anyone who had 'em) as soon as they were marketed to the public. And all they did was babble.