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New Technologies, Teaching Approaches Boost Language Training

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif., Aug. 12, 2005 – New technologies and teaching approaches are improving the quality of instruction here at the Defense Language Institute as the school supports the Defense Department's effort to boost foreign-language capability within the ranks.

Army Col. Michael Simone, commandant, said the school experienced "explosive growth" this year and expects the trend to continue in supporting the Defense Transformation Language Roadmap. The plan aims to sharpen foreign language skills within the military, with more language professionals trained to comprehend, read and converse in more world languages and at higher proficiency levels than in the past.

The language roadmap involves a wide range of initiatives and programs to promote language skills and cultural understanding, and the military offers several short-term and refresher courses in language that support it.

But when it comes to developing professional linguists, nothing within the department compares to the Defense Language Institute, which trains more than 3,000 students a year in 75 languages. "DLI will continue to be DoD's first choice when looking to train a native English speaker in uniform to a high level of proficiency," Simone told the American Forces Press Service in his office, perched high above Monterey Bay.

The importance of language skills to national defense was driven home in 1941. Preparing to go to war against Japan, the United States found it had little understanding of Japanese culture and few Japanese linguists at its disposal. The Army and Navy quickly set up programs to train linguists for the war in the Pacific.

These programs formed the foundation of today's Defense Language Institute, which, according to the school's brochure, is considered the world's premier foreign language training institution.

Maintaining that level is a significant achievement, because most people agree that language capability has never been a U.S. strong suit. "Americans as a general rule don't do well in foreign languages," Simone said.

Those who do study language in public schools, colleges and universities tend to focus on European languages, not those most in demand by the military. Only 6 percent of DLI's students study Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Germany, Simone said. In contrast, 70 percent of the students are studying Modern Standard Arabic, Korean and Chinese, with almost 1,000 are enrolled in its DLI's three Arabic Studies schools.

DLI graduated 450 Arab linguists in 2003, compared to 15 degrees in Arabic awarded that same year in all the United States' colleges and universities, Simone said, and DLI expects to increase its Arab graduates to 500 a year soon. "We're not competing with universities," Simone said. "Universities can't produce what DoD needs."

They also can't do it with the same mission-oriented focus or as quickly, he said.

DLI emphasizes listening and speaking skills, not vocabulary and formal language structure that's the focus of university language programs, Simone explained. Students use authentic newspapers, broadcasts and documents like they'll encounter in their jobs, not literary texts, to hone their skills.

The programs are based heavily on computers and Internet-based training tools in its coursework, including "smart boards," live, large-format computer screens that bring old-fashioned chalk boards to a whole new level. "Technology has revolutionized the way we learn," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Geoff Lewis, who teaches Mandarin Chinese. "It's given us a whole new set of tools."

The goal, Simone said, is to develop linguists able to communicate with people on the street. In Iraq, for example, DLI-trained linguists provide the critical connection between commanders and troops on the ground and the Iraqi army, police, government and people they work with.

To prepare students for that role, DLI instructors subject students to an intensive program that crams two years worth of college-level language training into 25 to 63 weeks.

Students selected to attend DLI are among the military's best and brightest. They're earned high marks on military entrance exams and survived rigid screening to diagnose their success at the school. Ninety percent have at least a year of college under their belts and one-fifth have degrees, Simone said.

"It's much more intense than college courses," said Army Spc. Kenneth Causey, who just completed DLI's Russian program. "One of the biggest challenges is time management, balancing academics with your military training."

In addition to spending six to seven hours a day in the classroom and two to three hours on homework every night, DLI students report to drill sergeants who ensure they get regular fitness training and refreshers in field skills they'll need when they join their units.

Military language instructors like retired Air Force Master Sgt. Ken White, an Arabic instructor, give students a glimpse into the type of work they'll be doing after they complete their training. The military instructors "bring experience," White said. "They've been there and done the job. They have a high level of language proficiency. And they can give students some idea of what they will be doing when they get out there."

And the instructors, most of them native speakers, are also helping provide insights into foreign cultures and mindsets.

"If you want to understand what's going on, you need language," said Simone. But language "is part and parcel of culture," he said. "You can't separate the two and you can't really understand a culture if you can't understand the language."

Army Pvt. Krystal Bradley, a student in the Arabic Studies program, said she spends her time at DLI "trying to absorb as much language and culture as I can" so she'll be prepared when called to use her language skills in Iraq.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ray Richards, another Arabic student, said he feels fortunate to be attending the school. "It's a really good opportunity, being here," he said. "It's one of the hardest language schools there is, and the training we get here is probably some of the best training in the country."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageInstructor Sidi Qadiri leads a classroom discussion in one of three Arabic Studies schools at the Defense Language Institute. Photo by Donna Miles  
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