Language Emerges as Element of National Security
By Tim Kilbride
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 31, 2009 Language and culture are “almost inextricably intertwined,” and military personnel must be knowledgeable in both to be fully effective when operating overseas, the director of a military language school said.
Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, commandant of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, told bloggers and online journalists during a March 30 “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable that the DLI directly supports military commanders by instructing servicemembers in the foreign languages that regional combatant commands identify as mission-essential.
“We are the primary deliverer of military culturally-based language training,” Sandusky said of the Monterey, Calif., school.
The school was established in secret just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941. Since then, it has been perceived as a resource specific to the intelligence and translation military career fields, but in fact it also serves the needs of the “general-purpose forces,” Sandusky said.
Educating the general service has been a major growth area for DLI since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she noted.
DLI teaches 24 foreign languages in Monterey, Sandusky said. Instruction in additional languages is available elsewhere through contracted programs.
A separate school, the Defense Language Institute English Language Center in San Antonio, teaches English mostly to foreign officers who come to train in U.S. schools. The Air Force administers that program.
“We're driven by the requirements of the services,” Sandusky said. “They come up with their requirements based on the assessments of the different areas of operation, … coming up with what you might call a strategic language list, and then passing specific requirements for training down to DLI.”
For mission success, learning about the cultures they will be operating in is as important to servicemembers as learning the languages, Sandusky said.
“Culture is both implicit and explicit in our curriculum,” Sandusky explained. “[It is] explicit in the sense that we have area studies and culture courses … delivered in the target language, so they're learning about the history, politics, geography, culture, ceremonies, art [and] literature in the target language in the course. … And the implicit part is our instructors come from the cultures where the language is used.”
Having native speakers from the target countries work as instructors means they bring into the classroom “culture at many different levels, from the behavioral dos and don'ts to food, film, music, art, artifacts, up to the more abstract sort of frames of reference: definitions of culture, the understanding of beauty and evil and authority and obligation - all of those deep-culture concepts that are arising from the same sort of impulses that the language itself arises from,” Sandusky said.
“We see language and culture as very intertwined -- almost inextricably intertwined -- and we handle them together right from Day 1,” Sandusky said.
At any one time, about 3,000 students are served by about 1,700 civilian faculty and staff, Sandusky said. In addition to language instructors, staff members are involved in test, curriculum and faculty development, among other supporting functions. Ninety-eight percent of the instructors are native speakers of the languages they teach.
Students are instructed and tested in three major areas: reading, listening and speaking. Writing is also taught, but not tested. Listening and reading proficiency are graded with the Defense Language Proficiency Test, and speaking is tested with the Oral Proficiency Interview.
As a measure of effectiveness, Sandusky explained, graduates of a six-month Spanish course at DLI will typically speak better than a graduating Spanish major at a four-year university. An 18-month Arabic course at DLI equates to roughly 10.5 full-load semester hours of language and area studies at a university.
While students attending the school for immersion courses achieve the best results, DLI also works with the military services and commands to offer introductory familiarization and training in a variety of capacities, Sandusky said.
“We've got what we call ‘language survival kits,’ which are kind of what you would need if you are going in on a humanitarian mission - just a very basic familiarization: Stop. Don't shoot. Take me to your leader. Where does it hurt? Is this water clean? All kinds of very basic survival-oriented phrases,” Sandusky explained. “It's not a language-learning course at all, but they certainly would serve you well if you were going into an unfamiliar setting.”
Pre-deployment training for large units is done through mobile training teams, Sandusky said. About 80,000 servicemembers have been trained in practical, military-oriented words and phrases using language survival kits, as well as other DLI programs and materials.
Sandusky noted that DLI has the capacity to embed instructors with deployed units.
DLI makes available a variety of other language and culture tools to servicemembers and members of the public wishing to maintain or enhance their foreign language skills, Sandusky said.
Among the materials available on the DLI Web site, the Global Language Online Support System offers prepackaged lessons at various proficiency levels for autonomous students. These are available at http://gloss.lingnet.org/.
DLI offers “Countries in Perspective” and “Field Support” multimedia downloads that give overviews of language and culture, broken down by country and language, Sandusky said. These are available at http://fieldsupport.lingnet.org/index.aspx.
Also, the Army offers online language training via the commercial Rosetta Stone program for any soldier wishing to take part, Sandusky said.
While the DLI serves the specific mission of preparing servicemembers for overseas operations, it also is part of a wider U.S. government initiative to encourage and enable foreign language education for Americans.
The National Security Language Initiative, begun in 2006 under President George W. Bush, has three main goals:
-- Expand the number of Americans mastering critical-need languages and start teaching them at a younger age;
-- Increase the number of advanced-level speakers of foreign languages, with an emphasis on critical-need languages; and
-- Increase the number of foreign language teachers and necessary resources.
In addition to the Defense Department, the State and Education departments and the National Intelligence Directorate were directed to participate in the program.
For its part, DLI maintains collaborative relationships with colleges and universities, participates in conferences, and shares materials with some of the flagship programs that are part of the National Security Education Initiative, Sandusky said.
“About 85 percent of our students are right out of basic training,” she said. “They come to us … with all the strengths and weaknesses that the ‘millennial’ generation brings to the table, and they're mostly strengths. But one thing that we see is that they've not always had opportunities to be exposed to foreign language learning in the public schools.”
The National Security Language Initiative is “aimed at trying to encourage public schools across the country to invest in greater amounts of foreign language education from an early age,” she said.
(Tim Kilbride works in the Defense Media Activity’s Emerging Media directorate.)