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Arabic Tops Defense Language School Offerings

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

MONTEREY, Calif., Aug. 11, 2005 – Twenty years ago, when the Berlin Wall still divided Germany and the Cold War was still raging, the unofficial fighting words for most students at the Defense Language Institute here were: "We're learning Russian so you don't have to."

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Army Spc. John Martin practices up on his Arabic skills at a Defense Language Institute language lab. Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant Probst, USN
  

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Today, DLI still has a respectable Russian Studies program, but 70 percent of its students are now studying Arabic, Korean and Chinese, according to Army Col. Michael Simone, school commandant. Almost one-third of the school's 3,500 to 3,600 students are enrolled in its three Arabic Studies schools.

Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Ken White began his military career as a Russian linguist but switched to Arabic after the Gulf War, when all eyes began to focus on the Middle East. Now, as a military language instructor at DLI, he sees that Arabic has "only become more in demand," with an increasing student load and ever-higher standards in the program of instruction.

Ismail Bolotok, a native of Syria, was among just 18 Arabic instructors when he joined the DLI staff in 1975. Today, he's among 300 Arabic instructors at DLI, and their student load has increased tenfold, to about 1,000.

"We're the king of the hill now," said Bolotok, now a team leader who serves as a coordinator between students, teachers and the department chair.

Arabic is among DLI's more difficult languages, with a whole different set of rules from English and other Germanic and Romance languages. Arabic text runs from right to left and the grammar is ordered differently from English, Bolok explained.

So to teach Arabic to a native English speaker, "You almost have to take the student's head and twist it around," he said.

The 63-week program of instruction, taught at a third- and fourth-year college level, requires hard work on the part of students and "patience, persistence and caring" from instructors, Bolotok said.

Unlike in the past, when students learned by memorizing scripted texts, DLI now uses "a very global approach" that relies heavily on authentic Arabic newspapers, broadcasts and Internet materials. They regularly listen to and read these materials, which instructors say better reflect the style of Arabic they're likely to encounter on the job and in the streets.

Authentic materials help students grasp not only Arabic language skills, but also an insight into the Arabic culture. They show students" how the Arabs view world events," White said, an understanding that will help them immeasurably when they report to their units.

"People in the field say it's so important to have an understanding of the culture and the religion," White said. "And if you don't understand that, all you have are just words."

Marine Lance Cpl. Ray Richards, who will graduate from the Arabic Studies program in February, said his class has moved beyond simply learning words and making direct translations. Now, an assignment is likely to involve evaluating an Arabic cartoon and writing an explanation of what message they believe the cartoonist was trying to get across.

Reaching that level of comprehension takes time - six to seven hours of classroom work a day, and at least two hours of homework every night. But to keep pace with the instruction, Richards said he takes extra time every day to read and listen to Arabic news.

"A lot of it is self-discipline. You have to make sure you're putting in the time you need to learn what you need to learn," Richards said. "If you're spending less than two-and-a-half hours a night on Arabic work, you're probably not putting in enough time."

Bolotok said better teaching methods and more use of computers and authentic materials in coursework is proving "far more successful" than the old "assembly line" method of instruction. "We're very comfortable that when a student graduates, they can go out and manipulate the language," he said.

And instructors and students alike recognize that DLI graduates need to have a firm grasp of their new language when they report to their units and in many cases, deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I can't let them go to the field without knowing they have the skills and language levels they need," Bolotok said. "If they fail on the outside, they are on the front line between us and the enemy. And is a student 'mis-translates' something and the message gets garbled, your life and mine could be in jeopardy."

Army Sgt. 1st Class David Villarreal, an Arabic military language instructor at DLI, knows firsthand the value linguists bring to their commanders and fellow troops. As a translator for the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq, he provided an important link between the unit and the Iraqi people.

"The colonel relied on us to know the language and the culture, and the Iraqis were very willing to communicate with us," Villarreal said. "In any kind of mission, communication is critical, and we help ensure that that communication could take place."

, Villarreal said he tries to give servicemembers he teaches, who will follow in his footsteps, a glimpse into what will be expected of them when they arrive at their units.

Army Pvt. Krystal Bradley, 10 weeks into the Arabic Studies program, said she's working "to absorb as much language and culture as I can" so she'll be prepared for her first assignment as a cryptologist.

"When I joined the Army, I figured that I would be going to Iraq," she said. "I want to be on the front lines, doing what I can and also helping the people of Iraq get back on their feet."

"And I figure that better I'm able to grasp Arabic here at DLI, the better prepared I'll be to do that," she said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageStudents in the Defense Language Institute's Arabic Studies program practice one-on-one conversations conducted exclusively in Arabic. Photo by Donna Miles  
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