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Student Linguists Meet High Standards at Language Institute

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

MONTEREY, Calif., Oct. 27, 2008 – If the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center is a national treasure, as its commandant said, then its students are the jewels.

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Servicemembers in their third semester of learning Korean at Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., undertake a reading exercise during an immersion program. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley

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“The students are some of the best and the brightest that [the Defense Department] has,” said Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, a 1992 graduate of DLI’s French program. “They learn a language to a standard that the vast majority of university languages don’t even come close to achieving in a four-year program.”

The need for more linguists in what DLI officials consider “Category IV” languages -- Arabic, Chinese Mandarin, Korean and Japanese -- requires students to be at the top of their games. Learning these, and the Category III languages, which include Dari, Pashto, and Persian Farsi, are no walk in the park.

It takes a student 64 weeks of intensive study to meet DLI’s proficiency standards in a Category IV language. Those weeks are filled with a minimum of six to eight hours of instruction in the language and its culture a day, plus weekend assignments. Students also must maintain military fitness standards.

Those studying Category I languages -- Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese -- or Category II languages -- German and Indonesian -- don’t have it any easier just because the languages aren’t considered as complicated. They have to achieve the same proficiency in fewer weeks.

“They [all] have to work very hard when they get here. There are no free rides,” Sandusky said. “[You can’t just] eat your language jelly beans and suddenly come out speaking at a [proficient] level.”

In fact, on a four-point grading scale, an A-minus isn’t worthy of the dean’s list or honor roll, she said.

“A 3.5 is almost the minimum you need to really ensure success,” she said. “You have to be aiming for very close to perfection.”

Of the roughly 3,000 DLI students from all the services, 92 percent are studying Category III and IV languages.

“[The students] are pretty precious resources,” said retired Army Col. Donald Fischer, DLI provost and past commandant. “They’re probably among the smartest of American youth. [They achieve] very high levels of proficiency in a very short amount of time.”

While the students, of course, have a distinct role in their success, exceptionally qualified instructors, the curriculum, and technology play vital roles as well.

Nearly all of the more than 1,700 international faculty members are native speakers who hail from 100 countries to teach the 24 different languages offered at the institute. This mix of ethnicities and cultures provides not only invaluable resources for the students but contributes to the rich diversity in the city of Monterey, known as the “Language Capital of the World.”

Combining instructor experience with technology takes the experience to the next level for the students, who walk the campus with tablet computers and iPods, both of which are loaded with language lessons. Other technologies, including “smart boards” in the wireless classrooms, contribute to an interactive learning environment, Fischer said.

“That marriage of teacher and student and curriculum and resources, and the impact of group around [the students] can really motivate a person,” Fischer said. “They come out of here a much different person.”

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Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky

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Defense Language Institute

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, Defense Language Institute commandant, discusses the changes the institute has undergone since Sept. 11, 2001. The need for military members trained in languages such as Persian Farsi, Pashto, Arabic, Chinese Mandarin and Korean has increased significantly. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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