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Military Linguists Learn Language Skills Vital to Operations

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

MONTEREY, Calif., Oct. 28, 2008 – Foreign languages are vital to an effective military force, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center’s provost said in an interview here.

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Air Force Airman 1st Class Alvertis Bishop, left, and Air Force Airman 1st Class Chelsye Shaffer listen as Madhumita Mehrotra explains the subtle differences between two Hindi words, Oct. 20, 2008. Mehrotra is a native of India and teaches Hindi at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

“It’s absolutely vital that we have people on the ground who can speak [the native language],” said retired Army Col. Donald C. Fischer, a former military linguist.

To ensure the military has those resources, DLI instructs military student linguists in 24 languages requested by the services. Many of those languages must be taught beginning with the most basic concepts, said Madhumita Mehrotra, a native of India and a Hindi language instructor at the center.

“We started with basic sounds and script, [and] within three weeks, they get to know sound and script,” she said of her current class, which is 33 weeks into its 48-week program.

Mehrotra is particular about how her students learn her native language.

“I’m very much particular with their pronunciation, because Hindi is such that one additional … hard vowel attached to the consonant, it changes the whole meaning of the word,” she said. “So they have to be very, very particular with what … kind of sound they are making. It makes the whole word change.

“They’re doing pretty good,” she added. “They are at the level where they should be at this time.”

Despite the difficulty of learning the language, Air Force Airman 1st Class Chelsye Shaffer said she is enjoying the challenges it presents.

“It’s a great language,” she said. “The teachers are awesome, [and] they help a lot.”

Air Force Airman 1st Class Alvertis Bishop agreed, but showed his hand when he explained why he likes studying Hindi. “I’ve been telling people that I wouldn’t want any other language, because we get all the festivals,” he said with a smile. The two Hindi students sang and Shaffer recited a Hindi poem during an August celebration of Indian culture for their 11-student class.

It’s one thing to study a language in a classroom setting, but quite another to put it, and a knowledge of the culture, to use in real life, a former Marine who’s now a soldier has learned.

The Army staff sergeant, who requested his name not be used for security reasons, served a tour in Iraq with the 1st Marines. On patrol near Baghdad one morning, the members of his unit reached the location where they’d been told to establish a roadblock and wait for trucks to come and pick them up.

A group of Arabic-speaking men approached them and began talking. None of the Marines spoke or understood Arabic, but they soon learned the men had been relaying information back to counterparts. Suddenly, the group of men was gone, and three rocket-propelled grenades landed near the Marines, starting a “full-on fight,” the staff sergeant said.

“If we would have known any Arabic, we would have caught on to what they were doing before it started,” he said. “So I just didn’t want to go back without knowing Arabic.”

But it’s not easy for a Marine to switch from infantry to linguistics, which is classified as an intelligence job, he said, so he decided to switch to the Army with the intent of studying Arabic at DLI.

Now about a year into the 18-month Arabic program, he said he realizes how important it is for servicemembers to understand both the language and the culture of other lands.

“When I went there, I had no clue,” he said. “I was completely ignorant to the Middle East. I had no knowledge of it [or] the culture of Islam. There’s a lot of things that if you do wrong [in] their culture, then they can take that really offensively. It can antagonize them, and it can actually create a fight that didn’t need to happen.”

Just a little bit of knowledge and understanding on servicemembers’ part goes a long way, he added, noting that DLI conducts culturally based instruction that includes cultural immersion activities.

“Just understanding them, I think, allows them to respect us more,” he said.

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Defense Language Institute

Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Nathaniel Herbst takes a break from Pashto language classes at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., Oct. 21, 2008. Herbst, who already has received Serbo/Croatian training at DLI, has returned to learn the language used in Afghanistan. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley  
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