Lackland Air Force Base, Texas — The sidewalks of this huge US base feature a startling sight: dozens of foreign military personnel in native uniform, strolling along as if they were students on a college campus. In a sense they are. Lackland is home of the Defense Language Institute's English Language Center, the Pentagon's school for teaching English as a second tongue. Some 2,500 pupils come here annually for everything from basic classes to special courses in how to speak like a fighter pilot.
``Last year we had students from 91 countries - including the People's Republic of China,'' says Col. Don Box, center commander.
The foreign students for the most part are not generals who want to polish their English so they can better negotiate with the United States State Department. Many are young officers and enlisted technicians who will be operating US-made weapons systems back home.
First Lt. Cemal Akca is typical. A cheery Turkish Air Force officer, he has been here for two months learning the specialized vocabulary needed to be a radar control instructor. ``I will go back to my country,'' he says, ``and teach radar stuff.''
He says he has learned many things about the US during this, his first, visit. One is that everything here is ``supermodern.'' Another is that ``Texas is not the US. It is its own country first.''
Typically, students attend six hours of class a day. One-third of that time is spent in a language lab - those torture chambers of earphones and tapes familiar to anyone who has taken high school Spanish.
Most already read and write English well after study in their homeland. They practice conversational skills, and study the advanced technical vocabularies they will need upon their return. Some of these specialized courses would baffle native English speakers. A quiz in a course book for fighter pilots asks students to define the following: ``jinkout'' (a slithery plane maneuver), ``tally ho'' (enemy sighted), and ``winchester'' (out of ammunition).
Talking about weaponry is complex: The center now has a Canadian student who will be attending test-pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base and is taking a specialized course to ensure he can communicate with US fighter jocks.
While most of the training is paid for by US military-aid grants, there are some cash customers - notably oil-rich Arabs. Among the famous who have attended the school are Prince Bandar al-Sultan, former pilot and current Saudi ambassador to the US.
While in Texas students are also given a good dose of US culture, through such instruments as visits to Houston and trips to the Ice Capades.
``One of our primary missions in this school is to influence other people,'' says Colonel Box.
To this end center language training teams also pay house calls on other nations. Teams are now in 11 countries, among them North Yemen, where English training takes place in the same building as Russian training given by a Soviet language squad.
Not all students are from overseas. Every year the center tutors several hundred US Army recruits who don't speak English well. Most of these students, who are US citizens, were born and grew up in Puerto Rico or in other countries, primarily Korea.