Uzbek or Dari? Military learns new tongues

Defense Language Institute alters its curriculum for soldiers in post-9/11 world.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When 1st Lt. Aaron Wiggins graduates from language school ,proficient in Pashto, he knows an Afghanistan deployment won't be far off.

And Airman 1st Class Jennifer Burnside, a student of Arabic, expects she'll soon be flying 18-hour eavesdropping missions over the Middle East as a "listener" with an airborne intelligence unit.

Insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with a broadening terrorist threat, are increasing demands on the ranks of US military linguists capable of gathering intelligence in foreign languages.

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Indeed, an Army report released last fall found that "the lack of competent interpreters throughout the theater impeded operations" in both countries. "The US Army does not have a fraction of the linguists required," concludes the report by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

To ease the crunch, the military's main language-training center, the Defense Language Institute (DLI) here, is dramatically altering the mix of foreign tongues it teaches. With a faculty of more than 1,000 and 3,800 full-time students attending classes each year, DLI teaches 80 percent of the government's foreign language classes.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, DLI has added ten new languages to the curriculum, which it anticipates will be vital to curbing terrorism, such as the Afghan dialects of Dari and Pashto, as well as Chechen, Uzbek, Armenian and Urdu.

At the same time, the Institute has sharply increased the number of students learning Persian (up 70 percent), Korean (up 50 percent) and Arabic (up 40 percent) - as if tailoring the production of linguists for the three countries dubbed "the axis of evil" by President Bush: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

"Korean may seem disproportionately high compared to Arabic, but there's always the potential for things to go bad on the Korean Peninsula and we'd need that pool in place," says Col. Michael Simone, Commandant of DLI.

Meanwhile, DLI is adapting new technology and instruction methods aimed at speeding the study of difficult and obscure languages while making the content more realistic and relevant.

Many of the advances come together at DLI's newest branch, the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) Task Force, set up soon after the Sept. 11 strikes. "There was a lot of leaning forward in the foxhole, guessing what might be needed," says task force Associate Dean Maj. David Tatman.

Urgent needs

On one hand, the task force responded to urgent demands for translations from the US military in the field. For example, it translated the Army's Ranger Handbook into Dari for use in training the Afghan army, and also translated letters home from detainees classified as "enemy combatants" at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Meanwhile, in order to launch new DLI programs quickly in rarely studied languages such as Dari, the task force had to create curricula from scratch, hunt for the few qualified faculty, and begin training students at the same time.

Mahmood Taba-Tabai, dean of the task force and a native of Iran, says he quickly realized there were few commercially available Dari materials. Chapters on "picking cherries in spring" and "how to cut mullah's beard" were ill suited for his US military students.

"We can still cut the mullah's beard, but we also have to clear the minefields," quips Mr. Taba-Tabai. DLI students must learn a range of military terms along with basic proficiency in a language.

An innovative technology introduced last year known as the "SMART board" is also helping DLI compress the time needed to master foreign languages. The SMART boards are large classroom screens that take the place of blackboards, overhead projectors, and the language lab. The boards can display Internet content, textbook pages, or even the zigzags of sound waves, allowing teachers to dissect individual phrases.

Lessons designed on computers by teachers are saved on a server, then broadcast on the SMART boards, as well as to tablet PCs used by each student in the classroom and to the students' dormitory work stations.

"We can get streaming video from Al Jazeera, BBC in Arabic, and newspapers from the Middle East and import it into the classroom," says Dr. Christine Campbell, head of one of DLI's Middle East departments. "This lets us expose students to what the natives are seeing and listening to every day."

Today's news not only keeps classes lively but also provides a grounding in current events for students, 90 percent of whom will take jobs in military intelligence. Of these, 70 percent specialize in cryptology, or signals intelligence, and 20 percent in human intelligence.

After DLI, students have additional training in skills such as number dictation, reading hand-written texts, and weapons vocabulary before deployment to overseas hot spots.

"I wish we had the ranges to do weapons training," says Col. Simone from his office on the DLI campus at the Presidio of Monterey, which traces its origins to an 18th-century Spanish fort. "So many of our graduates are going off in short order to dangerous places."

Hilly campus

Set on a hill overlooking the rocky Pacific coastline, DLI has the look of a community college but the regimented feel of a military base. DLI courses are highly demanding, students say. "It's definitely a full-time job," says Lieutenant Wiggins after a Pashto class in which his teacher role-played an Afghan refugee seeking help after an earthquake.

Students have more than six hours of language training and two to three hours of homework per day. On average, each class of 30 students is taught by a team of six teachers. Reaching proficiency requires 18 months of study for the most difficult languages such as Arabic, Korean and Chinese, compared to six months for Spanish and French.

"This is the most intensive education I've ever received. It makes the college courses I've taken look ridiculous," says Airman Burnside from Yuma, Ariz. "I try to talk and all that comes out is Arabic."

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