Say it in Pashto: US troops learn new tongues

At Ft. Bragg, they get cultural tips and watch 'Mary Poppins' in Arabic

At heart, Jim, a "special ops" commando out of southern New Mexico, is probably a bit more John Wayne than Lawrence of Arabia.

But the blond, 30-something veteran of several Middle Eastern tours hasn't spent the past few weeks target training for raids on terrorist camps. Instead, he's been boning up on his standard Arabic.

For this brawny "military occupational specialist," that means six hours a day of listening, reading, and conversing solely in Arabic at Ft. Bragg's JFK Special Warfare Center and School, a low-slung concrete structure that serves as a kind of community college for the Army. Beyond words, he's learning how not to offend hosts and sources in far-flung villages.

"This isn't exactly what I signed up for, but I'm glad I'm getting it," Jim says. "At the end of the day, knowing this stuff gives you a strategic advantage.... It can also save your life."

This Southern soldier's school, which trains some 3,300 students a year in 21 languages, is becoming a focal point in America's quest to make its troops more self-sufficient. The Army says little has changed here since Sept. 11 besides the addition of three new languages - Pashto, Dari, and Uzbek (all spoken in Afghanistan). But it's clear that there's a shift toward cultural training for the men who will be searching out terrorists everywhere from Yemen to Indonesia.

The cacophony of clattering tongues at the JFK school hints at how the American soldier is evolving from happy-go-lucky grunt to worldly-wise road warrior. It might seem antithetical to watch grain-fed fighting men practicing the Dari phrasing of "Take me to your leader," but the Yanks, analysts say, are proving increasingly adept not just at making war, but at making friends.

"We tend to think of the military as immune to language and culture, but these efforts show a great sensitivity and intelligence, and run counter to the idea of Americans as ethnocentric, or nationalistic, people," says Roger Axtell, author of "Do's and Taboos Around the World," one of many civilian tomes the Army uses to teach cultural understanding.

After a six-hour day of classroom instruction, 10 to a class, soldiers shift to the language lab. There they don headphones and repeat Uzbek phrases or cram for a Croatian test. At night, they might watch "Mary Poppins" in Arabic and read some Pakistani fashion magazines. For easier languages - Spanish, say, or French - it's a four-month course. For Uzbek or Tagalog (one of the major languages spoken in the Philippines), it takes six months, at a pace of about 50 vocabulary words a day.

Much of what's being taught here is "basic survival communication"; for more-detailed primers, soldiers are sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

The hoped-for result, though, is far from a stammering cadet; Army officials say the primers, software programs, and tutors at JFK are top-notch.

"This is not the old textbook stuff that you get in high school," says Tim Loney, commander of Charlie Company, which runs the linguistics labs here.

While American soldiers can usually get along in Paris and Tokyo, more of them are now entering what is to them one of the most culturally different places on Earth: the Muslim corner, where suspicion of Americans runs rampant and where the challenges of language and culture are putting Special Operations Forces to the test as never before, analysts say.

"The idea of the 'ugly American' came from the fact that we sometimes think that we do things the right way, and that everybody should eat and greet people the way we do," Mr. Axtell says. "We aren't ugly, but unprepared, and that's what the military is finding out."

For soldiers preparing to go to the Middle East or other culturally foreign places, language immersion seems to be the best approach. Most instructors are native speakers and spend much of the time giving "assimilation" lessons about local customs.

During the Gulf War, American forces did receive a sort of cultural competency exam, when the Army passed out a 40-page booklet on Arab gestures and body language. The orders: Adapt to local customs, speak with your eyes, give praying Muslims plenty of room. And then there's that thing about reading from right to left. "Not backwards," jokes Commander Loney.

Some more tips, from "Do's and Taboos": "Don't gawk at Arab women, and don't even consider trying to date them. Don't be upset if Arabs stand very close, even touch you, when conversing. And don't ever admire an Arab's possessions; they're very generous and may feel required to give you the object of your admiration."

"Some of this may seem crazy, but, in their eyes, we're a bit crazy too," Axtell says.

Perhaps the most crucial gaffe to avoid is to sit back and put your feet up. Indeed, showing the sole of your shoe or foot - the dirtiest part of the body - to an Arab is considered the worst of all insults.

For soldiers in the field, such mistakes can be, if not outright dangerous, a serious stumbling block for negotiations and interrogations.

So far, the lessons are being learned well, says Amel Selwanes, a language-instruction book writer from Cairo who teaches at Ft. Bragg's school.

"In the Gulf War, it was the British troops who were always coming over to the Americans, asking for their help to translate," he says.

Why are the once-ugly Americans proving so adept at learning the local lingo? "Because they follow orders," Mr. Selwanes says with a smile. What's more, Americans, despite their reputation for cultural indifference, have some basic traits they can bank on as they practice their Pashto with the local populace: gregariousness and optimism. After all, some scholars say that up to 90 percent of communication is nonverbal.

For the soldiers here, most of whom joined the Army just after high school, the tongue-twisters often prove more difficult to master than the etiquette.

"I'm starting to be able to get a lot of it, but I have the most trouble with the grammar," says John, a special-ops soldier from Florida who is struggling with standard Arabic. "But some of the guys have it worse: They still have trouble asking where the bathroom is."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Say it in Pashto: US troops learn new tongues
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today