language boot camp

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 13 17:29:16 UTC 2002

New York Times, Aug. 13, 2002:

 Language Boot Camp Fills a Void


      MONTEREY, Calif., Aug. 6 Petty Officer Third Class Julie Sheil spent
most of the past year learning Farsi, which seemed to put her on the fast
track as a budding military linguist when President Bush identified Iran
as one of the "axis of evil" countries. But in April, the Pentagon's huge
language school here began a new class in Dari, a language similar to
Farsi that is spoken in Afghanistan, and Petty Officer Sheil found herself
thrown into the eight-hour-a-day, 16-week crash course with instructors
fresh from the region who rarely spoke English in class.

"It's been grueling," said Petty Officer Sheil, 28, a former eighth-grade
teacher who joined the Navy nearly three years ago to become a linguist.
"But people are calling from the field saying, `We need Dari speakers
now!' " The Pentagon's school, the Defense Language Institute, is a
barometer of hot spots and American interests worldwide. The campaign
against terror has exposed a shortage of linguists in the military and in
government who can speak languages like Dari, Urdu and Hindi, and
instructors here are rushing to fill the void.

"Given current events, we've got to be very flexible and very responsive
to the needs of the services fighting the war," said Col. Kevin M. Rice of
the Army, the institute's commandant and a fluent Chinese speaker who is a
former Army attach at the United States Embassy in Beijing. The institute
teaches 3,200 students a year from the military services in 24 languages.
Colonel Rice said 3,500 students would take courses next year. Languages
that were important during the cold war, like Czech and Polish, were
dropped this year. The number of students studying Russian has plummeted
to about 400 from nearly 1,000 a decade ago when it was the most popular
language here.

Now the language of choice is Arabic, with more than 600 students enrolled
in a 63-week course that exposes them to dialects spoken in Iraq, Egypt
and Syria. Demand for Chinese and Korean is also growing, and as the
United States' relations with Central Asian countries expand in the wake
of the war in Afghanistan, so are the requirements for Uzbek, Pashto and
Tajik. Fifty students are enrolled in the new courses in Dari and Pashto.
With several thousand American troops still conducting peacekeeping
operations in the Balkans, more than 100 students are studying
Serbo-Croatian, an offering that drew scant interest a decade ago. It
takes time, however, to train linguists to the proficiency the military
needs. The vast majority of students are newly enlisted troops fresh from
boot camp who are immersed in a basic course lasting 25 to 63 weeks,
depending on the language, and then sent on for additional training before
they are assigned to a military specialty.

To plug the military's immediate linguistic gaps, about one-quarter of the
institute's 85 senior enlisted language instructors experts with 10 to 15
years experience have been dispatched to the field for several weeks or
months at a time, whether as interpreters for interrogators interviewing
prisoners at the American base in Guantnamo Bay, Cuba, or to assignments
in Afghanistan. Since founding its first language school 60 years ago to
teach Japanese, the military has taught languages mainly to meet military
intelligence needs: intercepting radio messages, interrogating prisoners
and analyzing captured documents.

Listening and reading skills are still important for mastering translation
and eavesdropping, but the emphasis here has shifted to speaking. This is
important because the American military needs linguists not only for
traditional humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, but increasingly also
for counterterrorism training in places like Yemen and the former Soviet
republic of Georgia. A growing number of scientific, law enforcement and
military exchanges also demand linguists who can speak on a broad variety
of topics.

Life at language boot camp begins and ends on a foreign note. Students
attend classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., take a 90-minute break for
physical-fitness training and then log another two to three hours a night
in homework. Classes usually range from 6 to 10 students and are taught by
two instructors who rarely speak English in class. In one Arabic class
here today, four students discussed the origins of the deadly West Nile
virus with an instructor. The classes routinely watch broadcasts of Al
Jazeera and the British Broadcasting Corporation's foreign service and tap
into a wide array of Arabic-language materials on the Internet.

Students' dedication to their studies has intensified since Sept. 11,
instructors say, pointing to the drop in attrition, down to 8 percent this
year from 17 percent a year ago. "They realize how serious their
assignments will be," said Luba Grant, dean of one of the institute's two
Middle East schools. The military spends $12,500 for instruction on each
graduate in the 25-week French and Spanish courses, while the more
difficult 63-week Arabic course costs the Pentagon $31,500 per graduate.

The Pentagon's goal is for at least 80 percent of basic-course graduates
to be proficient enough to handle long descriptions and explanations in
two of three categories writing, listening and speaking. In recent years,
since the greater emphasis was placed on practical speaking, the
percentage of students attaining proficiency has increased to more than 80
percent now from 29 percent in 1985.

Technology is playing a more important role, as new computers and video
conferencing are bridging the language gap for nonspecialists who need to
learn basic conversation skills or to help institute graduates brush up on
their skills. The institute opened a new studio in January that serves
2,500 troops worldwide and can reach up to 320 classrooms operated by the
National Guard. Four Army and Navy personnel in Hawaii, for example,
hooked up by teleconference today with an instructor here who teaches
Chinese. The language school's $72 million annual operating budget has
been steadily growing in recent years as the military's needs increase,
and many students consider their second language a door-opener when their
military careers are over.

Army officials originally assigned Specialist Jolene Narr, 23, to learn
Korean, but after Sept. 11, she switched to Arabic. "I prefer the
language, I'd prefer to go to the Middle East," Specialist Narr said, "and
there's a lot more you can do with it after the military, in the business

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