Abizaid: Immersion in language is best way for troops to learn
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Sun Nov 9 13:33:55 UTC 2008
Abizaid: Immersion in language is best way for troops to learn
Retired general says program on Fort Huachuca critical to gathering intelligence
By Bill Hess
Published on Saturday, November 08, 2008
FORT HUACHUCA — In one part of a crowded area, people were gathered at
an Internet cafe. Not far away, a small group talked about the day's
events. And a general watched it all. But none of this took place in a
Baghdad neighborhood. All of it was done in an Intelligence Center
classroom, where handpicked soldiers are going through an Arab
language immersion course with the help of native speakers — two
women, one from Egypt and the other from Jordan, and two men, one a
Sudanese and the second a Moroccan.
The 41-week course, which is six months shorter than the modern
standard Arabic taught at the Defense Language Institute in
California, involves soldiers who completed the human intelligence
collector course at the Intelligence Center. On Friday, retired Army
Gen. John Abizaid was the center of attention in the classroom. The
former commander of Central Command and a fluent Arab speaker was
interested in what enlisted soldiers were learning and how that could
dovetail into a special program at his alma mater West Point, from
which he graduated in 1973.
Walking around the room, he engaged the young soldiers and their
instructors, mostly speaking Arabic to keep the immersion mood going.
"I learned Arabic by immersion," Abizaid said of going to Jordan for
part of his training after attending DLI. While his father was
Lebanese-American, he said Arabic was not spoken in his home. The
soldier students are learning modern standard Arabic, which is good
for reading newspapers and viewing television.
But, Abizaid said, Arabic has many nuances, dialects and accents that
only can be picked up by a living experience and an immersion course
The nearly 20 students, a couple of soldier instructors and the
civilian program manager will be going to a Middle Eastern nation
later this month for a four-week total immersion course where they
will do noting but speak Arabic. Modern standard Arabic is like
speaking Shakespearean English when mingling with the people on
crowded streets in English-speaking nations, Abizaid said. While
understood, Shakespearean English in places such as England and
America would be out of place for the common person, as modern
standard Arabic is for Arabs. Abizaid said that is why learning what
is spoken and how it is spoken within Arab society is critical.
As the distinguished chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at the
U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Abizaid said what is being
presented to cadets, the Army's future officers, and what is being
done at the Intelligence Center regarding young enlisted soldiers are
A small entourage from the New York center was at the fort with the
general, including the center's director, Maj. Reid Sawyer, who is on
the list for promotion to lieutenant colonel.
A military intelligence officer and a West Point graduate of 1992,
Sawyer said the cadet center trains the future officers at the
military academy and agents from a number of other federal
organizations. The center's other functions include researching
terrorism and providing policy advice.
Sawyer said it is important that the centers at West Point and Fort
Huachuca share what is being taught, because in the future, some young
lieutenant will command military intelligence soldiers.
Abizaid said that under Maj. Gen. John Custer, the Intelligence Center
has incorporated linguistics, culture and technology to better prepare
soldiers "like these," as the general pointed at the soldiers in the
"He's preparing the best intelligence soldiers." Abizaid said of
Custer, who commands the Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca and who
formerly was Abizaid's senior intelligence officer at Central Command.
The United States faces a "very committed enemy, like al-Qaida and the
Taliban," the retired general said.
Al-Qaida and the Taliban and other terrorist groups who are smart and
use technology must be routed out of Arab society and other cultures
such as Afghanistan, Abizaid said. That, he added, means having
soldiers smart in language and culture to accomplish the missions.
Arabic is a hard language, and having a beginning immersion course at
the Intelligence Center is a smart program, Abizaid said.
The soldiers will learn, through language and culture, there are
differences in how an Iraqi Arab thinks and acts, and within a place
such as Iraq, how a Sunni does things different from a Shi'a and a
Discussing the U.S. political arena, Abizaid said President-elect
Barack Obama must be properly advised by military and intelligence
leaders of what the nation faces.
Calling the Middle East and Afghanistan a highly troubled and
explosive region, Abizaid said the new president "will have some very,
very hard choices to make."
Before making decisions on issues involving Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran
and other Middle East counties, Obama "needs to study them and
understand them first," the retired general said.
For the soldiers in the 41-week immersion class, there is another
class of 24 weeks being taught at the Intelligence Center. Abizaid
said he is impressed by how much they have learned so far when it
comes to Arabic.
As he went around the room, engaging in talk — in Arabic — with the
students, the conversations between he and them were animated, with an
occasional stop as a soldiers searched for the right Arabic word or
phrase to continue the dialogue.
Two of the soldiers, Pfc. Derek Wisner and Spc. Christin Fippinger,
spoke after the general left to visit the 24-week immersion class.
"I'm comfortable on (speaking about) daily issues," 22-year-old Wisner said.
Going through the immersion class on a daily basis builds confidence
in speaking Arabic, he added.
For the 24-year-old Fippinger, being able to speak what is spoken on
the streets has been a confidence builder.
"Each day (of instruction), it becomes easier," she said.
They both said having a better grasp of Arabic will make them better
human intelligence collectors.
And both are waiting for their month-long immersion time in a part of
the Middle East where they will be required to speak only Arabic.
"There will be no English allowed," said David Villarreal, the
immersion course program manager who is a retired Army officer and
If someone in the country they will be visiting speaks to them in
English, they have to respond in Arabic.
"They are going to hear the real Arabic language in a real setting,"
Herald/Review senior reporter Bill Hess can be reached at 515-4615 or
by e-mail at bill.hess at svherald.com.
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