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California Military Center Teaches Language, Cultural Skills


One of the world's leading language schools is located in the California city of Monterey. Since 1941, the Defense Language Institute has taught linguistic skills to members of the U.S. military.

This army base, the Presidio of Monterey, is a crossroads of world cultures. More than 3,000 students from all military branches struggle to master one of two dozen languages.

They use the latest technology, from interactive computers to iPods, but instructors say there are no short cuts. Language learners are in the classroom seven hours a day, with lots of added homework, says one former student of Arabic and Pashto.

"I spent two to three hours doing homework, and then I studied on my own for another two to three hours after that," she said.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a new focus on South Asian and Middle Eastern and languages.

A Persian American instructor teaches Farsi to young service members.

"… soldiers, airmen, seamen, Marines, and they pretty much start out knowing nothing," she said. "And we teach them the Arabic alphabet, which is what we use in Farsi, which takes about two-and-a-half weeks."

After 47 weeks, the students are proficient in the Persian language.

The center's commandant, Colonel Sue Ann Sandusky, says language courses vary in length according to their difficulty for an English-speaker.

"Our resident basic courses range from six months for the so-called easy languages, the romance languages - French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian - up to 18 months for the languages that are most difficult for an English-speaker to learn - Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean," she said.

Once a year, on what is called Language Day, students get a break from their studies as the center opens its doors to middle and high school students from around California.

The young visitors are introduced to the world's cultures.

Language students at the base wear costumes for a Chinese dragon, Korean fan dance, and Middle East belly dance. Visitors get a taste of international foods, including sizzling lamb kabobs.

An Air Force staff sergeant demonstrates his skills with a Turkish ballad.

This is his second time studying in Monterey. He learned Serbian the first time.

Two-thirds of the student here are under 25 years old, but some are mid-career officers. Colonel Dino Pick heads a program that trains Foreign Area Officers, who serve as liaisons to foreign militaries, work in military headquarters as advisors, or as attaches in embassies. An Arabic speaker, Pick has served in the Middle East.

He says the Foreign Area Officer program provides language training, followed by a year spent overseas.

"During that one year, the officer learns how the embassy country team functions and also travels the region and learns firsthand about the culture, religion, history and economics of the host country that he is serving in, as well as the region," said Pick.

The center commandant, Colonel Sandusky, is an Africa specialist who studied French in Monterey. In 1998, she put her skills to good use shortly after she was sent to a new post in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

"Civil war broke out," she said. "I was on the phone with the defense minister in the middle of the night and the chief of defense staff trying to organize evacuation convoys, getting permissions for aircraft to land and so forth, in French, pretty much cold, with people I had met once of twice in the short time I had been there."

She says students are members of the military, and are here for a reason beyond simply mastering a language. "They are learning a language to put it into immediate use for national security purposes," said Colonel Sandusky.

Some graduates of the Defense Language Institute will serve as translators and many will work in intelligence. Others will coordinate with partner militaries or serve in U.S. special forces. Colonel Sandusky says all should finish with proficiency in another language and a better understanding of another culture.

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