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Learning Foreign Language Helps US Soldiers Bridge Culture Gap


A tactical decision made by a soldier in a war theater can have strategic political, social, and cultural implications at the national and international levels. Though few and far between, these tactical level mistakes can take a toll on the overall mission and its credibility.

U.S. Army Colonel Philip J. Deppert is tasked to help soldiers avoid these mistakes. Deppert is the commanding officer of the Defense Language Institute (DLI), located in Monterey, California. He told VOA that cultural education is a key component of the educational curriculum.

“We are worldwide renowned for producing some of the best culturally and professionally based military linguists,” said Col. Deppert. “The United States and specifically our military understands that in order to be the best partner with all nations around the world we not only have to understand the language but the culture embedded with that as well.”

DLI accommodates about 3,500 soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen and select civilians sponsored by their agencies.

Students perform a traditional Afghan dance called Attan during Annual Language Day at the U.S. Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, May 13, 2016.

Students perform a traditional Afghan dance called Attan during Annual Language Day at the U.S. Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, California, May 13, 2016.

DLI diplomacy

Wherever there is a U.S. embassy, there is a defense attaché who received his or her language and cultural training at DLI.

Air Force Major Braden Coleman is a foreign affairs officer and came to DLI six months ago to learn Urdu before his deployment to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

“They are preparing me to work at the embassy and, you know, to help out with relations. So I will be in the program for at least the next four years,” Coleman said.

Students are instructed by approximately 1,800 specially trained instructors, the vast majority of whom are native speakers of the language they teach.

Isabella Christopher is an Urdu instructor who teaches students about Pakistan’s culture and language. She has been with DLI for about five years and finds the experience of teaching and learning exceptional.

FILE - DLI students of Modern Standard Arabic tour the ancient town of Fes, Morocco. About 30 percent of DLI students spend four weeks immersed in the culture of the languages they are studying at the institute. (Photo by Natela Cutter)

FILE - DLI students of Modern Standard Arabic tour the ancient town of Fes, Morocco. About 30 percent of DLI students spend four weeks immersed in the culture of the languages they are studying at the institute. (Photo by Natela Cutter)


“If we tell someone that our students learn a language in a 9-month period or 35 weeks or 47 weeks, nobody believes that,” said Christopher.

Emphasis on culture

Every student who comes to the school is assigned a local name.

Students not only learn from native speakers, but also from U.S. military instructors who are educated in various languages. U.S. Army Sergeant Garrick Bartlett received four years of education in Pashto before he became an instructor.

“My primary role is to help bridge the gap between Pashto and English coming from that of an English native speaker’s background,” said Bartlett.

There are various schools within DLI with focus on various regions of the world.

“With the future engagements of these soldiers going out, it helps them at least communicate with the local population and once the population feels that the soldiers are speaking their language, they will try to do the same thing and be very helpful,” said William Sameer al-Wahab, a department chair at Middle East School II.

Souzy Guirguis teaches military students in Egyptian dialect at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (Courtesy - DLI).

Souzy Guirguis teaches military students in Egyptian dialect at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (Courtesy - DLI).

Total immersion

Besides comprehensive language training, students are also sent to what DLI calls the Immersion Facility where they are exposed to real-life scenarios. Once at the facility, all students leave English at the door. They dress in local clothes and communicate in the target language.

As the Obama administration broadens the U.S. military campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria by boosting U.S. special operations forces to advise local U.S. allies, DLI will likely have a key role to play in that mission.

“We would not send them out of here to their individual units and individual services unless we were confident that they were fully prepared. And I will tell you, we can show proof and things going on today how well prepared our linguists are,” said Col. Deppert, DLI’s commanding officer. “You know, we got linguists right now in Japan helping with earthquake relief in that country.”

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