MONTEREY, California — The U.S. Defense Language Institute, or DLI, is one of the largest language schools in the world. It was established to provide linguistic and cultural instruction to the Defense Department and other Federal Agencies. Today, the Institute’s Foreign Language Center [DLIFLC] has 26 Language Training Detachments, supporting different types of missions worldwide.
It is hard to believe that the young U.S. military service members at the school are speaking the most difficult language in the world - Mandarin - fluently.
They're among about 3,500 students who are learning 24 different languages at the Defense Language Institute’s Foreign Language Center - located in Monterey, California, a small city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Targeting language, culture
And because of DLI's success, there is interest in expanding the concept - to provide support for the growing needs of the U.S. Defense Department, equipping service members with basic language and cultural skills for missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Dr. Donald Fischer, the Center’s Provost, said DLI is different from any other language school in the world because of the cost and length of the learning period.
“For one thing it is free. Our students are about 18 to 22 years old and enlisted in military service, and then they are admitted to Defense Language Institute to study a language," he said. "The length of courses may range from six months for a language that is a fairly easy language for a speaker of English to learn, to 15 months for the languages like Arabic, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. For Persian [Farsi] for example the length of the course is 47 weeks.”
And some are even longer. Instructor Ching-Lin Lee said it takes 64 weeks to complete the course in Mandarin - one of the most difficult languages for American students.
“Students, most of them I think, they still are able overcome the difficulties," said Ching-Lin Lee. "It is very challenging task here for us, for students and teachers. But actually it is fun to learn and to teach a foreign language at this kind of difficulty."
Small and focused
The class sizes are small, containing about six to 10 students. DLI currently has 2,250 faculty members, but Fischer said he is short of Farsi instructors.
“We have about 150 at the current time and we need more,” he said.
Shakiba Badihi began teaching Farsi at the DLI in 2000. She said the new students have almost no clue about the language and must start from very beginning.
"Our students do not know anything about Farsi language and Iran and where it is located, on their arrival. We start teaching them from alphabet of Farsi language and down the road they get familiar with Persian culture, and also national and religious holidays,” she said.
In 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then Commander of the International Forces in Afghanistan, ordered every platoon in his command to have at least one leader who could speak Dari.
By the next year, the U.S. Army had begun using a DLI pre-deployment program called “Rapport” as mandatory training for all soldiers traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan. The entire Defense Department now has made the training mandatory for all of its personnel. The online training lasts approximately six hours and includes cultural orientation, as well as basic phrases and military terminology.