Training Arabic linguists

Training Arabic linguists

Steve Harding

WHILE the Army’s performance in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom has repeatedly validated weapon systems and tactics, it’s also highlighted a key shortage: that of Soldiers able to read and speak Arabic.

It’s a need the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center is working to fill.

A Specialized School

Located at California’s historic Presidio of Monterey, some 60 miles south of San Francisco, the DLIFLC produces linguists for the Department of Defense and, in smaller numbers, for other federal agencies and certain foreign governments.

The DLIFLC teaches 22 languages, which are categorized by their degree of difficulty. The basic course for such Category I languages as French and Italian lasts 25 weeks, while those for Arabic and the other extremely challenging Category IV languages last 63 weeks.

DLIFLC courses are taught by civilians, most of whom are college-educated native speakers of the languages they teach. Military linguists leach the military-specific language skills the students will need in their duty assignments. DLIFLC has about 1,000 faculty and 300 civilian staff members, supported by some 400 military personnel drawn from each of the services.

The departments within DLIFLC’s nine resident and continuing-education schools art, based on the team-teaching concept, with each team of six instructors handling three sections of up to 10 students each. The classes are small in comparison to those in civilian schools, and instructors use such high-tech aids as satellite TV and Smart Board electronic “chalkboards” that can access the Internet. Each student is issued an MP3 audio player with which to record and play back key material.

The Best and the Brightest

Students entering the DLIFLC don’t get to pick the language they’ll study, said Dr. Stephen Payne, the school’s senior vice chancellor. That determination is made based on the candidate’s scores on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery.

The DLAB indicates each person’s relative aptitude for languages, and students are assigned a language based on the scores, Payne said. Individuals with the highest scores, indicating the greatest aptitude, end up in one of the Category IV programs.

Because Arabic is such a challenging language, it takes a special kind of student to tackle it, Payne said.

“The Soldiers and others who come into the Arabic program have gone through a very challenging selection process just to get here, and they are truly the best and the brightest,” he said.

Among them is SPC Brad Robertson, whose long-time interest in Arabic and his zeal for the program are typical of many students.

“I’ve always wanted to learn Arabic. When I was in college I did a lot of research on university-level Arabic programs, and DLI kept coming out at the top of the list as the most intensive program in the nation,” Robertson said, “It was obviously the fastest and most comprehensive way I could learn the language, and the fact that virtually all the instructors are native speakers really clinched my decision.”

Having highly qualified native speakers is key to the program’s quality, Payne agreed.

“Our Arabic instructors bring to the classroom a depth of linguistic and cultural knowledge that is unsurpassed, and the team-teaching concept and small class sizes really allow them to pass their knowledge on in a tremendously effective way,” he said.

“The fact that our teachers are very supportive is also a big help,” said PFC Desiree Vassallo. “The first day in class they told us they would help us in any way they could, and they have. Some of the instructors have been teaching Arabic for decades, and they’ve seen all the possible mistakes we can make. They treat us with concern and respect, which really helps make this a great experience.”

A Comprehensive Program

DLIFLC’s Arabic-language program is centered in Middle East I School, known as MAS, and Middle East 2 School, referred to as MBS. At the time of Soldiers’ visit there were some 800 students studying Arabic in MAS and MBS, The instruction is identical in each of the Arabic departments.

The schools’ mission, according to MAS dean Dr. Christine M. Campbell, is to train students to a basic Level of competence in the language, just as new infantrymen or tankers are taught the basic skills their MOSs require. Then, just as combat-arms Soldiers’ skills are broadened and improved upon reaching operational units, so are the linguists’ skills bettered by “real-world” use.

DLI teaches Modern Standard Arabic, a refined form of the language that is spoken throughout the Middle East, Campbell said. Learning MSA gives students the foundation upon which they can then build their skills in the various regional and national dialects of the language.

“When you get to the Middle East, if you speak MSA people will think you are highly educated, because MSA is the language of the Quran and is used by broadcasters throughout the Arabic-speaking world,” said Army CPT Robert Hoffman, MAS’s operations Officer.

“But when you meet people in remote villages, they might not speak MSA if they haven’t been to school,” he said. “That’s where the 75 hours of training in the Levantine, Egyptian or Iraqi dialects come in.”

Because the Arabic students at DLI are being trained to use the language in military or intelligence applications, their training includes “modules” that deal with the vocabularies specific to those disciplines, Hoffman said.

A Comprehensive Process

As with each of the languages taught at DLIFLC, students are introduced to Arabic in phases. The first is “sound and script,” an introduction to the alphabet and the sounds of the spoken language.

“They then see things on the computer, listen to the tapes they’ve downloaded to their MP3 players and gel into the reading. When they get into the higher semesters we have more speaking hours for them, because speaking is the hardest skill to master,” Hoffman said.

To polish their language skills and stay up to date on the culture, politics and current events of the Arabic-speaking world, students watch Al Jazeera and other Arabic-language TV networks on each classroom’s smart board, said Ousama Akkad, chairman of one of MAS’s four Arabic departments.

Students point out that, in addition to being phased and comprehensive, the school’s learning process is continually challenging, especially given Arabic’s complexity and the course’s accelerated pace.

“I took Spanish and German in high school, and compared to Arabic those languages were both ridiculously easy,” said PFC John Martin.

“In our first three weeks at DLIFLC we covered everything that I studied in an 18-week semester of Arabic in college,” Robertson added. “You really have to pay attention and stay focused, because each day is full.”

“Yes, we keep the students pretty busy,” Hoffman said. “A typical day includes at least six hours of class time, as well as physical training, formations and two to three hours of homework a night. In addition, twice a week there are mandatory evening study halls. It makes for a very full and challenging schedule, and the students really have to make an effort to get all the work done to keep up.”

Special Attention

Unfortunately, keeping up can be difficult for some students. In fiscal year 2003, for example, 9.2 percent of the Arabic students in MAS were “academically disenrolled” for academic reasons and 20 percent for administrative reasons.

But dropping students from the program is not something the school’s staff members like to do, Campbell said. In fact, if the quality of an individual’s work begins to decline, staffers step in immediately to offer help.

“If someone is doing poorly, you can’t just say ‘listen more’ or ‘try harder,’ you have to find out why the student is having difficulty and then address those issues,” she said. “We try to identify the student’s strengths and weaknesses, to find out why that person is having difficulties. We then work to bolster positive skills, and we suggest strategies that will allow the student to improve.”

A student’s poor performance in class may stem from family problems, military discipline issues or even ill health, rather than the language itself, Campbell said. Military readers, chaplains or other nonacademic counselors provide assistance when students need it.

“The goal for the academic staff and military leaders is the same,” Campbell said. “We all want to do everything we can to ensure the students’ success in language training.”

An Important Skill

For many DLIFLC students, overcoming the challenges of learning Arabic is about mole than personal pride or intellectual achievement. Vassallo said.

“Sure, the workload can be exhausting and it’s sometimes hard to stay motivated. But we all know how important Arabic is to the Army and the nation, and we want to get it right,” she said. “If we make a mistake when we gel to the field, it could cost lives. It’s that simple.”

COPYRIGHT 2004 Soldiers Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group