U.S. Defense Language Institute Teaches Culture, Foreign Languages

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
USINFO Staff Writer

Monterey, California – Language education for thousands of U.S. troops now involves teaching cultural sensitivity as well as the languages needed for a widening array of global missions.

Since 1941, the U.S. Defense Language Institute (DLI) has trained tens of thousands of military and civilian students, and "we have found that culture and language are inseparable," says U.S. Army Colonel Tucker Mansager.

The commandant recently spoke to USINFO after hosting the annual “Language Day" at the DLI Foreign Language Center in Monterey.  The event featured international cuisine as well as dancing and theatrical performances representing the cultures of the 24 languages currently being taught there.

Mansager, a West Point graduate, studied Polish and Russian at DLI in 1993 and was the first U.S. officer to attend the Polish Command and Staff College in Rembertow, Poland, in 1994.  From 2003 to 2004, he served as political-military division chief of the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan.

Cultural and language expertise are critical goals now that U.S. defense commitments range from Bosnia and Kosovo to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa, with missions that might change rapidly from combat to peacekeeping and training, according to Mansager.

With that in mind, he said, about 3,500 students are receiving training at the Presidio of Monterey, with the Air Force representing the largest contingent of uniformed personnel - around 1,300.  Arabic attracts the highest number of students, closely followed by Chinese and Korean.

The commandant explained that 70 percent to 80 percent of the graduates become signals-intercept specialists, 15 percent go into intelligence and 5 percent become foreign area officers, advising military commands on international political-military issues.

Course length is determined by language difficulty for native speakers of English, he explained.  French, Italian, Spanish and German take about six months to teach.  Russian, Farsi, Pashto and Dari take a year.  The languages considered the most difficult - Arabic, Korean, Chinese and Japanese - require 18 months of instruction.

The institute soon will welcome a group of Danish officers who will receive Pashto language training.

Mansager said nearly all the instructors are native-born speakers, enabling them to offer side-by-side cultural training.  For example, one instructor could teach Arab history in Arabic while another could lecture about Spanish art history in Spanish.

Nearly every aspect of international culture is covered in the courses, including cuisine, he said.  "We often do what we call an isolation-immersion exercise using a specially built kitchen where we provide the raw ingredients, and students - with faculty help - will cook, for example, a Korean meal."

Mansager said DLI also teaches a separate class on world religions to help understand foreign cultures.

In addition to classroom training, the institute also publishes Language Survival Kits tailored to specific countries for use in the field and has created a set of CD-ROM disks, Countries in Perspective, so that the troops can put them into their laptops and “educate themselves," the commandant said.

After a visit to the Institute in March, General William Wallace, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, told DLI's Globe magazine that technology alone would never replace human interaction.

Technology, such as computers and iPods®, are important to language training, he said, but the "human interaction" and cultural exposure provided by the DLI faculty are also extremely important to mastering foreign languages.

He told Globe editor Natela Cutter, "I believe that the culture one learns is almost as important as the language itself."  The combat veteran said he learned that lesson after attending two six-week preparatory courses for Vietnamese before deploying there in the early 1970s.  Wallace said the most important lesson he learned then was the ability to interact and communicate with locals.

More information about the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center is available on its Web site.