Tongues of Terror
The Defense Language Institute shifts focus for a post-9/11 world
Thursday, September 8, 2011
O n a recent Friday morning at the Defense Language Institute’s Franklin Street gate, a security guard is checking for bombs beneath a Monterey-Salinas Transit bus headed to the Presidio of Monterey. There’s no reason to suspect terrorism; it’s just another safety ritual for a post-9/11 world.
“Every military base in the United States has increased security measures since 9/11,” says Col. Danial Pick, the DLI’s commandant and a 1996 graduate of the institute’s Arabic program. “It’s the world we’re living in.”
Tightened security isn’t the only post-9/11 update at the nation’s leading language school for military professionals. As the nature and geography of U.S. conflicts abroad have changed, so has the DLI’s linguistic focus.
“In the Cold War days, you had military against military,” says DLI Provost Donald Fischer. “You could hear fighter planes talk through air traffic control; you were dealing with a lot of formatted responses.” That was easy-to-follow military jargon, at least for a seasoned linguist.
“Today your enemy, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, isn’t theoretically supported by government,” he says. Civilians are doing the fighting, and they’re using communication channels like Skype, social networks and cell phones. That means the average soldier has to be fluent not just in Pashto, Dari and other Afghan and Iraqi tribal languages, but also in their slang and SMS-speak.
That’s the focus of the Multi-Language School, an expansion of the Emerging Languages Task Force created after 9/11 to enhance the Department of Defense’s training in less-common languages. The faculty, 98 percent of whom are native speakers, teach Kurdish dialects, Hindi and Uzbek, among other languages, in intensive, tech-heavy courses with no more than six students per class.
Students use iPads to practice writing non-Latin script languages using touch screens, while cultural immersions at a complex on the former Fort Ord simulate the high-stress situations soldiers will encounter.
“This is not ordering pizza in Verona,” Fischer says. It’s total immersion in the culture, history, geography, and worldviews of the countries where the institute’s 3,500 students will be serving.
“[Our students] help our Department of Defense bridge the gap between our cultural context and language and that of friends and foes,” Pick says.
He put that theory into practice when he was stationed with a special forces unit in Northern Iraq during the U.S.’s initial invasion in 2003, moving into villages as the Iraqi army was withdrawing to the south. One of those villages was the hometown of one of his DLI instructors.
“I ended up finding his house, knocking on the door, and his mom, who I’d met in Pacific Grove, answered the door,” Pick says. She received him warmly, and the two called her son in P.G. from a satellite phone to let him know she was safe.
“Not only did this help our mission a great deal, but it was a very powerful personal connection for me and this institute,” Pick says.
It’s that balance of technical and cultural expertise, he believes, that will determine U.S. success in its new theaters of war.