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Language Institute Remains Responsive, Adaptable to Nation's Needs

John J. Kruzel - American Forces Press Service

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Defense Department’s premier language school, like many of the more visible elements of national security, underwent major changes.

As it became clear that future U.S. foreign policy would become increasingly linked to the Middle East, the area where the attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives germinated, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center here responded to the nation’s need for regional experts and linguists.

“For years, we taught the same languages; we had a pretty steady population, our budget was flattening,” said Clare Bugary, deputy chief of staff for operations at the institute. “And all that changed in 2001.”

Post-9/11 restructuring at the Defense Language Institute, or DLI, turned the institute from a basic language school for professional linguists into a closed military post. It boosted the number of Arabic and Dari students and instructors and began implementing rigorous training that would aid those deploying as part of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

DLI also established the Emerging Language Task Force, which is responsible for adapting to national security directions as dictated by the Defense Department and the service branches, and dropped some less-critical languages from its course offerings.

“There was a sense over the years that we were a sleepy little school on the hill in Monterey in our Ivory Tower,” Bugary said. “And the truth is that we are pounding the pavement.”

One of the more conspicuous changes is the influx of funding the institute received. Its fiscal 2001 budget was $77 million. It now boasts a projected fiscal 2015 budget of $345 million, an increase of more than 400 percent.

Currently, the institute trains about 3,000 students representing all military services and employs more than 1,700 international faculty members, 98 percent of whom are native speakers, and with about half holding advanced degrees. DLI generally teaches 24 languages at any given time – a figure that is subject to change depending on department requirements.

The precursor to DLI began in 1941 as a Japanese language school with a flagship training program that taught native- and heritage-speakers of Japanese, known as the Nisei linguists. This select group of Japanese-Americans trained at the Military Intelligence Service’s Language School near San Francisco. There, they learned how to interrogate prisoners, intercept messages, translate captured documents and infiltrate enemy lines during World War II.

The school moved to Monterey in 1946 and began teaching Russian and Eastern European languages, plus German, French and Spanish -- tongues that were deemed valuable during the Cold War. This ability to adapt to national security needs continues to be one of the school’s hallmarks, said Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, commandant of the institute.

“DLI is requirements-driven with regard to the languages we teach,” Sandusky said. “That’s how we keep up with the changing, geo-strategic times.”

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Eastern European and Warsaw Pact language programs shrunk and made way for languages essential to the Persian Gulf War, the current operations in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which demands mainly Dari and Pashto. The institute also added languages of South and Central Asia, and continues to maintain robust Korean training that began with the Korean War.

Sandusky said DLI anticipates that the U.S. Africa Command, which recently stood up as the newest combatant command, will generate its own language requirements, which it will pass to the service branches and eventually become institute curriculum.

A former Africa foreign area officer, Sandusky said she expects these requests to come in the form of the “big three” languages on the continent: Arabic, French and Portuguese. Though Africans speak thousands of languages and dialects, 95 percent of African nations use at least one of those languages as their official language, she said.

Another change that occurred at DLI in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent budget increases was a ramped-up effort to develop cutting-edge technology to administer the institute’s unique curriculum.

One major contrast between DLI and academia is that courses taught at the institute deal in some languages that are obscure to native English speakers, so often no training materials exist. This is where DLI’s department of curriculum development, in an arrangement with instructors, steps in to create the coursework from scratch.

“This is much more difficult than in academia, because you can’t go out and buy the books,” said Steve Koppany, dean of curriculum development. “You need the buy-in from the professors.”

The nature of the training at DLI emphasizes instruction that is geared toward job-specific language and relevant cultural exposure that will assist graduates as they pursue defense-related jobs after leaving the institute. This philosophy helps to drive the way curriculum is developed.

“So if you have literature on advanced crocheting or transporting weaponry,” Koppany said, “you are going to take the latter and push the other aside.”

In courses beyond the basic level, lessons are administered through electronic media instead of textbooks. This format offers the obvious advantage of reducing overhead, but it also provides the added benefit of allowing the material to stay fresh by letting instructors update it regularly with relevant material.

One of these digitally based programs is the Global Language Online Support System, or GLOSS, which is accessible to both students and the general public. This Web-based technology comprises more than 5,000 hours of language training, conveyed in hour-long chunks. Sessions can be organized by topic, difficulty, modality -- speaking, listening and writing -- and by specific areas of language.

Other curricula offered include language survival kits: pocket-size booklets with audio CDs in more than 30 languages that outline common greetings, military commands, medical vocabulary and other useful phrases in the native tongue of the students’ destination. DLI has shipped a million of these products to troops overseas.

The institute also offers Headstart language DVD programs that use cutting-edge technology and computer animation to teach 80 hours of self-paced lessons and are designed to teach survival phrases in Iraqi Arabic and in Afghan Dari and Pashto.

“With these things, they can put their DVD into a laptop and get basic greetings and basic interactions,” said Donald Fischer, provost of DLI. He added that the institute is working on similar products for Chinese, Spanish, French and others.

“Once you have that,” he said, referring to basic language foundation, “you can be empathetic to the people you’re dealing with.”

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