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Defense Language Institute program as an indicator of U.S. foreign policy

J.A. Morrow
December 7, 2004

While there are many ways of gauging the direction of a nation's foreign policy, language study is an area that is often overlooked but which can be particularly revealing. Take, for example, the recent ads that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education advertising positions for instructors of Modern Standard Arabic, Chinese, Persian, French, Dari, Korean, and Serbian / Croatian.

Such ads would not draw much attention were they coming from most public or private universities. However, in this case, they were placed by the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, which specializes in teaching languages to students from the four military services.

The Defense Language Institute employs over 1,000 full-time instructors on a year-round schedule to teach 3,000 students. That's a student-faculty ratio of 3:1! Classes are limited to a maximum of 10 students who attend classes six to seven hours a day. Faculty members work in teams and each team teaches the same students throughout their course, which varies in length by language from 25 to 63 weeks, with the shorter courses covering European language like French and the longer courses covering complex languages like Modern Standard Arabic.

During a 63 week course in Arabic, which is just over one year, students have over 2000 contact hours. In a regular academic program, students studying Arabic complete 120 contact hours per year for four years for a total of 480 contact hours. If regular university students take one Arabic class per summer, they can complete the 480 hours within 2 years. However, unlike French and Spanish --languages where students can attain fluency in three to four years -- Modern Standard Arabic is a language like no other that can easily take eight years to master and it does not stop there.

Students can easily spend their entire lives studying the complexities of that wondrous Semitic language. With the intensive Arabic language program at the Defense Language Institute students can learn the Arabic language in a little over one year as opposed to the decade it would take under normal circumstances.

The language specialists from the American military receive far more exposure to the language than students who follow the regular route. Whether they are better prepared to handle themselves with a higher degree of fluency is difficult to discern as the retention rate tends to be poor when learning a language so rapidly. Nonetheless, in terms of intensity, there is no other language program that offers courses that are even remotely similar to those offered by the Defense Language Institute.

The American military's focus on the Arabic language is tied to its interests in Iraq and the U.S. government's goal of "redrawing the borders of the Middle East." The interest in Chinese is linked to the contentious issue of Taiwan. The interest in French focuses mainly on black Africa where French is the lingua franca and where American forces may soon become more involved.

The interest in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian demonstrates a continued commitment to military efforts in Afghanistan. The focus on Dari, as opposed to Pashto, the other official language, is logical it serves as the means of communication between speakers of different languages in Afghanistan. The interest in Korean focuses on North Korea which continues to be a thorn in the sides of Uncle Sam.

The U.S. is waiting impatiently for the death of the North Korean despot or the internal collapse of his totalitarian regime since the only other way to defeat to Maoist dictator would be through a blitzkrieg. The interest in Serbo-Croatian, which is really a politically contrived name for Bosnian, is linked to American military activities in the former Yugoslavia.

Most interesting of all, however, is the interest in the Persian language, perhaps the result of auspicious signs coming from the inside of Iran.

J.A. Morrow, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Modern Languages at the Department of Modern Languages, Northern State University, Aberdeen, South Dakota.

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