Baryalai “Barry” Arsala had a circuitous journey before he ended up at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif., as a Dari instructor at the Defense Language Institute.
A native of Kabul, Afghanistan, Arsala moved to Iran in the 1970s after Communists started coming to power in his home country. His parents had moved to India and worked at the American embassy there before they were allowed to immigrate to the United States.
After the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Arsala moved to India and applied to enter the United States.
“My parents called me in Iran, but there was no U.S. embassy there,” Arsala said. “So I went from Iran to India because in India, I could go to the U.S. embassy and apply to come to the United States.”
While at the embassy, he worked as a translator before his application was accepted in 1981. When he moved to the United States, he took residence in Chicago.
When Arsala arrived, he had already been speaking English for several years. While still in Afghanistan, he went to the College of Engineering in Kabul, which had an association with the University of Nebraska, and many textbooks were in English.
“It was more like immersion for us, training,” he said. “It helped us a lot.”
In Iran, in addition to engineering, he studied English at Pahlavi University and also began teaching it.
“At Pahlavi University, I did American English and literature,” he said. “Jobs were much more promising in the field if you knew English.”
In the United States, Arsala ended up teaching English at Kennedy-King College and later National-Louis University, where he would stay for about 14 years.
“I wasn’t sure if I could do that [teaching English] in America, and I was so shocked to find a job at Kennedy-King College,” he said.
During that time, he did graduate study in applied linguistics at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
After a move to Fresno, Calif., Arsala taught English at Fresno City College and Modeo Adult School. In Fresno, he happened to meet a fellow native of Afghanistan who told him about DLI, which was in the process of bolstering its curriculum of Dari and Pashto, the two most prevalent languages in Afghanistan.
“It was an accident – I met an Afghan at a New Year’s party,” Arsala recalled. “He said, ‘Why are you working for 15-20 thousand dollars? There is more money in other jobs.’
It took two months from the time that he applied before he was interviewed.
“Actually it took a very short time – I was surprised,” he said. “I was interviewed for the Dari language by two Afghans, and then they interviewed me for English.”
Of course he did well on his knowledge of Dari, but he was surprised to hear that he scored well when assessed on English.
However, when Arsala was accepted at DLI, he said he initially had a tough time explaining to students how Dari related to English in terms of sentence structure.
“What does it mean, ‘I go’ or ‘I went’ in present, past, future?” he said. “I know I could speak it, I could read it, I could write it. But I didn’t have the awareness because we had never been exposed to Dari as a second language – to look at Dari from a structure point of view.”
He eventually “dissected Dari” down to where he could map out the structure of the language for the students.
“An interesting thing about Dari is that whenever you look at it, it really follows the logic of English,” he said. “A lot of compound verbs and things simply got into our lexicon because somebody translated the material from English into Dari.”
Arsala hasn’t been back to Afghanistan since he left for India. His whole family had already left, and only his brother has travelled back. But in today’s information age as he finds news, video and other information to use in the classroom, so it’s not hard to get a taste of home.
“Through working [at DLI] for four to five years searching for material, you keep getting exposed to so much back home,” he said. “This searching and looking is certainly a form of a culturation for us, too.”
He said he is most impressed with the creativity of American students, and he sees them going beyond what is expected of them.
“American students love to write essays, especially after the second semester,” he said. “They love to write in Dari, put their thoughts in it and express themselves and that writing and creative activity really helps them in speaking, too. That is where we never encouraged this type of activity because of the mission or the goal that we have is receptive not productive.”