Building up foreign language proficiency 


DLI classroom 
Students at the Defense Language Institute interact with each other while speaking their target language.  Students say the smaller classrooms – usually numbering no more than six students – give them better opportunities to speak the language they are learning.

Less students, more instructors. 

That’s the classroom environment at the Defense Language Institute ever since the schoolhouse at the Presidio of Monterey, Calif., underwent a change in 2005 to increase language efficiency for students.

Prior to this, students numbered about 10 per classroom, but the change in direction came after the release of the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap (DLTR) and Proficiency Enhancement Program (PEP), which called for a number of initiatives to improve language training.  One of these was altering the student-to-instructor ratio.

Navy Seaman Kenneth Wilkerson, who started the 64-week Iraqi-Arabic course in October, said with the smaller classes, there’s “absolutely nowhere to hide.  It’s much more intimate a setting, and when we do things together, everybody has a chance to speak.”

Six teachers share instructing duties over three different sections.  With multiple instructors, about 95 percent of whom are teaching their native tongue, it’s better for learning the nuances of the target language.

“Basically, it exposes us to different teachers,” Wilkerson said.  “Everyone’s from a different city, and we get to be exposed to different speech patterns and styles.  It’s a good way to vary it for us.”

This also opens up more opportunities for one-on-one instruction.  All this adds up to an extremely intense learning environment where students learn their target language to the point they only use English in the classroom for clarification purposes.

“The students agree that only Arabic in the classroom is the best way to pick it up,” Wilkerson said.  There were some “growing pains” initially with the transition to speaking Arabic basically full time in class, but now “it’s a very comfortable thing for us.”

Adding, “It’s more intensive than that what you might learn in a college or university course.” 

Initially, this added intensity was a reason DLI faculty thought the student washout rate would increase, but that hasn’t been the case, said Clare A. Bugary, deputy chief of staff for operations.

“We thought maybe it would go up because it’s a smaller class, there’s a higher expectation,” Bugary said.  “We’re trying to get folks to the higher levels, and they’re being pushed a little harder.  We thought it would accelerate the rate of disenrollments, but it did not do that – it’s about the same.”

Another initiative from the release of the DLPT and PEP was to employ cutting-edge technology.  As a result, DLI classrooms are virtually paperless. 

Each classroom has a Smart Board, which is a large touch screen that instructors and students can use to access information and programs on shared drives.  Every student has a small laptop computer in which they can use in the classroom as well as studying after hours.

Students are also issued iPods, which they find are especially useful for having something compact to upload text or even make audio recordings of themselves speaking their target language.

“It’s like flash cards in the palm of my hand,” said Marine Lance Cpl. Nick Duran, a Pashto language student.

Added Staff Sgt. Alan Thomas, another Pashto student, “I can use this on a bus, sitting in a doctor’s office – anywhere.”

He said he creates a daily vocabulary list so he can read and play back words throughout the day.  He has picked up on military words quickly but was trying to get a better grasp on words associated with legal, medical and agriculture practices.

One program that students use is a dictionary program where students lookup words and update with new words, which is fairly common for languages that have different dialects. 

 With the PEP initiative, DLI was also able to come up with “a pretty good model” to revamp the school’s entire basic course curriculum and provide additional faculty training, Bugary said.

“Prior to 9/11, our resource base was pretty flat and covered language instruction, and there was hardly anything left over for curriculum development,” she said.  “Certainly nowhere near what we needed to keep 24 different languages current.”

Language instruction always took priority over curriculum or faculty development, she said.  However over the last three years DLI has hired 500 new faculty members.

“I think we have a pretty robust faculty development program now,” Bugary said.  DLI trains staff members internally as well as sending them off site to further their education at institutions such as the Monterey Institute of International Studies or California State University-Monterey Bay.

“We fund courses that are directly related to what the teachers need to know to do their job better,” Bugary said.  This can be anything from enhancing their own English comprehension to learning computer and technology skills.

This has all paid off as students leaving DLI now have a much better comprehension of their target language than students of the past.

“We know the students we are graduating today are leaps and bounds stronger in language proficiency than even five years ago,” Bugary said.