A few years ago, the Defense Language Institute added the term “culturally-based” to its mission and vision statements, not so much to reflect a change but to correct a perception that DLI didn’t teach culture in its foreign language training.
“Our mission really has not changed much over the years,” said Clare A. Bugary, deputy chief of staff for operations. “But there was an understanding that DLI taught foreign languages and not culture. We added the words ‘culturally-based’ to reinforce the idea that you can’t teach a foreign language without teaching the culture of the people who speak those foreign languages. To us, it’s intertwined and connected.”
Several documents have also come out emphasizing the need for foreign language skills and cultural knowledge, including the Quadrennial Defense Review, Bugary said.
“For us, this is all very encouraging because in the years prior to 2003, language and culture were not even mentioned,” she said. “You could do a word search on ‘language’ and not even find it in the QDR and some of these other documents, and now they’re just peppered with the words culture and language.”
In addition to in-class instruction, DLI has two immersion programs that give students the opportunity to speak their target language full time and learn some of the culture behind the language.
The first is the Outside Continental United States (OCONUS) Immersion Program, which gives students the chance to visit the country where their target language is spoken. Since 2005, there have been 88 OCONUS visits in 10 countries, the majority for Arabic, Chinese and Korean speakers.
The typical length is four weeks for basic course students and two to three weeks for intermediate and advanced students. In 2010, there will be four immersions each lasting six weeks for Chinese and Korean, and that length is DLI’s goal for all Category IV languages, according to Jiaying Howard, dean of the immersion language office.
These certainly aren’t vacations. Students go through language and culture training for 35 hours a week and have daily homework and learning tasks, sometimes involving talking to the locals, picking up something from the store or asking directions. Field trips and cultural excursions give them a chance to see some of the native country’s historical sites.
Students stay in family homes in some of the friendlier countries, such as South Korea, Ukraine, Chile and France. In other countries, they stay in apartments or dorms at universities.
When students return to DLI, Howard said she notices an “immediate language gain.” It’s more psychological – students feel more confident in speaking and want to learn more.
Only between three and five percent of DLI students participate in the OCONUS program, but DLI is looking to increase that anywhere from five to 20 percent.
The other immersion is the Field Training Exercise (FTX) program, which takes students out of the classroom and to facilities nearby at the former Fort Ord. Students are given scenarios to role play, and speaking English is frowned upon throughout the day.
For many students, it’s their first exposure to the culture behind the language they are learning, said Nikolina Kulidzan, FTX director.
“It’s a very common response, ‘Oh, this is an actual language,’” Kulidzan said. “They are in class for 20 weeks, and for the first time they realize people actually use this language.”
Some scenarios have students interacting with local leadership (normally played by the instructors, who are there more in a mentorship capacity) for proposing construction projects, and other scenarios have them going through common day-to-day activities such as having phone conversations, or making hotel or airline reservations.
Sgt. Ramon Dunlap, a student learning Russian who went through the two-day FTX, said the focus wasn’t necessarily on teaching but getting students comfortable in speaking their target language. He would like to see more FTX training throughout the course at DLI.
Like the CONUS program, Kulidzan sees a marked improvement in students’ grasp of their target language. Students have told her that the FTX exercises benefitted them more than a month of classes,” she said.