The small booklet created by Monterey's Defense Language Institute (DLI) for troops about to deploy to a foreign country contains "commands, warnings and instructions" along with "helpful words, phrases and questions." The Iraqi basic survival guide includes such commands as "Stop or I will shoot" (awgaf te-ra ar-mee) and "Put your weapon down" (dheb sla-Hak).
As difficult as standard Arabic is to learn for a native English speaker, this primer is only intended for troops not able to take instruction at DLI. DLI students are expected to learn a lot more.
Sergeant First Class David Villarreal is a former DLI student and the chief military language instructor (MLI) for DLI's Middle East School III. He's been to Iraq twice, once for each war, and says his experiences can add to the instruction provided by the primarily civilian teachers. Villarreal spends about five hours teaching in the classrooms a week, and the rest helping supervise teaching strategy.
"Ninety-eight percent of the teachers are native speakers," he says. "They teach about the culture. [MLIs] have a different role. We teach about the military aspects. That's the beauty of the system. The students are really well-rounded."
The students learning Arabic study full-time for 63 weeks.
"It's what's known as a Category Four language," Villarreal explains. "The hardest category. They start at 7:55am, have an hour for lunch, then continue until 3:30pm. Then they have homework and study hall."
On a recent Friday afternoon, a group of first-semester students are sitting in front of Arabic Associate Professor Nina Poles, a native Iraqi. The 10 students—three women and seven men—are wearing the uniforms of their respective branches of the military: Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy.
Poles writes on a huge screen—known as a "smart board"—that acts like a giant interactive piece of paper. She writes in Arabic letters—right to left—while encouraging students to practice speaking as if they are applying for a job in Arabic. She clicks on the screen and an audio player pops up, playing Arabic phrases for the students to translate.
"The students can't think in English when they're trying to learn Arabic," Villarreal says. "The structure is completely different."
To the untrained ear, the students sound damn good. Before going to DLI, all of them took a test administered by the military to determine if they had a natural language aptitude.
The Department of Defense is assigning more students to learn Arabic than any other language. According to Villarreal, most of them advance surprisingly quickly.
"I went to a fourth-year Arabic class at the University of Michigan," he says. "They were learning what we did in the first semester."
For those who aren't doing well for some reason, Villarreal acts as a liaison between the school and the units.
"We let the units know how the students are doing," he says. "We offer academic advice."
And for Villarreal, the relationship with the students is more than just teaching.
"You really get used to the students," he says. "A class graduated last month, and it was a really sad feeling. And I'm used to leaving." *