The Not-so-silent Warriors: MARSOC Advanced Linguist Course

The Not-so-silent Warriors: MARSOC Advanced Linguist Course

Date: 03.01.2010
Posted: 03.01.2010 09:29

The Not-so-silent Warriors: MARSOC Advanced Linguist Course
By Lance Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — For some, the comprehension of a foreign language may take years to acquire, even with a past foundation such as high school language classes. However, some people are able to grasp an articulate understanding of a foreign language in nine months or less.

Five Marines did just that, becoming the first graduating class of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command Advanced Linguist Course, Feb. 19.

"The program is a very flexible and unique model that allows us to teach students designated languages in a fixed timeframe," said Tanya Woodcook, MARSOC component language program manager. "This was the pilot program and we dealt with a number of challenges, but we applied the lessons learned for the following courses."

The 36 weeklong course class started June 1 of last year and taught students either French or Bahasa, the primary language of Indonesia, both classified as category one and two languages. Categories group languages by their difficulty and deployment importance, but for the ALC categories one and two are grouped together, as are categories three and four.

"I chose to learn French because I saw myself using it more in the future as opposed to Urdu, the language that was chosen for me," said a sergeant with 3rd Marine Special Operations Battalion and recent class graduate. "I started with absolutely no background in French. It's actually preferred you start with a clean slate as not to have any bad habits."

The other languages offered in the ALC, Dari, Pashtu and Urdu, are 52 weeklong courses and classified under categories three and four. These languages are not only more complex but also more mission-important, being the most frequently encountered in Afghanistan where service members are operating in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Before enrolling in the course, Marines must take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery Test, where their scores determine whether or not they are accepted in the ALC. The higher the test score, the more difficult a language they are scheduled to learn.

The course is divided into five learning sections. The first section is the primary learning block, where students train up to a certain proficiency level in their designated language. This section covers the first 16 weeks for categories one and two and the first 24 weeks for categories three and four.

"Courses run five days a week, six hours a day with an optional extra tutoring hour," said Todd Amis, MARSOC language program manager. "Homework is also assigned nightly and we always encourage every student to further immerse themselves in their target language to keep it constantly fresh."

The next section is when students spend two weeks in a language-specific area within the continental U.S. to test their lingual skills in an everyday environment.

"For the French-language immersion exercise, I went to New York City, which has one of the greatest French-speaking populations in the U.S." said a class graduate. "It's made to test and improve our language skills while conversing with strangers in a real-time environment."

With the third section, students are back in the classroom to train up to the next proficiency level. Eleven weeks for categories one and two and 18 weeks for categories three and four.

The following section is more social testing, but this time outside the U.S. Students travel to a target region in which their studied language is spoken.

Amis explained that when students are immersed in foreign countries, which speak the target languages, they get a much more in-depth feel for the language while learning how to negotiate with different local dialects.

"I went to Dakar Senegal, West Africa for a little less than a month to converse and interact with the local population," said a class graduate. "In such countries like this they don't speak just French. Where I was the locals used Wolof to replace words the French language didn't have. That was a main focus of this exercise, which was to comprehend and respond to what was being said even when the dialect isn't clear."

The fifth and final section is when students return to the classroom for two weeks to prepare for the Oral Proficiency Interview, the final exam for ALC students. Out of a scale of one to five, students must reach a level two comprehension skill, classified as 'concrete, real-world ability.'

"The most important aspect of this course is that these Marines won't be ordering croissants, but speaking and negotiating with foreign people," said Woodcook. "The words they learn are centered on that mission."

The sergeant agreed by adding that the typical vocabulary included rank structure, patrolling techniques and parts of a weapon when teaching foreign soldiers to disassemble a rifle.

"With a translator, it's almost a mechanical process," said the sergeant. "You acquire more of a human relationship and you don't risk missing out on some of the conversation."

These five graduates will now go onto their individual teams and continue their foreign language studies. Marines who possess a second language can become an important asset on the battlefield when able to communicate with the local populace themselves as opposed to speaking through a translator.

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