UM Making Armed Forces Foreign Language Fluent

UM’s Defense Critical Language and Culture Program is one of nine Department of Defense Language Training Centers in the U.S. that provide critical language and cultural classes to the military.

MISSOULA – U.S. Air Force Maj. Evan Hanson felt so positive about his experiences as a University of Montana student he took to LinkedIn to promote his courses. He had just finished four weeks at UM’s Defense Critical Language and Culture Program in Missoula and wrote:

“Each day, I had the privilege of talking about #logistics, history, economics, security and public health in Sub-Saharan Africa. From the Belt Road Initiative to the Wagner Group, we covered it all … & we did it in French.”

As Hanson explains in his post, such language and cultural competencies provide military members like himself with the critical skills needed to navigate an everchanging world, whether they are posted abroad or not.

“I had some background in French before I took the class but wanted to reinvigorate my language skills,” said Hanson, who is stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah and is a member of the Language Enabled Airman Program, which develops service members with working-level foreign language proficiency. “You could drop me in France now and I would be fine.”

Launched in 2008, UM’s DCLCP is one of nine Department of Defense Language Training Centers in the United States. Housed in the University’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, it provides intensive language and cultural classes to all branches of the military, the Montana National Guard, U.S. Central Command and numerous intelligence agencies such as the FBI.

The list of languages that make up its curriculum changes as world dynamics ebb and flow, but its most recent offerings range from Modern Standard Arabic to Tagalog to Norwegian. The program’s 86 faculty members are heritage speakers, and most can converse in multiple languages. 

“I like to say our success hinges on three factors,” said Don Loranger, a retired Air Force major general and DCLCP program director. “Faculty, faculty and faculty.”

All the instructors, Loranger said, are assistant or adjunct professors in linguistics and certified by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a national organization dedicated to the improvement of language instruction.

In the early days of the program, classes only were taught in Missoula, but as DCLCP’s reputation grew, so too did its geographic footprint. Today, UM’s faculty also teach at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Campbell in Kentucky and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington. Online instruction also is a part of DCLCP’s offering.

Although far from the Oval, studying on base is still very much a UM experience, said Shaima Khinjani, manager of DCLCP’s academic programs

“When you visit the classrooms, you see a lot of Grizzly swag,” she said. “It’s really important to them to keep that connection to UM.”

As site lead for Chinese instruction at Fort Bragg, Tong Sun said she’s accustomed to training students with no experience in her native language, as well as much knowledge of Chinese culture.

“It’s extremely important to know both, because language and culture are inseparable,” she said.

Humor, Sun noted as an example, often doesn’t translate, and while pronouncing words correctly is important, being understandable is critical.

“I like to think that if my mom can understand them, they are good,” Sun said.

French instructor Bilguissa Mulder grew up in Senegal and serves as assistant site manager at Fort Bragg. She finds particular satisfaction in seeing the camaraderie that develops between instructors and students and the energy generated as students acquire a growing understanding of a country’s language and its culture.

“When we help them learn to actually love a language, it’s outstanding,” she said.

Federal Judge Don Molloy, a former naval aviator, has toured DCLCP’s classroom in Missoula and witnessed several U.S. Marine Corps students speaking Pashto and Urdu with senior officers from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The look on the officer’s faces was extraordinary,” Molloy recalled. “It was a remarkable revelation to them that the American military engages in cultural and communication training so the students can talk just like you and I are talking.”

Loranger said measured outcomes, of course, ultimately matter, and the staff members continue to work closely with the Department of Defense to tailor the program to its requirements, including set levels of proficiency. Here, the quality of DCLCP’s staff and the immersive style of its teaching program has led to impressive test results, he said.

“The bottom line is our students learn their languages to assigned target levels 30% faster than the DOD standard,” Loranger said. “That leads to significant savings to our partner organizations.”

First Lt. Curt Smith spent part of his summer studying Spanish at DCLCP’s Missoula classroom.

A B-52 pilot stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Smith said he and fellow classmates studied more advanced lessons to take their skills to the next level. Like Hanson he sees great value in having service personnel versed in other language and cultures.

“The Air Force is deployed all over the globe,” he said. “We need people who can relate to the local populace and communicate with them in their language.”

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Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, dave.kuntz@umontana.edu.