About 2,800 high school and middle school students from as far away as Fresno converged upon the Presidio of Monterey on Friday to drink in the diversity of Language Day, an annual exhibition by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
The event is "our opportunity to share the secret we have all discovered: Knowing a foreign language opens windows to the world," said Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, commandant at DLI and the Presidio.
The visitors were free to sample a smorgasbord of events, including entertainment — traditional dances and songs by students from all over the world — arts and crafts, and food. Students from DLI, many in native garb, were available to share their knowledge and experiences.
Many students were conversing in the language they are studying at the institute, which offers instruction in 24 languages in intense courses that vary in length from six to 18 months.
"It's really kind of fast-paced. They throw a lot at you at once," said Marine Pfc. Andrew Ross, a student of Arabic from Golden, Colo. "What makes this place unique is the way the students and teachers have to interact. We're really required to put out at home, especially studying the vocabulary, because there really isn't time to go over that part in class.
"The instructors throw the words at us, and it's our job to know what they mean or figure it out. So you start out feeling like you're already a little bit behind, and that's pretty much the feeling all the way through," Ross said.
That hang-on-for-dear-life approach to language instruction might be unparalleled in the civilian world..
Air Force Staff Sgt. Don Ellis of New York City said a 47- to 63-week course at DLI is comparable to six to eight years of college-level language instruction. Students have been told that one day in a DLI classroom is equal to two weeks in a civilian course.
"We're expected to be speaking at a near-native level by the time we leave here, and most people who graduate from the DLI are," said Ellis, a student of Dari, one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan. He dressed in traditional Afghan garb for the event.
"When we go up to a place like Fremont, where there is a large Afghan community, they're always surprised at the level of proficiency we've attained in such a short time. They tell us our accent, our flow and our fluency is really great," he said.
Visitors to Language Day got a glimpse of the advanced technology that is used at the institute, including Smart Boards, iPods and various computer instructional aids.
"I was a teacher in my country for 15 years — I taught English as a foreign language — but the techniques at the Defense Language Institute are completely different," said DLI Arabic instructor Ibrahim Musa, a native of Sudan who wore an all-white robe and turban. "The DLI is very rich in visual aids and technology that you cannot find anywhere else, and when I first came here I didn't even know how to use a computer."
The entire curriculum is contained in standard-issue iPods, enabling each student to listen to audio lessons and participate in interactive activities outside the classroom. Instructors, for the most part, are teaching their native tongues. Most teachers are more than willing to stay after classroom hours to help a struggling student, and tutoring services are abundant.
"They treat you as an adult. They expect you to help yourself," said Amanda Teeters, a petty officer second class from Onawa, Iowa, who is learning Arabic. "They give you what you need to learn, then it's on you to make it happen. It comes down to how motivated you are to get it done — and we're all very motivated."
DLI graduates earn 45 semester hours of college credit and can obtain an associate of arts degree in their foreign language on completion of the requirements.