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Language & culture

23rd Chem.Bn. Soldiers learning Korean customs, courtesies before moving to ‘Land of Morning Calm’

Published: 12:33PM November 1st, 2012
Language & culture

Scott Hansen/Northwest Guardian

Instructor Song Yim uses a restaurant setting to help Soldiers learn Korean.

Captain Maryanne Luther, 23rd Chemical Battalion intelligence officer, is from upstate New York, and she knows that if she ever crosses the border into Quebec, Canada, she’d better try to speak French.

“If you’re going to interact with people, you should be able to talk to them. It’s easier if they see that you’re putting an effort into understanding their culture and language,” Luther said.

So when she learned her unit would be moving permanently to South Korea from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, she thought it would be a good idea to develop a training program to help her unit integrate into Korean language and culture.

Luther discovered there was no Korea-specific training available at JBLM, a revelation that led her to Yvonne Pawelek, director of the JBLM Foreign Language and Culture Center, who loved Luther’s idea. Pawelek secured funding and support for it through the Defense Language Institute and Foreign Language Center, a Department of Defense educational and research institution headquartered in Monterey, Calif.

DLI typically focuses on DOD and military language professionals like translators, interrogators and voice intercept specialists. But looking at language and culture training more as a general competency for other forces inspired DLI to get behind the program, said Steve Collins, DLI dean for field support.

“When we have forces (in a foreign country), it’s good for them to be able to speak the language to a certain degree and understand all of the cultural nuances,” Collins said.

Initially, DLI concentrated the curriculum on ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but recognized the need for cultural training for units that travel to any foreign country.

“The exciting thing is that because of our military’s immersion in the counter-insurgency environment in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think we now have senior leaders coming back asking for this capability,” Collins said. “Experience is telling us that this is as important as other deployment skills. It’s a critical enabling skill to accomplish the mission.”

The course was structured by first selecting Soldier representatives from each of the battalion’s companies to undergo six hours of daily Korean language and culture instruction for nine weeks, followed by an oral proficiency test administered telephonically by DLI testers. The course also involved two hours of daily homework.

“Essentially, every week they are covering course material that would take place in one college semester, so it’s almost like they are taking the equivalent of nine semesters of college language education. So, it is intense,” Collins said.

The goal is to teach the Soldiers basic Korean and rules of the culture, which means a familiarization with the language that would provide assistance in the types of mission sets and methods of the unit.

“The focus is on communicative skills that we expect Soldiers are going to have to use in the field,” Collins said. “Can they help run a humanitarian mission? Can they give instructions about chemical protection equipment?”

When the Soldiers complete their training, Pawelek believes they will serve as valuable assets to unit leadership.

“They are going to be tremendous support for their units, for their commanders and their leaders because of their cultural experience and their language ability,” Pawelek said.

Instruction won’t stop when the course is over. Each Soldier will get an iPod to download online materials for sustainment of their language training, since they will then need to share what they learned with Soldiers in their units.

“Motivated Soldiers who really get excited about this can work on their language, maintain it and potentially grow their capability,” Collins said.

Soldiers practiced what they had learned the previous four weeks during an Oct. 26 exercise called “Korean Language in Action.” The native-speaking Korean language instructors developed simple practice scenarios, such as ordering food in a restaurant.

“This program is something the Soldiers want to do, and that’s why I think they’re doing so well. It’s because they really want to be here,” Luther said.

Collins considers the JBLM Foreign Language and Culture Center a model for this type of program, and is taking the lessons learned here to implement at other installations around the country.

“The exciting thing for JBLM is that there is a facility here and contracting vehicles in place to make it happen,” he said. “In other places, we struggle because there may be the desire or the requirement, but not all the pieces are in place.”

Luther is excited too, knowing that a project she created is serving the Army well.

“I’m so proud of this. It’s amazing to me,” she said. “This is probably the biggest thing I’ve done in the Army.”