main story image for facebook sharing

Defense Language Institute: Bridging Languages, Cultures

Hidden among seal-covered beaches, bustling boardwalks and a world-class golf course is the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. On this campus, where the sun rises over a transplanted section of the Berlin Wall each morning, service members train to become experts in languages and cultures of countries across the globe.

With roots in the U.S. Military Academy, DLI began as the 4th Army Intelligence School, in an empty aircraft hangar at the Presidio of San Francisco, Nov. 1, 1941. This was only five weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched U.S. involvement in World War II.

The original students were a small group of second-generation Japanese Americans known as Nisei. When the war broke out, 35 of those students deployed to the Pacific theater. Despite initial distrust from fellow Americans, they proved invaluable in conflicts such as the Battle of Guadalcanal, where they translated intercepted plans from the Imperial Japanese Navy.

As time went on and the world became more interconnected, the skills first learned by these pioneering students became increasingly important to the warfighting mission.

"Understanding language and culture allows our Sailors to contribute at the tactical level of war and help our strategic leaders make decisions at the highest levels, all the way up to the president of the United States," said Cmdr. Andy Newsome, commanding officer of the Information Warfare Training Command (IWTC), Monterey.

More than 500 Sailors and Coast Guardsmen attend DLI. Students will spend nine to 16 months at the school studying one of 17 languages. DLI professors teach language and specific dialects, as well as the histories and cultures of the regions where each language is spoken.

"Mixing the culture with the language helps students to be motivated," said Adel Abdelmalak, associate professor and team leader at DLI. "DLI bridges the gaps between countries through teaching languages."

Understanding culture is often what motivates students to better understand and engage with the languages they are learning.

"Without culture and knowing about the people who speak the language, the language doesn't have any meaning," said Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) 1st Class Joel Kelly, a military language instructor, otherwise known as a CTI. "Sailors need to find something within the culture they enjoy or else they won't be able to enjoy learning the language."

Learning so much in such a short period of time can be a mountain for students to climb, Kelly continued.

"We have them in class about seven to nine hours a day," he said. "Study time is one to two hours on top of three hours of homework. They have to fit that in between their physical training schedules and any other requirements, such as general military training, that we have for them. It's all about time management here, and being motivated to keep up the drive."

Language immersion is a key element to DLI's fast-paced instruction. Signs declaring "NO ENGLISH" can be found in the hallways. In classrooms, students who, months before had only spoken English, converse and even crack jokes in their new tongues.

"Now that we're in the third semester, we're not supposed to speak English in the classrooms or in the halls," said Seaman Hannah West, a Farsi student at DLI. "They force you to be comfortable with the language."

For many students, such immersion leads to a "eureka moment," a point when something clicks in their brains, and the language begins to make sense.

For Seaman Emily Klug, a Korean student at DLI, this happened as she was walking off campus one day. She would often pass an old sign with unfamiliar Hangul glyphs, posted on a church on the way into town.

"We would always walk past that sign and I would look at it and say 'Someday I'm going to figure out what that says,'" said Klug. "It just clicked one day: 'I can read that!' Not only do I know how to say it, but I know what it says."

Each year, around 200 students also travel to countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Russia and France for three to six weeks to further immerse themselves in the cultures they are studying.

Once students complete their training, they will go to work in the fleet and field to gather intelligence and aid the warfighting mission.

"As CTIs, we are at the forefront of intelligence gathering, both at the point of collection and the point of dissemination," said Kelly. "Information warfare is what we specialize in, and every day we are reminded that we are here to deliver a warfighting skill, not just to teach a language. It impacts our troops on the ground, our Sailors at sea and our Airmen, wherever they may be and in everything they do."

Editor's note: For more information, visit