Breaking the barrier -- Learning language builds relationships abroad

  • Published
  • By Capt. Douglas J. Pietersma
  • Strategic Operations Center Watch Officer
A deployed location can bring many linguistic challenges, even if the job does not require regular interaction with non-native English speakers. My current deployment has been ripe with examples of linguistic challenges.

Many of these challenges could be easily disregarded without any impact on the mission. But ignoring them only serves to rob one of potential benefits.

Breaking the initial barrier
As I was preparing to deploy to an Arabic-speaking country, I anticipated I would hear some Arabic. Before arriving in country I picked up some materials on Arabic language learning and memorized a few phrases I thought might be useful. Indeed this proved to be the case.

I couldn't wait to try my rudimentary Arabic and it I didn't have to. It wasn't more than a day before the opportunity presented itself while group of Iraqi soldiers were fishing from a canal near my work building. I gave my best shot at the most common Arabic greeting, "Asi asa lakum. "

To my surprise, they all responded in unison with, "Wa alai kum as salam." This showed me they understood my greeting and, amazingly enough, I understood their response.

Interacting with someone in their native tongue encourages them to find out how much of the language you know. This generally encourages dialogue that pushes the limits of a person's language knowledge. At some point the language limit is reached, but there is no penalty for what is not known.

The one thing I have learned about people who speak other languages is that they are generally more than happy to share some knowledge about their language. All a person has to do is show some interest.

Of course, with language learning there are always errors.

For example, multiple times every day I pass contract guards, most hailing from West Africa, and it was immediately obvious to me their native language wasn't English. I was surprised to find out that most are native Swahili speakers. They all speak fluent English to accomplish their job, so there is no pressing need for us to learn their language, but being linguistically inquisitive, I couldn't resist.

At first, I only wanted to learn a few words and phrases. But it seemed that the guards were as interested in sharing their language as I was to learn it. The first couple times I passed by the guards I was greeted with a word pronounced, "a-pow." I would repeat it back to them thinking this was an appropriate response.

I assumed this was some sort of greeting equivalent to, "hello." A few days later I asked what it meant and I was embarrassed to discover that it wasn't a word in Sawahili, but rather it was an English phrase with a Swahili accent. In recognition of my branch of service, the guards were saying, "Air Power."

Now I think of phrases ahead of time and I will ask the guards how to say something or how to respond to a question or phrase that I have already learned. They are always eager to teach something new.

Leaving a positive impact
Swahili is not a language I ever thought I would ever study, but the opportunity has presented itself and I cannot pass it up. I have no illusion that I will be speaking the language proficiently at the end of my deployment, but at a minimum, I have developed a rapport with those charged with a key element of our force protection.

The tools I have gained from these attempts at Arabic and Swahili interaction include an understanding of Iraqi military rank structure, the ability to show proper customs and courtesies to Iraqi officers and a genuine appreciation for the difficult job that translators face. No doubt, this will enhance my deployment experience and I hope it will leave others with a positive impression of U.S. military members.

No age limit
In most parts of the world, language learning is an integral part of education from the earliest age. As U.S. citizens, I'm afraid we often sell ourselves short with a mono-linguistic mentality. For instance, I never studied any modern language in grade school, high school or my first four years of college.

But based on my experience, I'm convinced that language learning is beneficial. Not only can it help someone personally, it is something they can pass to generations that follow.

For me, language learning is a passion I desire to pass on. And from the perspective of someone who has only studied languages as an adult, it's never too late to learn.