Cultural Fluency: How Studying a Foreign Language Changed How I See the World
Essay by SN Gehrig Geissinger, Information Warfare Training Command Monterey
“A different language is a different vision of life.” --Frederico Fellini
MONTEREY, CA -- The Defense Language Institute (DLI) opens the field of view for those who had previously seen the world through a restricted lens. I am nearing the end of being fitted for my new world-lens and already my surroundings have become so much clearer. But as we have all seen during quarterly deep-cleans; as one part of a task becomes clearer, all other parts immediately seem less so. It is these ever-evolving clarities and obscurities that make the living curricula of the DLI so difficult but so fulfilling. Being a student at DLI has revolutionized my pattern of thought, my ability to think, and has shown me just how close to (or far from) understanding the world I really am.
In the four months leading up to my arrival at DLI, I left my university, joined the Navy, went to boot camp, graduated, and transitioned from living in a small, central Kansas town of just over 7,000 to the language capital of the world; Monterey, CA. The speed at which my world went from almost mono-cultural to vastly multicultural would give anyone whiplash. My visual field was now so wide that it was almost overwhelming. I was hearing about languages I did not even know existed, meeting people from the farthest possible reaches and from every upbringing, and even eating lunch amongst some of the greatest minds in the United States military.
Too often in today’s news you hear of cultural clashes and toxic relations at the seams of two colliding cultures, but the environment of DLI has shown me that harmony between cultures does exist but only if the gaps between them are bridged with language. I do not believe there is any other place where I can, in my short walk to class, encounter conversations involving a wide variety of languages and practitioners of many of the world’s major religions. As is the story at America’s core, the ever-present aroma of the cultural melting pot is progress.
Over the course of students’ work at DLI one may not see many physical changes, but I assure you, the students that arrived at DLI are not the same ones that cross the stage and don the crows. By living day to day in this immersive experience of learning from foreign professors, a completely new mindset is forged over the course of one’s learning. The curriculum of DLI, even though I am still quite far from finishing, has already torn apart and reconstructed my frame of mind for the world and for learning.
Firstly, the way I ask questions has changed. It is fascinating and invaluably enriching to work with teachers who are from the countries and cultures that use my chosen foreign language. However, it becomes apparent early-on that they do not always completely understand what I am trying to ask. There is a saying in the Russian schoolhouse, “у матросов нет вопросов,” which translates to “Sailors have no questions,” and, at the beginning of the course, this is unfortunately true. But the saying does not persist, as we adjust our interrogative methods to accurately pinpoint the exact information we need, immeasurably enhancing our learning experience. Furthermore, the Defense Language Institute has shown me the most important of all the question words: “why.” The biggest secret we uncover throughout our learning is the why behind behavior in other cultures. It is this “why” that, within itself, answers all other questions you may have. It is answering this “why” that raises one’s proficiency to a professional level. Simply knowing what a group of people does is only the surface of knowing them but to know why they do it, is true cultural fluency.
DLI has shown me firsthand just how attainable the outside world is with the power of language. As I write this, I am wrapping up my immersion experience in Daugavpils, Latvia. To say it has been life-changing would surely short-change the experience, but rather it has been life enhancing. Over the course of this month, I have experienced in real time the countless boundaries that are shattered through hard work and knowledge of one’s craft. The DLI mindset of searching out needed information even led me to learn the names of pizza ingredients in Latvian, so I could read the menus more effectively. As silly as that sounds, we students of DLI find our motivation in the most abstract places. Ultimately it’s better not to ask what motivates us, but instead watch what we achieve with our motivation.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” --Ludwig Wittgenstein
Those that know only one language are restricted to its waters and as it meets the shores of differing cultures so do they meet their limits. They can see what goes on shoreward, but they lack the ability to step down and experience it. Many think of us Sailors as being water-bound, commanding the sea but restricted to our ships, yet upon further investigation, one realizes that we possess the skills to cross into land, air, and even space. The same exists for students of DLI. For as we meet the coasts of new cultures, what ends for many is only just beginning for us. As culturally-fluent, tactical linguists of the future, there is no threshold that we cannot surpass; if not alone, then certainly together.
SN Gehrig Geissinger is attached to Information Warfare Training Command Monterey.
IWTC Monterey, as part of the Center for Information Warfare Training (CIWT), provides a continuum of foreign language training to Navy personnel, which prepares them to conduct Information Warfare across the full spectrum of military operations.
With four schoolhouse commands, two detachments, and training sites throughout the U.S. and Japan, CIWT is recognized as Naval Education and Training Command’s top learning center for the past three years. Training over 21,000 students every year, CIWT delivers trained Information Warfare professionals to the Navy and joint services. CIWT also offers more than 200 courses for cryptologic technicians, intelligence specialists, information systems technicians, electronics technicians, and officers in the information warfare community.