Language Learning for Veterans

Afghanistan - March 2012 .. Other views: It's ...
Afghanistan – March 2012 .. Other views: It’s time to bring our soldiers home (Mar. 18, 2012 ) … (Photo credit: marsmet471)

Some veterans look for ways to connect with the former enemy. Former soldiers travel on goodwill missions to the homes of former enemies, to Vietnam, for example. Many classes in Arabic now include students who served in Iraq. I have seen veterans with deep knowledge about the enemy, along with the desire to learn more. Many veterans attempt to connect with former enemies, and language-learning can provide another means for this connection.

Based on anecdotal evidence, I see that veterans are driven to connect with former enemies. I believe they desire to connect with the humanity of the other. Religion and language lie close to the center of the person; they comprise the ways one sees the world, expresses oneself, and connect with others. When one explores these areas as they belong to others, one moves out of oneself and closer to the center of another. Since language lies so close to the center of any person, I believe that teaching languages to veterans would help serve their desire.

One student I taught, who served in Afghanistan, wanted to learn about Islam. He was a dedicated evangelical Christian, and I was teaching a course on comparative religion: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In class he struggled with his presuppositions about Islam: that it is warlike and foreign. Nevertheless, he spent energy reading Muslim texts, and read a good portion of the Quran. He even befriended a Jewish student in the same class who worked on anti-Islamophobia, and the two of them would occasionally clash on their views of Islam. (Their in-class debates sometimes made other students uncomfortable, although they ended in a peaceful cup of coffee after class.) By the end of the class, the student understood Islam in a new, deeper way. Desire to understand Afghans – allies and enemies – drove him to learn about their religion, to move beyond his own prejudices to see more clearly how they think.

 I remember an interview with the movie director, Oliver Stone, speaking lines of Vietnamese he learned in the war there decades before. In speaking of the conduct of the US military, he quoted villagers in Vietnamese, “Please don’t kill me!” That he quoted their words in their language struck me. Why quote them in Vietnamese? The interview audience didn’t know that language. How did he still remember the phrase? He didn’t merely understand this phrase when the Vietnamese spoke it—he learned how to say it himself. The phrase had moved from passive to active memory. It seemed to me that he connected with their anguish through their language. Stone spoke often about the guilt he suffered after serving in Vietnam, and he connected with the suffering of the Vietnamese through their language.

I would like to talk more to veterans who served overseas. Let’s say a veterans group sponsored a course in Vietnamese or Iraqi Arabic or Pashtun, for example. Would the ability to take a class in the language of “the enemy,” preferably led by a native speaker, help them? In what way would it help?

3 thoughts on “Language Learning for Veterans

  1. Pingback: What I learned about language-learning: 2012 « Loving Language

  2. Pingback: Refugees are a blessing: Unlikely allies for ecolinguists – Loving Language

  3. Pingback: Create habitats for endangered languages to thrive – Loving Language

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