“Your DLAB score shows that you qualify for CAT IV languages,” said the First Class Petty Officer from behind her desk inside the quota manager’s office. “And we have seats available in all of the language classes that the Navy needs filled. What do you want?”
This questioned was addressed to me of course. It was September 2000, and I was a young seaman in the United States Navy, having just recently arrived from my prior duty station in Florida. The Navy had offered me the chance to become a linguist, and so there I sat in at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA, a twenty three year old about to make a choice that would affect the course of my life.
For those that don’t know the DLAB stands for Defense Language Aptitude Battery. This is the test the military administers to gauge the potential language-learning abilities of all those that would become linguists. It’s basically a reading and listening test of a fictional language, and you have to decipher the meanings of words and tenses the best you can.
It’s basically listening to gibberish, and then figuring out that words like “glorgulstank” mean “licensed plunger operator”.
CAT IV is one of the levels of language difficulty. It is short for Category IV, with IV being the highest. All accept for one language, which is regarded as the only CAT V language in the world. Take a wild guess which language that is. English. That’s right. A language that gave us words like “crunk”, “bae” and “holy fuck nuts!” is considered the world’s only CAT V language. But I digress.
“How about Japanese?” I asked the First Class.
“I’m sorry, “ she replied. “But Japanese is for officers only. We would like you to choose from the available CAT III and CAT IV languages.”
This basically meant that the Navy wanted me to choose a CAT IV language because I had scored high enough for it. That meant my choices were Chinese, Korean, or Arabic.
“Where are the duty stations for those languages?”
“Chinese and Korean linguists go to Japan and Hawaii.”
Japan and Hawaii? Not bad.
“And Arabic linguists go to Augusta, GA, Bahrain, or Spain.”
Spain?! Arabic linguists got to go to Spain! Going to Japan would be cool, but I had really wanted to go to Spain and Europe. Needless to say I chose Arabic. As a linguist in the military, your language specialty determined where you go. It wouldn’t make much sense to send a Chinese translator to Saudi Arabia, or Klingon and Elvish translators to anywhere other than ComicCon. That’s why I initially chose Arabic. Spain was waiting!
When I began the course for the Arabic program at the Defense Language Institute I didn’t know a single word of the language. But that didn’t matter. The learning environment there consists of small rooms with only few students per classroom, and a team of native-born instructors teaches all of it. Several of my teachers were from Egypt, and others were from Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq.
I still vividly remember that first day of class, the very first hour where one of our teachers strode into the room. He wore a nice suit and tie, which he pretty much wore everyday, and his baritone voice greeted us only in Arabic. The teacher went around the room speaking to each one of us, but not a word of English emerged from him. I remember looking around the room at my fellow classmates, some Air Force, some Army, some Marines, and all returned my look that bespoke a look of confusion and horror.
What the fuck did we just get ourselves into?
Eventually the teacher reverted to English, and explained everything he was saying. By the end of that first hour we could all say “hello” and “how are you?” and “I’m fine” and “my name is…” and “what’s your name?” in Arabic. This was the pace that the entire 63-week course would set. You read that right. The Defense Language Institute taught us, those of us that made it through the entire course, to speak, read, and write Arabic in just 63 weeks. That’s about a year and three months. We attended class five days a week, seven hours a day, plus homework.
By the end of the first month, we could all write in Arabic and read it. That’s the first thing the class focused on teaching us. We could read it and pronounce the words. Sure, we didn’t know the meanings of the majority of the words we read, but we could read in Arabic after only a month. After that, it was fourteen months of grammar and vocabulary. Much of it was a mix of classroom instruction and immersion. There was one particular teacher who spent his entire instruction hour telling us stories. In the beginning, his stories were mostly in English, but he would incorporate the words we had learned up to that point. By the middle of the course his stories were half Arabic, half English. After a year, his in-class stories were entirely in Arabic.
Learning all of this grammar and vocabulary didn’t stop us from having a little fun, sometimes at the teacher’s expense. After all most of us were either just out of high school or college. Much of our fun and amusement with Arabic vocabulary came in the second or third month. This is where we were learning about foods, restaurants, shopping, etc. The first words to send us into snickering, giggle fits was “sugar cake.”
What’s so funny about “sugar cake”? Well, that’s because those words sound a little different in Arabic. Both “sugar” and “cake” are cognates in Arabic. A cognate is a word that is similar sounding in both languages. When our teacher for that hour, a woman from Egypt, told us how to say them, we all about died laughing.
The word for sugar in Arabic is pronounced, “sooker”.
The word for cake in Arabic is pronounced, “kaak”.
To be clear, these words were not listed together on our sheet of vocabulary for that assignment. But leave it several members of the world’s finest military to pay extraordinary attention to detail, as we were trained, and connect the dots.
“Professor,” asked one of the Airmen in the class, his face completely serious but his mischievous plot betrayed in his eyes. “How do you say ‘sugar cake’ in Arabic?”
“Kaak sooker,” she replied.
Our military discipline may have waned at that point as we erupted into gales of naughty mirth.
“Why are you laughing?” asked the teacher. “I don’t understand.”
She honestly had no idea. This made it all the more hilarious, especially after we explained that the word “kaak” just sounded funny to us. Of course we didn’t really tell her why.
“I don’t know why you laugh at kaak,” she stated, making all of us giggle more. “What is so funny about kaak!”
We completely lost it at that point.
The double entendre behind “sugar cake” wasn’t the only combination of words that we identified as having X-rated potential. We were among some of the finest minds the military had found to attend its prestigious language school. You have to have some decently high scores on both the ASVAB and the DLAB to get in, and if you do get in, the Defense Language Institute has a high washout rate. Trust me; our talent did not go to waste in that school. We expertly used our analytical talents, the same kind of talents that later helped find Bin Laden, in order to put “kaak sooker” together.
America! Fuck Yeah!
The next set of words we came across that made us guffaw, much to our teacher’s confusion, involved roosters and markets.
The word for rooster in Arabic is pronounced, “deek”.
The word for market in Arabic is pronounced, “sook”.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. But it gets better. Much better. Or worse depending on how you look at it. Take the word, “which”, for instance. In Arabic, it is pronounced like “aye”. Now that same aforementioned, enterprising Airman knew this. We all did. But it didn’t stop him from asking a teacher a new, and completely straight-faced, vocabulary question.
“Professor. If someone asked me to get a rooster from a market, but I didn’t know which market, how would I ask ‘which rooster market’?”
“That’s simple,” the teacher said. “You would say, ‘Aye sook deek?”
This teacher looked just as confused as the lady teacher from Egypt for the next five minutes while his students, all of us, couldn’t keep our laughter to ourselves.
You can’t blame us for trying to inject a little humor and fun into an otherwise intense academic program. A few, immature dick jokes here and there can be stress relieving.
Despite the fast pace of the school, and the dick jokes, about two thirds of my original classmates I started with went on to graduate, including me. Once we had graduated in early 2002, it was time to get our orders for our first duty station. Remember the whole thing about going to Spain? Hahahahahahaha! The Navy played a funny joke. You see, three months after beginning the program, the Navy announced it was closing the base in Spain to all but aircrew personnel. That disqualified me because I’m colorblind. Fuck.
So on my dream sheet I wrote that I would go to any ship, anywhere. When the day came that my orders came through, care to offer a theory on where the Navy sent me? Was it to the Navy base in Bahrain? An Arabic-speaking country? Hell no! My first duty station as a newly graduated Arabic linguist for the United States Navy was Augusta, Georgia. Oh, and it was shore duty.
Why Georgia? Wasn’t it just full of rednecks, Baptist churches, and Waffle Houses? Yes. But there was another reason I was sent to Georgia, but I’m not going to say. It’s “secret squirrel” stuff. But where I was sent didn’t really matter. I learned valuable skills, earned irreplaceable qualifications, and gained experiences most people only dream about.
Learning Arabic at the Defense Language Institute and becoming a linguist in the Navy was a major part of my life, and I’m proud that I did it. It also meant that I never had to resort to becoming a licensed plunger operator.