Sea Scouts

"WHAT DO YOU call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who only speaks one language? An American.” – Yes, it's an old joke, but a very real problem as I wrote Rebels on the Mountain.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... as a fourteen year-old Sea Scout, I participated in a demonstration of language training techniques being developed by the Army Spy School at Fort Holabird, Maryland. I was one of a group of Boy Scouts who were taught the rudiments of Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Persian, then tested. Military intelligence services needed foreign language experts and were vastly disappointed in the products of the American school system. I can relate.

I studied Spanish in high school for three years. (Okay, so I failed the first year – another of my battles with teachers.) Basically, I don't believe that any of my teachers had ever so much as visited a Spanish-speaking country. Although their command of the language was academically correct, I came to learn that they had no understanding of the idioms used in any country.

My first job after graduating from high school (yes, I really graduated – no one wanted to take a chance on having me in their classes another year), was as a laborer where I worked with two other college hopefuls, one from Ecuador and the other from Guatemala. They laughed when I attempted my high school Spanish on them, and spent that summer teaching me how to speak correctly. They immersed me in Spanish, refusing to speak in any other language.

During that summer, the new dictator of Cuba, Fidel Castro, made frequent appearances in American television and I attempted to listen past the translator to see if I could understand him. I couldn't. My friends at work explained that Cubano was nothing like the Spanish they spoke. Not only was his speech more rapid than theirs, but also, he used different idioms. I have often wondered through the years what they would have thought of my Spanish had I been allowed to cruise to Cuba when the opportunity presented itself the previous summer, and had I learned Spanish there. Imagine what my Spanish teacher would have thought!

Ultimately, the experiment at Fort Holabird was another failure. It took a few more years for the Army to figure out the system my friends used that summer – total immersion. The Defense Language School at Monterrey has employed that system far more successfully than any other in teaching languages. Interestingly, my eldest son became a military intelligence linguist. He not only attended the Defense Language School, but also, has taught there.

Note: Can you pick out the author in the photo above clipped from a 1958 edition of the Baltimore Sun? I'm the only one in a Sea Scout uniform.  


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