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 News Article

The Many Languages of Afghan Boot Camp

By Gunnery Sgt. Charles Portman, USMC
Special to American Forces Press Service

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 6, 2002 – English. Dari. Pashtu.

English. Dari. Pashtu.

Over and over, all day long, English, Dari and Pashtu are the languages U.S. Army Green Berets use to teach basic military skills to 1st Battalion recruits of the new Afghan National Army.

Since three languages are always in use at the lecturer's podium and at classes in the field, it is not uncommon for U.S. soldiers and Afghan interpreters to find themselves baffled over certain words, and at times, entire sentences.

"One word -- a 'wadi'-- we had a problem with just the other day," said instructor Sgt. 1st Class "Ray." He used only his rank and first name for security reasons. "Wadi" is Arabic for a dry gulley in the desert. When the word came up in a noise, light and litter discipline class, the Pashtu interpreter knew its meaning, but the Dari speaker did not. "We ended up calling it a 'dry river bed,'" Ray said.

An Afghan interpreter working with U.S. soldiers said many Afghan recruits speak Pashtu and Dari, but some are fluent in only one language.

Making the matrix of languages even more complex is the fact that Afghan army terms and marching commands are mainly in Pashtu and derived from Turkish. "Qhaghush" (barracks) and "qarwana" ("food for tent army" -- rations), are two such terms Ray learned halfway through the noise, light and litter discipline class.

Showing absolutely no signs of frustration, the Green Berets say the requirement to use multiple languages is not a concern. They're simply doing their jobs the way they were taught at the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg, N.C.

In fact, many of the U.S. soldiers speak proudly about the partnerships they have developed with the interpreters.

"Masseeh here, he's my Dari translator, and Wakil translates into Pashtu," Ray said, pointing out the men during a break between a class on camouflage face painting and one on combat operations using AK-47 rifles. "We get along great. We've been doing this for more than a month now."

Sergeant Ray's team senior noncommissioned officer, Master Sgt. Mark, said he and other Special Forces soldiers here are accustomed to this method of training.

"We've done this for many years," Mark said. "We understand the (communications) process we have to go through. This is just like (U.S.) basic training recruits, except for the language barrier. It takes a little longer to get the point across."

For the interpreters, getting the point across is the primary focus of their job. Masseeh, a former primary school English teacher, and Wakil both agree their jobs are enjoyable. The biggest difficulty -- and learning experience, they said, is picking up American slang while talking with the GIs.

"Yesterday, I learned a new word from Sgt. Ray: 'Whassup?'" Wakil said. "We get some benefit from books, but not too much."

Masseeh said he picked up his newest slang phrase, "beating around the bush," in a basic rifle marksmanship class near the end of the battalion's first phase of training.

Next week, French soldiers begin training the Afghan army's 2nd Battalion. With this coalition partner's participation in the training comes a new language and a new vocabulary for the Afghan interpreters.

English, French, Dari and Pashtu, will all become known as the many languages of Afghan boot camp.

The soldiers' Pashtu and Turkish-influenced military terms and marching commands will remain the same.

(Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Charles Portman is assigned to the U.S. Central Command Public Affairs Office, Tampa, Fla.)


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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSgt. 1st Class "Ray," a U.S. Army Special Forces instructor, relies on interpreters to translate English into Dari and Pashtun during classes given to Afghan National Army recruits. Afghan interpreters Wakil (left), and Masseeh accompany Ray on a recent road march. Photo by Gunnery Sgt. Charles Portman, USMC.  
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