Lessons from a Graduate Student in Translation: Language and the Military

Monterey, California, is a strange little town, comprised of a diverse, if often incompatible, array of people. In Monterey, you’re either a student, a tourist, a retiree, a soldier, or a sea lion. The city’s radius is only a few miles, but that’s enough to house several universities and two extensive military training facilities — one catering exclusively to language-learning. Students of the Defense Language Institute (DLI, located within the Presidio of Monterey) remain on active duty while they develop the critical language skills deemed desirable by the U.S. military.

The bulk of DLI students currently study Arabic and Mandarin Chinese, and a great many of their teachers are graduates of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. More specifically, these teachers are non-U. S. citizens that wish to remain in the United States. Many Translation and Interpretation graduates have only a handful of options available to them after university. They can return to their home countries, taking advantage of the prestige of an advanced American degree. They can marry an American and be rid of a slew of visa hassles and hurdles. Or, they can find an employer willing to sponsor their work visas, allowing them to remain in this country. The last — and maybe most desirable — option is the most difficult to achieve. Sponsoring an H-1B visa is a lengthy and expensive process, so few employers go through the effort of hiring fresh graduates. This dearth of options leads non-U.S. students who wish to stay in the country into a narrow demographic of jobs — namely, jobs for the government.

In this way, the U.S. military has employed– and, for the foreseeable future, will continue to employ — exceptionally qualified language teachers. Since its inception during World War II, the Defense Language Institute has relied on native foreign-language speakers to enrich the military’s linguistic and cultural understanding of its enemies. The original language taught at the Institute was Japanese, and Russian became the primary critical language in the 1950s.

Monterey’s growth as “the language capital of the world” has kept both the DLI and the Naval Postgraduate School from being transferred to other locations in the wake of rising real estate and living costs in the Monterey Peninsula. In fact, the current location of these military schools and the added difficulty of obtaining H-1B visas remain intricately linked. When the Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided against moving the schools to less expensive cities in 1993, they did so due in large part to the quality of teaching they received from non-U.S. graduates of Monterey’s universities who responded to job offers and remained in the United States.

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