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PFC Joseph Miller shifted his gaze from the cold blue water of the Pacific Ocean back to the drab classroom at a prestigious military language school in California. He looked at the page in front of him, littered with phrases, clauses, and sentences all in a extremely complex dialect of Arabic.
The clock was ticking. In fifteen minutes, his exam would be over and his future determined. After already failing once, this test would make or break his career as a human intelligence linguist.
Miller is one of many students trying to learn an entire language from the ground up so they can use those skills effectively in conflict zones around the world. But the school’s high-paced nature and pressurized environment, both staple qualities of the course, have led to multiple student mental breakdowns. “We’ve already had two suicide attempts out of a class of fourteen people,” said Miller, "It’s no joke, the stress and high-pressure really get to some of these people.”
Washing-out of this course would put Miller behind his peers who have spent their time developing their “soldier-skills” while he was focused on studying. Miller knew studying Arabic would be difficult, and he understood the consequences of failing, but Miller’s father, a former U.S. Marine, raised his son to never accept failure. So Miller keeps at it, saying he feels called to this language on a personal level.
This dialect of Arabic covers countries like Syria, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. “Syrian is much prettier than other forms of Arabic,” said Miller, “It's naturally poetic and less guttural, but its also so...confusing and broken – two-thirds of what we’re learning are exceptions to the rules.”
The thought of failing scares him even more than the enormous course load. Miller began his four-year enlistment with the U.S. Army after signing the dotted line in Virginia, last May. The language school has gone through multiple reforms in recent years, which mean the tests and the curriculums no longer match up.
“The curriculum is out of place,” Miller explained. "We’re being taught one thing and tested on another.” The faculty and staff at the language school sympathize with the students but say there is nothing they can do until the Army sorts itself out.
If a student flunks more than two tests they fail the course and can either “re-lang” or be sent back to their unit. A flunk at the Institute is considered to be anything below an 80 percent. The school currently has an extremely high failure rate, which Miller said includes mostly native speakers.
He hasn’t been in combat yet, but he hopes this school will prepare him for his role as a human intelligence linguist one day. “The Army is about risks, so to answer your question, yes, I’m glad I’m here,” said Miller.
Edited by Tiffany Owens
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