DLI’s Language Day Is an Explosion of Food, Learning & Culture

By Katie Lange,
Defense Media Activity

It’s not very often that you get to see a dozen or more cultures mixing together, showing off colorful garb, instruments and artifacts, all to get people interested in learning the language. But at the Defense Language Institute’s annual Language Day, that’s exactly the plan. It’s a 60-year-old tradition that keeps growing in size because of its popularity.

Students perform a Chinese dragon dance during the Defense Language Institute’s Language Day 2018. DoD photo by Katie Lange

The DLI is the DoD’s premier language school, teaching military students how to become fluent in 17 languages, including Chinese, Russian, Urdu, Pashto and four forms of Arabic. The classes are intense, but they’re vital to training service members to do their jobs. Learn more about how it works here.

One day a year, the institute opens its doors to the public so they, too, can learn about the school’s training methods, the many languages and cultures offered, and of course, try out some tasty treats from each country. This year, more than 6,000 students from across 20 states and various countries attended.

A Chinese language instructor poses with students who have gotten their names written in Chinese. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“This place is really amazing. There is a lot of culture all around,” said 16-year-old high school student Annette Won.

The amount of things to do there was intimidating. The paper schedule handed out at the entrance was several pages long and filled with dances and performances to watch on the mainstage, as well as buildings full of classrooms to see demonstrations, play games and learn.

A student learns the Filipino game Sungka, which is like mancala but with puka shells as the pieces. DoD photo by Katie Lange

There were sessions on how to count to 10 in Korean or write your name in Chinese calligraphy. A Russian instructor dressed in traditional garb explained to students the nuances of a Russian tea party, complete with a mouthwatering eight-layer honey cake to try with the tea, which filled the room with a rich, spicy aroma.

A Russian language instructor explains to a captive audience all about the traditional Russian tea party. Perhaps it was the eight-layer honey cake that grabbed their attention? DoD photo by Katie Lange

In another classroom, I ran into Air Force Capt. Darius Brown. Dressed in traditional Japanese garb, he was helping teach an introduction to the language, as well as filling students in on his experience at the DLI.

“I’m going to go overseas and work with [the Japanese] military, so I need to learn their language to prepare,” said Brown, who is about halfway through his 16-month program. “It’s pretty amazing how much we’ve learned because I came in not knowing any Japanese and now I know quite a bit.”

Air Force Capt. Darius Brown (center) performs a Japanese Bon dance along with other DLI students and performers on the Language Day main stage.

One of the more interesting parts he likes about it? They speak differently to their friends than to teachers or others of respect. He called it “honorifics.”

“If I’m talking to my friends, I have a different language because we’re both on the same level,” he explained. “I think it’s pretty unique. It makes it challenging to learn, but it’s very rewarding.”

When I ventured into a classroom teaching about the Tagalog language of the Philippines, I learned that their version of the board game mancala, called Sungka, was played with puka shells. And did you know that this (see below) is actually a medium-sized jackfruit?? It was huge!

Did you know a jackfruit gets this big, or bigger? Tropical fruits sit on display at a classroom educating students about the Philippines. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“My favorite part is teaching some of those students little words, like salamat, which means thank you,” said a Filipino instructor who only gave me her first name, Maritas.

There were sessions to learn Farsi and even a crash course in Hebrew. One session was called “120 Russian words in a minute.” Another focused on Egyptian culture and civilization, while yet another taught students how to introduce themselves in Turkish.

There were also discussions by educators for educators, but I thought I’d leave those to the pros.

Then there was the mainstage, which offered a new performance every few minutes. Many of the DLI’s students took part in Spanish flamenco, traditional Korean and Japanese dances, a Russian waltz, and even a scene from Hamlet acted out in Arabic.

Air Force Airman 1st Class Landon Edington was part of a group to perform a traditional Sudanese dance. He’s learning modern standard Arabic (as opposed to Levantine, Iraqi and Egyptian Arabic, which are also offered at the DLI). He said while the first few months of learning were rough, he’s really enjoying it, and he’s glad the visiting students were, too.

“I think language is really important. I know here in the U.S., it’s not pushed as hard as in other countries for learning a foreign language. But I think it’s really vital for all of us,” Edington said.

Korean language students and instructors poses after doing a Korean fan dance on the Language Day main stage. DoD photo by Katie Lange

And what cultural experience would be complete without food? While many of the classrooms offered snacks native to each country, there were also PLENTY of tents and food trucks offering anything from Korean barbeque and Thai noodles to Middle Eastern shawarma and bubble tea.

For a lot of the visiting students, there was so much to do that they’d like to come back next year to see it all.

Persian artifacts sit on display in one of the Defense Language Institute classrooms during Language Day. DoD photo by Katie Lange

“I think it’s nice and I want to come down here again next year – have more time to explore,” said 16-year-old Bria Harley, who studies French in school but is also interested in Korean, Mandarin and now – thanks to Language Day – Japanese.

We’re sure she’s not alone in that sentiment!

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