PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. -- The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center graduates world-class linguists on a regular basis. That is after all what it is best known for. However, what is not commonly known is that it is exceedingly successful in creating cultural specialists and savvy protocol experts while it does so.

The students who begin a language-study program on the Presidio of Monterey sign on for an intense and demanding academic experience. In many cases the most difficult academic endeavor they will ever face.

To achieve fluency they face a steady drum beat of language learning five days a week, seven hours per day, with two to three hours of homework each night. On weekends students often take time to get together into groups -- even while relaxing in their free time -- working together to hone their skills in an uninterrupted flow of spoken conversation conducted in their foreign language of study.

The opportunity to travel to a foreign country and immerse themselves in their language of study is a sought after experience for a serious linguist.

So when 18 students of Dari, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan (the other is Pashto) sat down to an afternoon lunch on May 12 at a Presidio of Monterey kitchen to devour a veritable bounty of Afghani culinary delights, the scent of spices and savory meats superseded the formalities of the school house, and the Dari dialogues began flowing effortlessly back and forth across the students' tables.

"This is the first cooking and dining event that my class has participated in," said Spc. Sean Davis, a student at the Dari language department at DLIFLC and future cryptologic linguist.

"Cooking and other immersion events used to be a big part of the language program but were scaled back due to a variety of reasons," he explained "Fortunately we're moving back to conducting more immersion events, which are great tools for students, and not only for learning language -- but also to quickly acquire Afghan social and cultural knowledge, which we're going to need when we're in country."

"This luncheon is not just about speaking Dari," said Capt. Theo Abraham, an Army foreign area officer and student at the Dari department, "it also provides a hands-on cultural and educational experience about Afghanistan traditions, social mores, cultural awareness and knowledge of traditions and rituals."

"To be effective in Afghanistan, we as students have to learn these things too," he added.

Unlike most other students studying at DLI, students of Dari or Pashtu are unable to conduct in-country immersion in Afghanistan.

"So the faculty brings the country here to us at the Presidio," Abraham said while troweling a pan of sauce for pieces of poultry. He then switched to Dari and handed the ladle over to a waiting student with a few words of encouragement. "Nooshejan!" he said smiling with a glance at a brimming plate of food. "That's how we say 'bon app├ętit' in Dari."


"A student's language ability is gold -- invaluable -- but the cultural knowledge they gain at DLIFLC is just as important and can make the difference between failure and success in the field. Especially in a county like Afghanistan." said Mirwais Gawhary, a team leader at the Dari department and one of six faculty members participating in the event.

Gawhary knows how to make a point. Earlier, as the succulent foods were laid out, the hungry students began to line up and take their plates for their meal, ready to dig in. Smiling, Gawhary brought all activity to an abrupt stop and pointed out to the students that if a meal began without a prayer observance in Afghanistan, it would be considered a major blunder; a deeply disrespectful snub to their host.

As the meal went on, many of the attending faculty chimed-in with a store of local knowledge, encouraging the students to speak, act and think throughout the course of the meal.

Gawhary planned the day of full immersion into three parts. First students were introduced to Afghan culinary traditions and rituals with ample parts etiquette and terminology. They learned what was expected of them as guests visiting an Afghan home.

Then, during the second part of the immersion, the students were divided into groups of four students and learned to observe proper protocols while doing the actual cooking of the meal.

The nation's culinary specialties reflect its ethnic and geographic diversity. Afghan food is prepared "Halal" according to Islamic dietary laws.

The students prepared a menu of Kabuli Pullao (a rice dish with carrots, raisins and stewed goat meat), Mantu (steamed dumplings stuffed with onions, leeks and portions of beef), Sabzi (a seasoned vegetable dish), Kufta (spicy meatballs in a rich, thin sauce), Bulani (a potato wrap) and Chicken Kabab, steamed and served in a pan in its own juices. Naan, literally "bread," thin, long and oval shaped, is a staple in the Afghan diet and accompanies all meals.

"Meal time is an important part of Afghan culture weather it's a family meal or a meal where guests have been invited. Family meals are particularly important as it is a time when the extended family comes together at the end of the day," Gawhary explained to the students, first in Dari and then in English, so there was absolute clarity.

"Special meals during festivals such as New Years or Eid are an important time when guests are invited into the house and special meals are cooked to mark these occasions," he said. "Guests are invited to eat first, and the host displays his hospitality by trying to ply them with more and more food."

Gawhary smiled, "So if you empty your plate, expect it to be refilled as a matter of courtesy, whether or not you're still hungry."

The third part of the event involved the actual serving and luncheon, table conversation and finally an informal discussion in which they could share their thoughts about the entire day's events.

Throughout all three phases, the students were compelled to speak only the Dari language.

"Immersion like this is really very tough on students because they quickly find the limits of their knowledge -- spoken and cultural -- and that is especially frustrating for a professional linguist," Gawhary said.

"In a situation like this students have to draw on their store of knowledge and memory in real time, and it's really exhausting," he said, gesturing to the diners, engaged in conversation across the room. "And on top of that maintaining proper etiquette during mealtimes will be an important part of their job as linguists."

"They'll be expected to participate in key leader engagements where meals are served and will be called upon to directly participate in the meal and to guide and provide senior leaders with insights on how to partake of the meal without drawing undue attention to themselves," he explained.

"We make it tough here because by the time they graduate and then get to their assignment, they'll be thinking as well as speaking in Dari. It will be second-nature for them," said Gawhary. "That's how they'll succeed -- they'll have the language combined with the culture skills to get the job done."

He paused, then added "That's the kind of linguist we want to graduate."

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Page last updated Wed May 28th, 2014 at 16:37