FORT BENNING, Ga. (March 20, 2013) -- A group of 13 Armor officers and eight OCS candidates are currently undergoing Chinese language training as part of a pilot program at Fort Benning.

The program is sponsored by the University of North Georgia's Language Training Center, and consists of five days per week.

"It's an intensive program, so it's a heavy load, but I think most of them are excited about that, and you can really tell they're interested in Chinese," Jiaqi Cai, one of the class's instructors, said. "We are happy to see that."

2nd Lt. Gregor MacGregor of Boulder, Colo., said the course load can be overwhelming at times.

"It's like drinking water from a fire hose," MacGregor said. "Every day is six to eight hours of instruction, and then a couple hours of homework at night. Learning Chinese isn't like other languages, where it feels like you're going uphill and then you hit a flat area before going uphill again. Chinese is more like climbing a ladder, where you're continuing to go uphill and you have to be able to accept that."

The class began in January and will run until April 26, when all participants will take an oral proficiency interview to assess their progress.

Kelly Liu, another of the instructors, said the Soldiers are making steady progress toward being able to perform well during the interview.

"They are getting better," Liu said. "Every time we correct them, they are able to make the adjustment. We just have to keep working with them and help them to continue to improve."

MacGregor said the hardest part of the class so far has been learning to use the different speaking tones that are part of the Chinese language.

"In Chinese, they've got four tones," MacGregor said. "They've got the up, the down, the flat and the down-up, and that's pretty rough coming from English, where the only tone we really use is if we're being ironic or sarcastic or asking a question."

One of the benefits of the program is it provides Soldiers with language training at no cost to the Soldiers or the Army, as the program is funded through a grant from the Department of Defense.

"When somebody comes up with a special program, especially in these fiscally hard times, and it's a free program that will benefit Soldiers by giving them college credit and they pay nothing and the Army pays nothing, it's sort of a win-win situation," said Grey Edwards, the hub chief for the Army Continuing Education System.

While the program has the benefit of providing free language training, there are some challenges.

The class is made up of Armor officers preparing for ABOLC and candidates for OCS, meaning their long-term schedules are relatively full. Finding four months to spare for the program was a challenge in some instances.

"One of the challenges that we have is these lieutenants are on a relatively tight career timeline in terms of the amount of time that they can afford to spend here before they actually go out and become a platoon leader," Jay Brimstin, deputy director of the Maneuver Center of Excellence's Directorate of Training and Doctrine, said.
"Brigades in the field need these platoon leaders, so this initial pilot is a bit of a compromise effort. We took some OCS candidates and some of the ABOLC lieutenants that were able to fit it in their overall timeline."

And while the Soldiers have gained some valuable knowledge and experience, the future of the language training program at Fort Benning is uncertain.

"We are considering potentially expanding this within OCS," Brimstin said. "There are some advantages to doing this as part of the OCS program in that if they go through the training before they're actually commissioned, it's not going against that timeline. As with all pilots, we have to take a step back and assess the results first before we make any decisions about where we go next."

Whether or not there are future language training programs at Fort Benning, Sgt. Carly Field of High Point, N.C., said she has been grateful for the opportunity to receive the training.

"I would love eventually to be fluent, but I'm just glad that I'll have a foundation after this course," Field said. "This is my first foreign language I've ever learned, so not only am I learning Chinese, I'm also learning how to learn a new language. It could not only better myself, but better my career."