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Courses likened to language 'fire hose'

February 16, 2014 Updated: February 16, 2014 at 7:15 am
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Nearly three dozen soldiers at Fort Carson are cramming for a difficult final.

The troops, in the post's 4th Brigade Combat Team, are working through tongue-twisting pronunciations of a language deemed one of the most difficult for Americans to grasp and trying to discern cultural cues and remember table manners.

When they get to Afghanistan in a few weeks, the training in Pashto will help them talk about their families and their background. And it could save their lives.

"In that part of the world, it's all about relationships," explained Kyle Swanson, who is running the Defense Language Institute program for the brigade, which is set to be one of the last American combat units to fight in the Afghanistan war.

The language work is the final step in a year of training for the brigade's troops. Most of the training focused on combat skills, but leaders say language and culture training are key to the brigade's success.

The mission, this time, is to prepare Afghan military leaders to carry the full load of security in their country.

Every member of the 3,500-soldier brigade will get some training. For most, that includes a few online classes focused on rudimentary language and culture.

For about three dozen troops, more intensive training that began this month will help them share their life stories in Pashto, the language of the tribal Pashtun people of western Afghanistan, who prize discussions of family.

"Biographical data is a big part," Swanson said.

Pashto is spoken by an estimated 40 million people worldwide.

While a primary language of Afghanistan, Pashto is one of two of that nation's languages and is known for its 17 dialects.

In Kandahar province, where the brigade will take over the American role in the coming weeks, Pashto is the most common form of speech.

The instruction for Carson soldiers includes lectures from a native Pashto speaker and a high-tech twist: "Students get issued iPods loaded with curriculum," Swanson said.

A few weeks of training at Fort Carson won't make soldiers experts in the language, but it is expected to help them work with the Afghan counterparts and interpreters who will assist on their missions.

"We're covering the critical aspects," Swanson said. "We're trying to give them the nuts and bolts."

As the soldiers learn language for a war that's set to end, Swanson and others are figuring out what's next for Army language training.

The service plans to assign units to vast geographic areas of responsibility under a regional alignment plan.

Those units, in theory, would have intense training in the languages of their assigned region.

While the languages taught will change, the pace of instruction won't.

"It really is a fire hose," Swanson said.

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