Monday, October 17, 2016

What was the Defense Language Institute (DLI) like?

I started studying Korean in January 1976 at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. I had joined the navy in 1975 with the intention of going to DLI to study Spanish and becoming a Spanish linguist. My recruiter had essentially guaranteed I would be fluent in the language by the time I finished the intensive course there. I started boot camp in October 1975 and sometime near the end of my basic training I got my orders to go to DLI to study “KP,” an abbreviation I did recognize. “What does ‘KP’ stand for? Shouldn’t it be ‘SP’ for Spanish?” One other guy in my company in boot camp was also going to DLI to study Russian, which showed up on his orders as “RU.” His orders made sense; mine did not. Then it dawned on me: “KP, KP? Oh-no, ‘Kitchen Police’?” Were they really sending me to Monterey to learn to cook and wash dishes there? I must have failed my security clearance. Damn! I shouldn’t have told that guy investigating me that I had experimented with marijuana six or seven times in high school. When he responded, “Experimenting is one or two times, not six or seven,” I should have guessed it. (By the way, don't tell my mom.)

It took a few days, but I finally found out that “KP” stood for “North Korea,” which was almost as bad as Kitchen Police. “North Korea? Where’s that? Don’t they speak Japanese or Chinese over there? You mean I signed up for four years in the navy to learn Korean? Where am I going to use that in Texas? Just wait until I see that recruiter again.”
By the time I fly into Monterey, I have figured out where Korea is and have decided to try to make the best of it. I still do not know anything about the Korean language, though. We are told that instead of the normal 48-week Basic Korean course, we will be the first training group to go through a new 36-week course that will focus on listening instead of the unnecessary skills of reading, writing, and speaking, thereby, saving the government time and money. Wow! Our government people are geniuses, aren’t they?
Sixty people are in my training group, which is divided into three classes with three different Korean instructors. My instructor is an old guy who is originally from North Korea and can barely speak English. The first thing he does on the first day of class is to take a pointer and point to a picture of an animal on a chart. He says its Korean name and tells us to repeat it. After doing that for about a dozen animals, he points again to the first animal, expecting us to remember and say its name. When none of us say anything, he says it again, and we repeat it again. He goes to the next animal and does the same thing. Eventually, some people in the class start to remember some of the animal names, but it is hard for me. I need to see things written down. I need to see an alphabet, learn its sounds, and see the sounds put together to form words. For me, hearing “koggiri” without any visual association is like hearing “blah, blah, blah.” We spend the first hour of our first class playing “listen and repeat,” and I am already hating my teacher.

I do not remember when we finally learn to read and write “hangeul,” but learning it finally gives me some hope. I can now write stuff down and look stuff up in a dictionary. I do not remember learning much grammar. I just remember listening to tape after tape and studying word list after word list without any of it really sticking in my brain. I can make no sense of the language because there is not enough grammar explanation, and the old guy teaching us is a terrible teacher who cannot explain the grammar, anyway. The books for the course are still being written as we are studying, so they are poor quality and not much help.
The other two classes seem to have better teachers because our class is considered the worst of the three, but even people in those classes are dropping out like flies, people who are much better than I am. The classes include people from all the military services. Sailors are encouraged to study by signs on the wall that read, “You Fail, You Sail,” which implies they will send us out to the fleet to chip paint for four years if we fail the course. We finish our course in 32 weeks, 4 weeks early, not because we are ready, but most likely because they had not finished writing the material for the last four weeks.

Out of the 60 people who started in my group, only nineteen graduate, and I am number 19. The only reason I graduate is that I would not give up even though my teachers were telling me I should. After all my begging and pleading, they must have felt sorry for me. So, two-thirds of our group fail a language course that tries to cut corners by teaching just the listening part of the language. We and the group that followed us were the guinea pigs in a failed experiment. After seeing the results of our group and the group that followed, they ended the experiment and went back to their 48-week course that included teaching reading, writing, and speaking. After 32 weeks at DLI, I learned how to look up words in a Korean dictionary and not much else.
However, Monterey was beautiful.


  1. That was quite the rough start you had with Korean! Not at all a friendly introduction to the language. Interesting that your first teacher was actually a North Korean, although he was obviously not qualified for that job..

    I'm the exact same way in that I also need to see things written down to remember them better. I wouldn't do to well in an 'audio only' course like that.. Kind of strange, I suppose, given that I'm a musician by training. Nonetheless, a Pimsleur-type course would not be terribly useful for me.

    Considering how awful that first teacher and course were, it's amazing that you were so persistent and stuck with the language anyway! It's a good thing that you did, because you have clearly achieved a tremendous amount with it. I suppose you have forgiven your recruiter now for at least pushing you in the right direction (although with a very bumpy start). When did you make your first trip to Korea and what kind of work were you doing? Was it when 박정희 was still in power? I can't even begin to imagine how different the sights and overall atmosphere must have changed now since you first came here! Were you in Korea during the turbulent 80s?

    I was watching an interview with the Irish translator Kevin O’Rourke where he said that it was very difficult finding chances to practice speaking or even listening around 50 years ago in Korea because most people were not particularly interested in helping him learn, slowing down their speaking or repeating things. Were there any decent dictionaries available at the time? Or was it basically every man for himself?

    Thank you for the fascinating (and entertainingly written) introduction to your Korean studies!

  2. Hi, Mathieu. Sorry, but I have been kind of busy. Yes, 박정희 was still the president when I first when to Korea in 1977. The atmosphere then was very different. People then were actually afraid to talk politics or to criticize the president. If you mentioned the president or something he had done to a Korean or a group of Koreans in public, they would look around, fearful someone might be listening. Apparently, just criticizing the government then could get you arrested for being a North Korean spy or sympathizer. The expression "낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다" was popular back then because people were encouraged to be on the lookout for North Korean spies.

    One of the main reasons it was hard to practice Korean then was that your average Korean student or businessman was fanatically trying to learn English and stubbornly refused to speak Korean, no matter how bad their English was. I had to go to the marketplace to practice my Korean, and they were often too busy to waste much time on me. Also, I used to go to 다방's and tell Korean jokes to the women who worked there. They were not interested in learning English, so if I bought them a cup of coffee, they would sit down and listen to my silly jokes and laugh at my bad pronunciation. It was hard to talk to a Korean girls because they were afraid of being mistaken for prostitutes.

    When I got to Korea in 1977, I knew of only two Korean language textbooks for foreigners: "Myongdo Korean I" and "Myongdo Korean II." Later in 1977 or near the start of 1978, Myongdo Korean III came out, and I took a bus to Seoul just to buy it. And just before I left Korea in September 1979, Myongdo Korean IV came out. Books 3 and 4 were supposed to be intermediate texts, but they were not good quality texts. When the Myongdo Institute closed down, they started printing Myongdo Korean books 1 and 2 as "Speaking Korean 1" and "Speaking Korean 2," by Francis Y. T. Park. Yes, there were dictionaries then because Koreans wanted to learn English, so dictionaries were very popular. "Donga" and "Essence" seemed to be the more popular dictionaries.

    Now, you guys have it easy. You have computers, the Internet, specially trained instructors, and all kinds of Korean textbooks and dictionaries. Also, Koreans are now used to foreigners speaking Korean, and many even expect foreigners to speak Korean. I wish I were 21 again.

  3. My apologies for the late reply! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. Thank you as always for the insights and information about your experiences! You're absolutely right- the younger generations nowadays don't realize how lucky they have it when it comes to accessing information. We've sure come a long way in a relatively short period of time! The advances in technology have now made learning almost anything easier than ever. It's just too bad more people don't use their smartphone or laptop for more than checking Facebook or pictures of cats on Instagram..