In a darkened second-floor classroom at the Presidio of Monterey, five American soldiers have their eyes glued to an episode of the '80s Israeli TV sitcom "Krovim, Krovim."
The soldiers are in their 39th week of a 47-week Hebrew language intensive at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center — the official language school of the U.S. Department of Defense. They watch the televised buffoonery intently. They understand the jokes, but they're not laughing. They're too busy trying to remember the new vocabulary.
Next door in the beginners' class, 10 servicemen and women who have been studying Hebrew for only 12 weeks are learning how to talk on the telephone and buy groceries.
The Israeli instructor pauses to ask a young woman dressed in crisp U.S. Navy blues whether her car is back from the shop yet.
"Ken, baruch Hashem," she sighs — meaning Yes, thank God. The ubiquitous Israeli saying rolls easily off her Midwestern tongue.
These 15 students and about 600 others learning Arabic are among more than 2,200 American soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force personnel studying to be military linguists at the DLI.
The DLI was founded on the eve of America's entry into World War II to provide the U.S. Army with Japanese-speaking personnel. The then-clandestine language school began classes in San Francisco Nov. 1, 1941, five weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Four instructors taught 60 young second-generation Japanese-American students, who dutifully kept attending classes as their families were labeled enemy aliens and moved into detention camps.
The school moved to Monterey in 1946, where it was named the Army Language School. In 1963, the other armed forces' language programs were consolidated under this one roof.
Women began attending in the early '70s, following the creation of an all-volunteer military.
Through the years, the DLI garnered renown for innovative teaching techniques including the audiolingual method and language laboratories, which are now standard in language courses around the world.
Today, more than 600 DLI instructors teach 24 languages and dialects to thousands of U.S. personnel every year.
The Cold War found a steady stream of students wanting to study Russian. Since the Gulf War, Arabic has become the school's most popular course, followed by Russian, Korean and Spanish.
But in this new world order, in which nations galore are declaring independence, the DLI embraces esoteric tongues such as Pashto and Urdu.
Students are assigned language courses on the basis of their aptitude test scores: High scorers learn the more difficult languages. This can end up more punishment than reward, students report.
"I feel bad for the guys who did so well they got Korean," one DLI soldier jokes.
Classes are small, with a ratio of two teachers for every 10 students.
And, similar to the Hebrew ulpan system used for new immigrants in Israel, the new language is used almost exclusively from the very first day.
A lack of polylingual army personnel has hurt U.S. intelligence, DLI officials say. Two-thirds of the institute's graduates end up working as army cryptologists. Ten percent work as military interrogators and the rest perform diverse intelligence jobs around the world.
Yiddish was taught briefly at the school in the early '50s, presumably to help absorb the flow of Jewish postwar refugees in Europe's displaced-persons camps.
The tiny Hebrew department, with its nine teachers and 35 students, operates classes in the same building as the comparatively huge Arabic department, where some 150 instructors train over 600 students a year. Hebrew has only been taught at the DLI since 1984.
Among other resources including the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Hebrew classes use the Israel Defense Force publication "Bamahaneh" to learn military terminology.
Hebrew is "nice and orderly," one Marine currently studying the language offers. "Compared to Czech," he says, "the grammar is much easier."