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Specially designed classrooms on JBLM enhance military’s language and culture training

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Walking along the upstairs hallway of Joint Base Lewis-McChord's Western Region Foreign Language Training Center, visitors might encounter a neat row of desert boots lined up against the wall.

Each pair represents a Soldier in the model Afghan living room just on the other side of the wall, but also an important tradition. Shoes are always removed before entering an Afghan home, and the students inside the room are there to learn not just language, but culture.

"As a language person, I don't see how you can separate the two," the center's director, Yvonne Pawelek, said. "You can have words ... but along with that goes a lot of nonverbal information."

The former classroom, which was completed in February, is decorated in the style of an Afghan home and filled with important cultural objects.

In fact, the space on JBLM is part of a trend to enhance language and culture training throughout the military. Installations were encouraged to create culture rooms with the introduction of the AfPak Hands program in 2009, which was established to create experts on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In October 2010 standards for pre-deployment language and culture training for all general purpose forces were established for the first time ever.

Fort Drum, Fort Campbell, Fort Carson, Fort Bragg and now JBLM have all created similar spaces in the last few years. At JBLM, the room is primarily used for conversation practice groups or in Key Leader

Engagement trainings, where Soldiers practice using language and culture skills in simulated situations they might encounter downrange.

"It's like a rehearsal," Pawelek said. "Instead of just talking about it, we actually do it."

The room's floor is covered in layers of carpets, and low cushions line the walls for seating. Just inside the door are a tea set and a series of dishes, which are often filled with dried fruits and nuts. A child's slingshot hangs among other tapestries, and a compass is nearby to help guests find the direction of Mecca. There is even a collection of real Afghan clothing for students and instructors to wear.

It took several months to complete, and many of the items were ordered from a shop in California that specializes in Afghan imports. Others items, like the fabric covering the cushions, were selected with help from Afghan instructors at the center. Organizers wanted to make the space as authentic as possible.

The idea is prepare them for verbal and nonverbal exchanges that many Americans wouldn't think twice about.

"A Soldier could do something totally innocently and offend someone or disrespect someone," Pawelek said.

Not knowing the intricacies of body language or hospitality exchanges - for instance, what to do or not do when being offered food and drink - could create an uncomfortable situation or worse.

"In cultures where honor is so important, when you are insulted you have to respond," she said.

Students are more curious and engaged when they use the culture room, instructors said. One referred to the experience as "learning on steroids". The Soldiers ask more questions, and take the simulated situations seriously.

So far 201st Battlefield Surveillance Brigade and 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division have used the room for training. The next major unit expected to train there will be 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

Photo by

Scott Hansen/JBLM PAO

Spc. Shayem Chowdhury, 2nd Bde., 2nd Inf. Div., middle left, and Pfc. Nicu Parente work with two language instructors in a specially designed Afghan culture room during a training session at the JBLM Western Region Foreign Language Training Center on JBLM Lewis Main.

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