Students help National Guard class
learn meaning of language barrier © March 15, 2013, Norwich University Office of Communications

[Top] Norwich students and military service men and women enjoy a meal of traditional Arabic cuisine before partnering for a training exercise. [Below] A service member’s shoulder patch translates as “Always ready.”

photos by Jordan Silverman, staff[Top] Norwich students and military service men and women enjoy a meal of traditional Arabic cuisine before partnering for a training exercise. [Below] A shoulder patch translates as “Always ready.”

Sgt. Todd Ambroz strode up to two Norwich University students at the start of a training program run by the Vermont National Guard [VNG].

“Who’s the village elder?” he asked. Kelsey Baker, a third-year international studies student from Austin, Texas, raised her hand.

Ambroz, a Guardsman and instructor for a program that explores cultural awareness for military personnel, gave a quick rundown for the students. Baker would sit at a table, speaking only in French. Fellow Norwich student Pier Cotnoir, a senior health-science major, would act as interpreter, speaking French and English. They would be joined by five military personnel—some active, others in the Guard or Reserves—taking a class called Tactical Information Operations Course.

The course teaches a range of skills related to cultural understanding, including techniques for communicating through an interpreter. For this February 2013 exercise, the Guard partnered with a class of upper-level French students from Norwich, who serve as both interpreters and nationals in a role-playing scenario. In it, a village elder would speak on behalf of a village in Mali, where French is the national language. Service members would play military personnel offering assistance and trying to establish a positive relationship.

It was fun to be able to extrapolate—to go out on a limb.

Andrew Welch, Studies
in War & Peace major

The hope, according to Ambroz, is that everyone gets something from the exercise. It doesn’t hurt that the VNG facility, the Readiness and Regional Technology Center, is located in a corner of Norwich’s Northfield, Vt., campus.

“We want you to get your language skills the same as they get their interpreter skills,” he told the two students.

Playing their roles

Everyone seemed a little shy when the scenario started. After pleasantries, Army Sgt. Brian McNally of Pittsburgh, Penn., began probing the “elder” about drought conditions and the need for a water purification system.

[Top] Norwich students and military service men and women enjoy a meal of traditional Arabic cuisine before partnering for a training exercise. [Below] A service member’s shoulder patch translates as “Always ready.”

photo courtesy of Frances ChevalierNorwich students Kelsey Baker and Pier Cotnoir speak with a participant in a Vermont National Guard class on cultural awareness.

“We’ve heard you’ve had some problems in the village and we wanted to find out more about what’s happening,” he said.

Cotnoir, a native speaker from Quebec, translated quickly. Baker paused briefly to think before making her first statements as the elder. Soon, as conversation shifted to the need for food and the local presence of Islamic terrorists, she relaxed and began to answer with more speed and confidence.

Every so often, Ambroz interrupted to remind participants to look at the person they’re speaking to, not the interpreter. He suggested they follow up each question with, “What else?” Ambroz, a Russian and German linguist with 12 years’ experience as a military interrogator before he joined the Guard, added anecdotes about the “chess match” of engaging with people in an Islamic country like Mali.

“It’s 95 percent a Muslim culture: ‘Let’s have chai. You can talk about my family, except for my wife and my daughters,’” he said, stressing that social customs are hugely important. “You want to be as one-on-one as you can. You’ll have an entourage. They’ll have an entourage. That skews things.”

Other service people spoke of their experiences overseas and the challenges of working with interpreters.

“It’s something we do in theater a lot,” said McNally, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “You have to be effective. You need to practice.”

Stretching the brain

When the exercise finished, Cotnoir said he was excited to hear the real-life experiences of people who have struggled to make progress through a translator. Watching the military personnel learn and interact was really useful, he said. Cotnoir added that interpreting was difficult, even for someone with a strong command of the language. Listening and thinking requires you to “stretch” your brain, and it was easy to begin a sentence in the wrong language.

“A couple of times I slipped,” he said.

For Andrew Welch, whose French-speaking experience took place entirely inside high school and college classrooms, it was a “first trial by fire.”

“I haven’t been able to have real conversations,” said Welch, a junior in the Studies in War & Peace program from Somers, Conn. “It was fun to be able to extrapolate—to go out on a limb.”

Playing the part of the village elder, he didn’t mind jumping into the conversation without a script. Welch is vice president of Norwich’s theater group, the Pegasus Players, and doesn’t mind improvisation.

“They are on the spot,” agreed Prof. Frances Chevalier, who organized the first service-learning exercise with the VNG in January 2011. “They have to perform; not just for themselves but for others.”

The partnership requires a lot of preparation for the class, she added. In addition to bringing their language skills and grammar up to speed, students must practice military terminology and familiarize themselves with the culture they will portray. This involved the study of sources ranging from African folk tales to current French-speaking news.

Chevalier kicked off the exercise with a few basics on working with an interpreter. Use short sentences with few modifiers, she told the room of 40 people. Avoid the use of contractions and don’t make jokes.

The group had already eaten a traditional Arabic lunch of yellow rice, flatbread and legumes with tables lowered to floor level. Before they separated into five groups, she gave one final warning: Keep it simple and explain things.

“Without complete context, they’re going to kind of do their own thing,” she said.