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The Evolution of an Arabic Course: how a US military Arabic course went around the world

In the 20th century, Arabic language material was scarce. During the Vietnam War, Reginald Hefner, had access to a language lab of the US military – and later discovered, how the Military’s Arabic material was used by publishers around the world. He shares some reminiscences and anecdotes in this guest article.

LAST UPDATED: 1 month ago

Half a century ago, it was almost impossible to get Arabic textbooks in English. Hard to imagine today that people often did not even know how languages were pronounced. One of the most distinguished foreign language learners in the U.S., Reginald Hefner, recounts in this guest article how a widely used Arabic language course came about – and what the U.S. military has to do with it.

Reginald Hefner is a multilingual language nerd. He has a BA degree in Russian, Chinese, French, and Spanish and a MA degree in Arabic from . Besides, he has an excellent command of Chinese and Japanese. He is currently working as an Arabic instructor at York College in Pennsylvania.

Toward the end of my Active Duty Army tour of 4 years 6 months and 24 days (not that I was counting…) during the Vietnam War when I served as a Mandarin Chinese interpreter, translator, and interrogator, I was assigned to an Army post that actually had an old WW II-style barracks converted into a Language Laboratory replete with multi-tiered levels of individual plexiglass enclosed booths with 70-lb. TNH-11 metal 7-inch reel-to-reel tape-recorders at each position. The laboratory was manned by a paid civilian employee to help those there to use the facility, and on the second floor there was a language library of materials in more than 50 languages.

tnh11 tape recorder
This is a TNH11 tape recorder, used by the US military.
Source: nsa.gov

In 1965 I started to study some Arabic, but my problem then was finding any material at all on how to learn Arabic, which may sound very odd nowadays when at the touch of a single button or keystroke one can find non-stop Arabic at just about any proficiency level that one would want, though the quality is extremely uneven.

Reginald Hefner
Reginald Hefner, in his halcyon days, when he was an Olympic Judo athlete.

Previously one had to ferret out material in languages like Arabic (or, even Chinese for that matter), but there on the second floor was an open-sesame, treasure trove of prized precious materials for learning some fairly “strange” languages. So, I looked for something in Arabic that would enable me to actually hear the language. Even if one could find written materials, finding something to hear foreign languages such as Arabic and other critical languages was also a difficult adventure then.

Nonetheless, I “discovered” a series of boxed sets of U.S. Department of Defense “Language Familiarization” courses that each had two doubled-sided LP 33⅓ rpm phonograph records with a small booklet that had English in one column, a phonetic transliteration in a center column, and the native script for the words and phrases in the third column. In the case of the Arabic course, it was Arabic that had been typed on an Arabic type-writer and the print was extremely small.

The original boxed set, which you see in the photo above, had only two large phonograph records.
Picture credit: Reginald Hefner

Each of these language courses focused on what we might call now “survival language” or the American Council of Teachers of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Novice Low and Novice Mid-proficiency levels for memorized words, phrases, and utterances (later called “mim-mem” [mimic & memorize] methodology. It was very much a “cookie-cutter” approach for all the languages that even many reasonably intelligent people had never even heard of at that time.

  • Arabic
  • Bengali
  • Cambodian
  • Chinese (Mandarin)
  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • Finnish
  • German
  • Greek
  • Hausa
  • (Modern)
  • Hindustani [sic]
  • Indonesian
  • Italian
  • Japanese [which even had for mosquito netting for hotels]
  • Korean
  • Kurdish
  • Lao
  • Norwegian
  • Persian
  • Portuguese (Brazilian)
  • Russian
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Spanish
  • Swahili (East Africa) [sic]
  • Tagalog
  • Thai
  • Turkish, and
  • Vietnamese.

In other words, here one had a cornucopia of what were at that time precious, hard-to-find resources to actually hear, say, and decipher foreign scripts [no instruction on scripts at all and no grammar instruction at all in the booklets]. Each word or phrase would be repeated twice by a native speaker with precisely enough time to say the word or phrase as quickly as the native speaker had just pronounced it on the phonograph record.

The booklets and the phonograph recordings covered such areas as:

  • salutations
  • visits and introduction
  • inquiries on the street [directions, etc.]
  • food and shopping
  • at the restaurant
  • time
  • numbers
  • colors
  • seasons
  • weather
  • at the post office
  • at the telegraph office
  • means of transportation
  • military ranks
  • branches of military service
  • geographical terrain features
  • commands [Halt!; Don't shoot!; Don't move! Raise your hands! Obey or I'll shoot!, etc.]

As often as I could I would go to this language lab and use the “listening rooms” (rooms filled with phonograph players and huge headphones with individual positions surrounded with sound-proofing material, in order to listen and try to repeat these words and phrases (2-hours worth of material altogether) until I could say it within the timed interval.

I could even record myself, then listen back to myself to self-correct (“self-monitor” later became the jargon in vogue at the transition between the “Audio-Lingual Method (ALM)” and the fledgling communicative competence movement.

“I filled my 1968 Chevrolet Caprice with a rather spacious trunk to the brim with as much foreign language materials as I could salvage from the dumpsters, especially material in Arabic or about Arabic. I wish I could have saved more of it, as it felt as though I was physically hurt when the dumpsters were emptied.”

Reginald Hefner

Much later in the 1970's the Army decided to get rid of the language lab and pitched books, records, tapes, newspapers, magazines and even foreign type-writers, etc. into trash dumpsters behind the old buildings right before the Army razed the language lab and other buildings to make yet another parking lot.

At the time, I filled my 1968 Chevrolet Caprice with a rather spacious trunk to the brim with as much foreign language materials as I could salvage from the dumpsters, especially material in Arabic or about Arabic. I wish I could have saved more of it, as it felt as though I was physically hurt when the dumpsters were emptied.

A Chevrolet Caprice of the 1960s – Reginald Hefner's car. Thanks to the large trunk, Reggie could save some of the language material of the former military bunker.
Source: GPS 56 from New Zealand, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Toward the end of the 1970's, my mother had given me for my birthday and various holiday a series of small foreign language courses, each of which cost U.S. $2.45. They included five of what are now referred to as “flexi-discs” but at that time (long before personal computers even existed) were often called “floppy discs” because one could flop it back and forth in one's hand without breaking the flexible vinyl phonograph “record”.

flexi discs
The World Foreign Language Record series used these flexi discs.

The World Publishing Company in Cleveland, Ohio and New York City published these sets under the name “World Foreign Language Record Series.”

My mother could not afford to purchase all of them, but she did buy certain select ones: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Greek, Hebrew (Modern), Japanese, Korean, and Russian.

The concomitant booklet had three columns: English, transliteration and native script, but no military section at all on the recordings or in the booklets in small plastic containers with flexible cardboard with the language name and some stereotypical picture on the front.

In other words, not quite like Franz Kafka's “Die Verwandlung” (translated as “The Metamorphosis” in English) the former military language familiarization courses “morphed” into civilian commercial, “off-the-shelf” foreign language courses with the exact same repertoire of foreign languages.

The Metamorphosis (German: Die Verwandlung) is a novella written by Franz Kafka, which was first published in 1915. Kafka is one of the major figures of 20th-century German literature. One of Kafka's best-known works, The Metamorphosis tells the story of salesman Gregor Samsa, who wakes one morning to find himself inexplicably transformed into a huge insect (ungeheures Ungeziefer, literally “monstrous vermin”) and subsequently struggles to adjust to this new condition.

Much later in the 1980's while I was perusing the foreign language section of the now-defunct Borders' Bookstore (for which I still have my Borders Reward Card, for some strange reason), I noticed a plastic bubble-wrapped Arabic course that contained two cassettes and a concomitant booklet selling for about U.S. $15.00.

I thought this would be great because I had just taken out my 8-track player and had a cassette recorder in my Honda Accord (the last year they were shipped to the U.S. from Japan).

Sure enough, Educational Services, Co. in Washington, D.C. repackaged the old military foreign language familiarization course with cassettes (vinyl records were starting to disappear then) and increased the price, of course.

When Borders Bookstore was going out of business, it had an inventory sale, in which it was selling off its merchandise literally for pennies on the dollar. I decided to buy some of the “new” language courses in various languages, including Arabic, with compact discs (CDs—a new term then). One could not open the package ahead of time before buying it, in order to examine the contents, as apparently CD thefts were rampant by then. Also, my new Honda Accord (after the engine went on the old one after 300 thousand miles) only had a CD-player in it, but no cassette player.

ebay world language series
On Ebay or bookstores, you can still find parts of the series in the VINYL section.

So, I listened to my newly bought Arabic course on CDs as I went home and much to my chagrin it was the exact same thing as the military language familiarization course that was WW-II vintage, except I now recognized that it was in Levantine dialect and I could say all the words and phrases before the native speaker did so on the brand new, “new government language training method” CDs, which had eliminated Kurdish, Lao, Cambodian, etc. and had instead Irish, Latin!, Polish, Swedish and Yiddish (!) instead of Hausa and Hindustani was now just . Caveat Emptor (Let the buyer beware)…

The military language books were published under the following names:

  • Department of Defense Educational Services Language Familiarization Courses (starting in 1960)
  • World Foreign Language Record Series (1965)
  • Language/30 (1974)
  • Furthermore, you find similar products published in Germany (licensing).

Even today, you find parts of these serieses on amazon:

By the way, I still have these courses in the attic of my home and occasionally listen to them.

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