The winter CGSC class begins Monday with the traditional Flag Ceremony in which each international military student (IMS) posts his country's flag. This being February in Kansas, the ceremony is indoors.
For some IMS getting to Leavenworth is not easy. If English is not the official language of their country, a student has to pass an English language test at the U.S. Embassy in his country. If he doesn't pass the test, he has to go to the Defense Language Institute (DLI) at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
English courses last from a few weeks to a year. If a student does not pass the final exam, he is sent back to his country. Each IMS arriving at the fort is expected to be proficient in English, and most are. But some face challenges and have to have help from their student ambassador and other U.S. students.
I've always been amazed by the language prowess of many IMS over the years. For about 25 years students from the German Staff College came to the fort for several days of interaction with U.S. students. That college has IMS also, who must be proficient in German.
The German Liaison Office at the fort always hosted a barbecue dinner for the visiting students and their U.S. sponsor. I coordinated many of these visits, and one of the most memorable meals I ever had was one of these barbecues. Six of us sat at a table outside the Hunt Lodge, four Germans, a French student, and me. For the first few minutes the conversation was in English so I could participate. Then one of the Germans switched it to German, and all, including the French student, talked. I listened. Then the French student switched to French, and all five talked in that language for a while. I listened again.
It made me wonder how many Americans could talk easily in three languages without missing a beat. Not many I'd bet.
Even after extensive schooling in English some IMS don't grasp all its intricacies. We sponsored the first student from a former Soviet republic, who had spent a year at Lackland. I had no problem understanding him, but he was confused about some words.
When I took him to get his driver's license, he was a dollar short, and asked "John, can you borrow me a dollar?" I knew what he meant, so "borrowed" him a dollar. The rules say a sponsor can't loan money to an IMs, but says nothing about "borrowing" him one. The deed was done.
We sponsored a Turkish student two years ago, and as he and his fellow Turk were walking into the Lewis and Clark Center an IMS behind us called out to them. It was the student from Kazakhstan, speaking in Turkish.
Page 2 of 2 - The Turks greeted him as if they knew him, which they did, as all had been classmates at the Turkish Staff College the year before. I was amazed again at a Kazakh who spoke Kazakh, Russian, Turkish, and English.
One year I wondered which IMS spoke the most languages. I asked the lady who ran the language lab, who said she'd have to check. I guessed it might be the Swiss, but it was the first student from Congo, who my family sponsored.
It turned out he spoke 11 languages or tribal dialects, which can be as complicated as an official language. He'd studied German in school, and was selected to attend a course in Romania, so had to learn that language. He spoke French and English and a couple of other European languages, plus several dialects in Congo and neighboring African countries.
So if you meet an IMS and his English isn't perfect, you might cut him a little slack.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and retired Department of the Army civilian employee.