Skip to main content

Learning Chinese at DLI in Monterey, California

Paul began learning Chinese at DLI in 1967. He spent an immersion in Taiwan 1984-1985 improving Mandarin listening, speaking, and reading.

Chinese Writing


The Defense Language Institute (DLI)

Learning Chinese at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California, during the late 1960s was a challenging and rewarding experience that greatly changed my life. It awakened a dormant interest in acquiring foreign languages for listening and speaking knowledge, and also presented a portal for learning about non-western cultures in the world. Upon graduation from my Chinese Mandarin class, I had basic proficiency in both listening and speaking. I was now prepared to apply my language skills to a military assignment in Taiwan.

Early Experiences Studying Foreign languages

As a boy, I always had an interest in foreign languages. In high school, I studied Latin and Spanish for two years each, and I was also in the Foreign Language Club. These early experiences in studying foreign languages were aimed at learning for reading knowledge only. There weren't any listening or speaking exercises in my Spanish classes, and I really cannot recall learning much about Spanish culture.

In college, I studied German for three semesters and French for one semester. These languages were not learned to obtain conversational fluency, but rather to acquire reading knowledge necessary for chemistry research.

Reasons for Learning Chinese

In 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy rather than subject myself to the Army draft. Before starting basic training, all military recruits took a battery of aptitude tests to determine their suitability for training for various occupational specialties. One of the tests was an artificial language learning aptitude test. I scored quite well on this test because a few days later the Navy informed me that I had been selected to learn either Russian or Chinese Mandarin. This period was at the height of the Cold War when the Soviet Union and Communist China were America's chief adversaries. I had my choice of languages, and I told the Navy personnel representative that I had no preference. Two weeks before graduation from basic training when all the recruits in my company were getting their next duty station orders, the company commander asked me if I knew anything about Chinese. I then looked at my orders and learned that I had to report to the Defense Language Institute, West Coast Branch (DLIWCB), at the Presidio of Monterey, California, for a 37-week basic intensive Chinese Mandarin class beginning during the first week of October 1967.

The Defense Language Institute at The Presidio of Monterey

Traveling to my first naval duty station was an interesting and thrilling experience. I had never lived outside of the Midwest, and I had never been on an airplane that I took from Milwaukee to San Francisco. After arriving at the city by the Golden Gate, I had one day of sightseeing before I boarded an old prop for the 100 miles hop down to Monterey. I was awed by the beauty of Monterey Bay, and even more, swept away by the views after I arrived at the Presidio of Monterey. The Presidio is a U.S. Army installation situated on a bluff overlooking Monterey Bay. it was the home of the DLI-WCB which is now called the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLI-FLC.) When I studied there from 1967 to 1968, the major languages taught were Russian, Korean, Chinese Mandarin, German, and Vietnamese. Other significant languages such as Hebrew and Arabic were taught at the Defense Language Institute East Coast Branch (DLI-ECB) in the Washington D.C. area. Military members of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force lived in barracks on the Presidio and studied in classrooms both new and old.

The Defense Language Institute at Monterey

The Defense Language Institute at Monterey

Learning Chinese at DLI

A day before our scheduled course started, there was an orientation for all of the classes which were starting that week. How vividly I remember two Army students who had just finished a basic course welcoming us in Chinese Mandarin to the class which we would be starting the next day.

My Classmates

My class began on a Tuesday, and eight shipmates joined me in a small classroom on the second floor of a fairly new Army building. Most of my classmates had just graduated from basic training and were taking their first language course at DLI. Our class leader, a Petty Officer First Class, however, had studied Turkish before. His advice for studying and getting through DLI would benefit all of us.

My Teachers

All of our Chinese Mandarin instructors except for one were native Chinese from either Taiwan or the China mainland. The Chinese instructors from the mainland had all emigrated before or after China fell to the Communists in 1949. My teachers came from a wide variety of professions with some having held military positions with the Chinese Nationalists before 1949. The only non-native instructor was a very tall American Army serviceman who had excellent pronunciation and command of Mandarin tones.

DLI - US Military's Language School

A Typical DLI School Day

Our school day ran from 0800-1600 Monday through Friday. Morning classes were from 0800-1100, and the afternoon session was from 1300-1600. 1100-1300 was set aside for lunch. The intensive basic Chinese Mandarin course emphasized listening and speaking. We only had to recognize less than 1,000 Chinese characters, and there were only 300 that we had to learn how to write. Lessons were presented in a series of small booklets that were mostly written in Yale romanization. Pinyin and simplified characters were not taught. All students had to learn traditional long-form characters. Our school day was broken down into six 50-55 minute class periods which proceeded as follows:

First Period

This was my most dreaded period during the first two months of the course. It was a dialog recitation class in which pairs of students would recite a memorized dialog that was introduced the preceding day. What made the class so challenging was the length and subject matter of the dialogue. Dialogs had at least 10 exchanges and almost all of them were on a military topic. I remember learning how to say anti-aircraft gun (gaoshepao), hand grenade (shouliudan), and an aircraft carrier (hangkong mujian) while reciting my daily dialogs. This was, however, an excellent means of hearing and speaking commonly used sentence patterns. During the first week of class, we spent a lot of time on pronunciation and tone drills. Learning how to correctly use and speak the tones was challenging for most of us because none of us had studied tonal languages before. Mrs. Ma (Ma taitai) was our first-period instructor, and she did a very good job with our pronunciation and tones.

Second Period

In the second period, each day was spent introducing and practicing the new grammar which was introduced in the dialogs. This was done through sentence pattern drills. There was very little explanation of the new grammar. Rather, there were numerous substitution drills in which we were first given the words to substitute into the pattern, and then later we had to be creative in adding the correct vocabulary. This period was taught by a different native instructor.

Third Period

The period before lunch was spent doing listening comprehension exercises. We were all hooked into a tape recorder and had to transcribe or select the correct word or sentences that we heard. This period was supervised by still a different native instructor.

Fourth Period

Reading and writing basic traditional Chinese characters were taught during this period. I remember having to first learn how to write the numbers from one to ten, and then how to write simpler characters for I, you, he, she, big, and small before writing more complicated characters with more strokes. We were all given flashcards and a booklet that showed the stroke order in writing a character.

Fifth Period

I can't recall exactly, but I think this period was spent introducing cultural topics such as Chinese customs, religions, philosophy, food, festivals, and others.

Sixth Period

This period was spent introducing the new vocabulary and dialog for the next day. After the native instructor said the dialog and we all repeated it in unison, we were told to memorize it for recitation the next day. On a few occasions, the lone non-native Chinese instructor would present to us the new vocabulary and dialog.

In general, we were all very motivated to learn the language by doing all of the assignments. We all knew that failing out of DLI meant getting assigned to a ship where we would probably have to chip paint from the hull.

Extra-curricular Activities

DLI provided many extra-curricular activities that helped us to apply the language skills which we had learned in the classroom. On at least one Friday afternoon a month, all Chinese classes would head down to the Steinbeck Theater on Cannery Row to watch a Chinese movie. During the Chinese New Year festival, our class traveled to China Town in San Francisco to eat in a Chinese restaurant and go to Chinese shops. Many times during the week we would go to the Monterey Community College to do our homework and interact with some of our instructors who were students there.

I will always remember the 37 weeks of my intensive basic Chinese Mandarin class. It stimulated my interest in learning foreign languages for conversational fluency, and it also led to a career in studying and working on Chinese-related topics.

Learning a Foreign Language

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn

Related Articles