Wendy Leonard, Deseret News
Reisa Jackson, left, writes Arabic vocabulary words in English while Jim Gilchrist files through words during a language course in Draper.

DRAPER — Five volunteers from the U.S. military are enrolled in an intense, four-month course to learn one of the world's most in-demand foreign languages.

The language proficiencies and abilities of the 221st Military Intelligence Battalion from Fort Gillem, Ga., may astonish some, but instructor Jabra Ghneim — who helped translate the Book of Mormon into Arabic — expects such accomplishment and more, as thousands of hours have turned out hundreds of productively fluent speakers over the years.

"They learn it to do their jobs, to rise up in the ranks, and of course there is a monetary motivation to it all," he said.

Jabra developed the Ace My Language method, which is currently contracted by the U.S. government for rapid learning of foreign languages such as Arabic, Korean, Farsi and Chinese — all of which are growing in necessity. Other methods have proven less effective, he added.

"Everybody can pick up a language. The only difference is the method used to learn it," Jabra said, adding that for 90 percent of language learners, regular methods do not work.

The only other place in which methods similar to Jabra's are used is at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, which former Brigham Young University linguistics professor Robert Blair said is "an unusual achievement."

"Students like to have an experience of learning a language, an experience where they are speaking and listening full time," Jabra said.

"Students need to be in a language class whenever they start to learn a language, with native speakers. It doesn't work any other way."

After only 2 1/2 months in class, Jabra's students already are using conversational Arabic to communicate, able to discuss anything from what they had for lunch to global warming and politics, with their three native-speaking instructors. They arrive at a proficiency most would require more than a year to grasp, enough to achieve a level 2 rating on the Arabic Defense Language Proficiency Test administered by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.

"I knew three words in Arabic when this thing started," said David Fuchko, an Army specialist enrolled in Jabra's course. "Now we have conversations just about anything."

He has spent time with the military in Iraq and expects his new skill to come in handy if he's deployed again.

"It will really help being able to speak the language," Fuchko said. "It'd be nice to be aware of what's going on around you and be able to interact with the people there."

The Ace method does not require students to memorize grammar rules or words and phrases by rote repetition, but rather teaches by total immersion into the language.

"They learn as an infant would learn a language," said instructor Ehab Abunuwara. "It's a very relaxed, very natural process."

And it's a process that seems to agree with the students, most of whom have only high school experience with learning a foreign language.

Student Reisa Jackson said she hopes to use her newfound Arabic skills in her human resources job with the Army, but also counts the newfound ability as a personal accomplishment. She said she finds herself "thinking in Arabic first before even thinking in English."

Although she picked up little of the Spanish her father speaks in their home, Jackson has developed quite a proficiency in Arabic and is able to read and pronounce sounds with a near-authentic accent.

"In the very beginning, I had my doubts," she said, adding that she wondered if the instructors knew what they were talking about when they said the group would be able to communicate using Arabic in no time. "It all sounded the same to me, and the script is nothing like we've ever seen before."

Sure enough, however, all five have achieved "remarkable" ability, Blair said, communicating in the once-foreign language.

Jabra runs multiple language programs involving military personnel simultaneously and in different states, currently in Draper and at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The service, he said, is becoming more popular as the need arises and as other programs fail to deliver desired results.

The learning is intense, five days each week with seven hours dedicated to various Arabic language activities and one hour of lecture-discussion on Middle Eastern culture. No homework is required, although students are encouraged to practice vocabulary using electronic flashcards on their own.

"I know what the MTC can do with missionaries in 12 weeks," Blair said. "But Jabra and his students are well on their way to making a world record in learning Arabic. It's extraordinary."


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com