School (2)

After I graduated from college, I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School (later called the Defense Language Institute or DLI) to learn Chinese, a language that had always fascinated me. The army, in its wisdom, decided that I should study Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of. This was, after all, 1958, and we called that part of the world French Indochina. So I spent the next year in intensive study (six hours a day in class plus two hours of private study each night, five days a week, for fifty-two weeks) of this mysterious language.

Despite my disappointment at not being able to study Chinese, I was surprised to find that Asian languages were fascinating. Because of my musical training, I had no trouble understanding and using Vietnamese tonal inflections. The whole way of thinking in Vietnamese was entirely different from the western languages I knew (Italian and French, which I had taught myself as a child; Latin throughout the four years of high school; and German which I had taken in college). I looked forward to my daily classes and took great pleasure in learning.

When I graduated from the language school, the army assigned me to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. wasn’t far away, so I enrolled in Chinese classes. I found spoken Chinese a good deal easier than Vietnamese, but the written language using characters was a new challenge. The Chinese spend their whole lives perfecting inscription of characters which is actually an art form. I spent countless hours practicing the writing of characters but never achieved anything past the apprentice level.

Once again, I enjoyed my Chinese classes to the hilt. And I came to understand that part of the reason I liked school so much was that learning invariably opened up new worlds to me.

More next time.

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