Airman enjoys being student, mastering Chinese culture, language

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Story by SSgt Anthony Hyatt on 12/08/2017
Learning a new language can provide direct access to new literatures, new perspectives and new cultures. It can foster an understanding of the interrelation of language and human nature. It can also improve the knowledge of one's own language; increasing native vocabulary skills.

The benefits of learning a new language really are endless, as U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Abraham, an Airborne Cryptologic Language Analyst with the 70th Operations Support Squadron, has discovered. He joined the Air Force seven years ago with the goal of testing his abilities, and he has passed that test with flying colors.

Abraham picked his career field because he wanted to be challenged, he said, and being a linguist also had that "cool factor" he was looking for. The Chinese linguist said he liked "the prospect of knowing a foreign language that was incomprehensible to everyone else I knew."

Abraham, like most Air Force linguists, spent his first year in the military training at the Defense Language Institute - Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California. The duration of any language training depends on the specific language being studied and, in Abraham's case, his Chinese Mandarin course lasted 63 weeks.

The young Airman had to attend three additional training courses before he was considered ready for duty.

"We had aircrew fundamentals school, which was a four-week course in San Antonio, after Basic Military Training; the DLIFLC, a three-month course at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, for more intelligence specific skills and, depending on your AFSC, there's a month long survival training in Spokane, Washington," Abraham said.

Even after completing all the required training, Abraham still has to test his skills regularly.

"The Defense Language Proficiency Test is the final test you take before you graduate from DLI, and you then take it every year to ensure you maintain the Air Force 2/2 standards for Reading and Listening," said Abraham. "You only have to test once every two years if you score a 3/3 or higher."

DLPT scores play a big role in a linguist's career because the results are used to select personnel for programs or assignments that may require minimum language proficiency levels, and they also are used to determine eligibility for the Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus.

On Abraham's August 2017 DLPT in Chinese, he earned scores of: Listening, four; Reading, four; and Speaking, three.

"To give you an idea of what this accomplishment means, the Air Force proficiency standard for language is a Listening, two; Reading, two," said Master Sgt. Sarah Ault, flight Instructor at the Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy, and Abraham's former 70th OSS flight chief. "He may be the only person, or one of only a handful of people, with the Chinese proficiency he has and, to top it off, he is a non-native Chinese speaker. The Interagency Language Roundtable scale only goes to level five. Even most native language speakers do not get a five on this test. He is at near-native proficiency, which is a huge accomplishment.

"He has done all of this on his own, through self-study," said Ault. "He is a wonderful testament to hard work really paying off."

"I worked really hard for my score," Abraham said. "It's worth it to me because it allows you to do a lot more, mission-wise."

Abraham recalled a situation at his first base, where his proficiency in Chinese presented him with a new opportunity. His group commander had a trip planned to an undisclosed location, and one linguist was requested to go on the journey. As one of the most proficient Chinese speakers in the unit, Abraham was contacted.

"I'm always like, "dress for the job you want, not the job you have," Abraham said. "I want to use my language at a high level."

Currently, the majority of Abraham's time is spent translating Chinese information and conducting research in the hopes of delivering intelligence products to policy makers.

"What we do as language analyst has high stakes," said the Illinois-native. "An aircrew linguist shared a speech with us after he won an award, and he talked about his deployment. The linguist wondered to himself, What if I had studied more or studied harder, maybe we could have found a high-priority target?' or What if I had studied more Pashto, maybe I could have prepped my team better.' We have to keep this in mind. I think people sometimes forget that."

Abraham believes a linguist goal should always be to become an expert in their language's culture, history, literature, poetry, television, politics and economics, and should always strive to do better.

"As with anything in my life, it's mostly about setting a goal and doing it. You have to keep finding motivation. I think just about anyone who works as hard as I have can get to the same level," he said, concluding with his advice in Chinese: , which translates to, "Set goals, go upward every day and never stop strengthening yourself."

The Defense Language Proficiency Test System serves to evaluate the ability of Airmen to understand written and/or spoken material presented in a foreign language, and measures the required ability to speak a foreign language, according to Air Force Instruction 36-2605.

Language Proficiency levels and codes:
A 0: None - no practical understanding of the spoken language.
B 0+: Memorized - understands a number of memorized utterances in areas of immediate needs.
C 1: Elementary - understands utterances about basic survival needs and minimum courtesy and travel requirements.
D 1+: Elementary - understands short conversations about all survival needs and limited social demands.
E 2: Limited working - understands conversations on routine social demands and limited job requirements.
F 2+: Limited working - understands most routine social demands and conversations on work requirements as well as some discussions on concrete topics related to particular interests and special fields of competence.
G 3: General professional - understands the essentials of all speech within a special field.
H 3+: General proficiency - Plus
I 4: Advanced professional proficiency
J 4+: Advance professional proficiency, Plus
K 5: Functionally Native proficiency

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