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Encouraging Language Resources for Military Spouses Overseas

An Opportunity to Bridge Cultures

A woman holds her baby on a bridge in Venice Italy
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By Helen Bryant

Japanese & English Teacher, Olympic College; Adjunct Professor, University of Southern Indiana

A recent graduate from the University of Southern Indiana, I had almost a decade between earning my bachelor’s in Anthropology and my master’s in Second Language Acquisition, Policy, and Culture, but I have always been interested in languages and cultures. I am passionate about my own multilingual/multicultural upbringing, being half American and half Japanese.

Growing up between the U.S. and Japan allowed me to feel like a bridge between the two cultures.

Building Bridges in Italy

In Milan, Italy

After graduating with my bachelor’s, I was able to get an amazing job working for a Japanese company here in the U.S., which allowed me to work in a culturally and linguistically enriching environment. However, I ended up having to leave this job after I married someone serving in the military. As they say, when one door closes, another one opens: Even though I was nervous about leaving my family and friends, my job, and everything I knew behind, I had an opportunity to move overseas, as our first military assignment was in Italy!

Although I have lived overseas before, this was the first time I was going to Europe and I didn’t know much about the Italian culture or language. We were required to live off base, which allowed us to fully immerse into the local community. Our direct neighbor was our landlord, who spoke almost no English, so our interactions consisted of mostly hand gestures and non-verbal communication. I quickly realized how important it was for me to learn Italian, and I found an opportunity offered by the military to take free language courses on base.

While I can’t say that I became completely fluent in Italian, taking those classes and being fully immersed in the culture allowed me to learn much more than I ever expected about Italy.

Over the course of three years, I learned Italian, made lifelong friends both in the military community and the local Italian neighborhood we lived in, and was able to experience total immersion that was beyond my wildest dreams.

Receiving our military orders back to the States was a bittersweet feeling, but we returned home with a greater knowledge and appreciation of the Italian culture and have maintained a strong friendship with our Italian neighbor to this day, as we consider them our “Italian family.”

Identifying a Challenge

My family had an amazing time in Italy, but not every military family has the same positive experience overseas. Many struggle with such an assignment for reasons including, but not limited to: not being prepared for living abroad, being away from family and friends, not taking the time to learn the language/culture of the location they are moving to, and not having the proper resources available.

Military members often have less time to commit to language learning or opportunities to immerse in the local community due to their professional obligations; however, spouses—who are often unable to work overseas—regularly use their time abroad learning another language and immersing themselves and their children into the local community.

Having interactions between the locals and the military community enhances the lives of both military families and the locals, as it becomes a form of cultural exchange, which leads to better understanding and acceptance.

This interesting relationship between the military community and the local communities abroad is a dynamic that I found fascinating.

Exploring Key Findings

After returning to the States, I decided to go back to school. It started with pursuing a graduate certificate in TESOL, which led me to want to continue to get my master’s. I knew fairly early what I wanted to research for my master’s thesis: Following our experience in Italy, I wanted to shed light on military spouses and their experiences learning language and culture during their overseas assignments.

In Rome, Italy

I interviewed 36 military spouses that were previously or currently stationed overseas. After listening to their stories—ranging from amazing experiences, frustrations from cultural misunderstandings, and blunders with language barriers—it was clear that something was missing: Spouses had shared over and over again about the lack of information or services that are provided by the military to help support them with language and culture learning. Even though a great number of military families are sent overseas every year, there is a severe lack of support and realization of the importance of language and culture learning for those going overseas.

My research focused on what kinds of accessible language and culture learning resources or programs are available to military spouses stationed overseas and how effective these programs are in aiding their acculturation and language acquisition process. The data revealed 41 resources mentioned during the interviews; among these resources, 30 were directly provided by the military.

Although this is a significant amount of resources put out by the military to support spouses during overseas tours, only three resources were directly related to language and/or culture learning. Furthermore, the only resource that was accessible and specifically for military spouses was the language/culture classes that are sometimes offered on military installations overseas. Out of 36 participants, 27 of them reported using these classes during their life abroad. According to the participants, these classes were very helpful in supporting their language/culture learning while overseas; the only major complaint was that the days/times they were offered were not always convenient. The interviews also brought to light that not all overseas bases provide language/culture learning classes.

An important finding from the research showed that most of the participants (83%) were eager to learn the local language of where they resided overseas and understood the importance of language and culture learning in general.

Regardless of accessible language/culture learning resources, they usually found their own supplementary resources to further support their language/culture learning, such as private language classes and language learning apps/programs.

It also became apparent that many spouses relied on translation apps and learning just enough of the language to “survive.” This was, of course, better than not learning the language at all, but led to more instances of miscommunication and frustrations with inability to fully communicate with locals.

Having shared both positive and negative observations from their lives overseas, participants' overall sense of their experience usually led to positive outcomes. These included gaining an awareness of cultural differences, correcting previous misconceptions of a foreign culture, and, for some, retaining language and culture skills even after coming back to the States.

Proposing a Solution

Military spouses are an important part of the greater military community and, in supporting the military troops overseas, they have the potential to be important cultural ambassadors between the American military community and the foreign countries that have allied forces around the world.

In Rome, Italy

The data from my research clearly suggests that there is great interest in language and culture learning from military spouses stationed overseas, but that there is a need for better support and advocacy. Spouses who had accessible language/culture learning resources and who took advantage of these resources ended up having a higher language ability and cultural understanding than those who relied on translation and self-learning resources alone.

Classroom learning, coupled with practical use during the immersive experiences that these spouses are lucky to undergo, can increase and solidify the language that is being learned.

Advocating for language and culture learning in the military community and providing better programs for those serving overseas can provide a stronger bridge between the military community and the countries that the military works with.

My research is only the beginning of working towards a change. In order to prove to the military that the benefits of language/culture learning for spouses are an important feature to include in an overseas assignment, more analysis is needed. Only then, can a budget that supports creating a unified language/culture learning program that spans all of the military installations overseas be accomplished.

Military spouses should be viewed as more than just people married to active-duty military personnel protecting the United States; they are world travelers, language learners, and mediators between cultures.

As this research has shown, when military spouses are supported appropriately, they have the potential to expand their cross-cultural understanding through experiencing integration and language learning, which is a huge asset to the military and the United States. If enough people are made aware of the huge impact military spouses can make in cross-cultural relationships between the United States and the world, maybe then a change can be made!

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