ALBU HAWA, Iraq -- The language differences between Arabic and English often impede Marines when they try and interact with the Iraqi people. Interpreters who speak both languages are often in short supply, leaving Marines with no way of holding a proper conversation. Luckily both sides make the effort to breach that communication barrier. Most Iraqis have learned broken English and nearly every Marine knows a few words of Arabic. Iraqis are often able to converse with Marines in the “pointy talky” fashion using a mix of Arabic and English and gesturing at what they want. However, these one or two word conversations are limited.
One Marine from L Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment is seeking to improve that situation. Lance Cpl. Kyle M. Stewart, 22. from Hitchens, Ky., has put intensive effort into learning the Arabic language to the point where he can converse easily with the Iraqis he comes into contact with on a daily basis.
He began learning the language during his first deployment to Iraq from a close friend of his, Lance Cpl. Daniel F. Swaim. Swaim would later be killed while conducting combat operations in Anbar Province.
“He was a good friend of mine,” said Stewart. “He went to the (Survival Level Arabic Course) and had been teaching me some things in Arabic. I wanted to finish what he was doing.”
Since he was still in Iraq when he made that promise, he couldn’t learn in a traditional school setting. He had to learn on the street from the people themselves. Indeed, Stewart has never had any official education in Arabic. Every word he knows is the result of many exasperating conversations in a hodgepodge mix of Arabic and English.
“It was hard at first,” said the 2004 John Bowne High School graduate. “Once I figured out how to say ‘Shinu’ or what, I would point at something and say ‘what’ and they would say it in Arabic and I would write it down.”
It was still a slow learning process. Patrolling through the streets meant there was not always time to sit down and have a chat to learn a new word; there were more important concerns. Stewart got a helping hand from some allies to keep improving his skills.
“It took probably about five months (to become conversant) from when I started,” added Stewart. “A big help was when we started working hand-in-hand with the Iraqi Army. Some of them spoke pretty good English so that helped a lot.”
Now that he is back in Iraq for a second time, Stewart has become a valuable asset to his squad. He is a trained infantry Marine first and interpreter second, which gives his squad the benefit of not having to be responsible for an untrained interpreter in a combat zone. As one of the senior Marines in the squad he also has the responsibility of being a fire-team leader.
“I fought to get him (in my squad), then I put him as a team leader,” said Cpl. Steven C. Szopa, 28, from Columbia, Mo. “Some people didn’t like that decision but he’s proved himself to me. He was the first one I chose for my squad. They gave his name up and I instantly said I’ll take him.”
One reason for choosing Stewart was that people readily opened up to him in ways they wouldn’t to an interpreter. Once they get over the initial shock of a Marine speaking Arabic the people are usually friendly.
“The people’s first reaction is always one of surprise,” said Stewart. “They tell me ‘Oh you speak Arabic very good!’ They’re happy; it’s like an honor to them that someone from another country is working to learn Arabic.”
“You just don’t get that reaction with an interpreter,” said Szopa, the squad leader for 1st Squad, 3rd Platoon. “With a Marine you get a much better reception.”