I Say, You Say: The Method to the Drill Madness
One writer investigates the experience of drill instructors at Dartmouth, reflecting on her own time as a German drill instructor in the process.
At 7:45 a.m. three to four times a week, eight Dartmouth students stumble into a room in Dartmouth Hall and repeat something in German roughly translating to “Ricardo will go to the store today” back to a drill instructor. The instructor gestures wildly, enunciates and, if a student makes a mistake, gets down on a knee, repeating the phrase slower and more deliberately. To an outsider looking in, Dartmouth’s drill system, formally known as the Rassias method, is quite the case-study in unconventional ways to teach. So, how did drill start, and what is its purpose?
When I returned from the German LSA in Berlin this past summer, I decided to be a drill instructor for the department. I thought it would help me maintain my language while I took a break from German classes, and I wanted to learn more about the drill process that I had taken for granted as a level one and two student.
“You are giving [students] the gift of love of language,” Helene Rassias-Miles, the director of the Rassias Center for World Languages and Cultures at Dartmouth, said.
When drill instructors are trained, Rassias-Miles is the first person to work with them. When I walked into the Blunt Alumni Center to begin my training, Rassias-Miles was mid-drill in Greek with another instructor-in-training, filling the space with an intense enthusiasm. Her rapid-fire training strategy made me, and I’m sure other drill instructors, empathize with the experience of being completely new to a language again.
Rassias-Miles has a way of convincing these student-teachers — like myself — of the opportunity they have to make an impact in their soon-to-be drillees lives. As I considered it, seeing this group — many of whom are first-years — three times a week, was an opportunity to help them continually grow and adjust to Dartmouth.
Rassias-Miles has been developing her larger-than-life enthusiasm for language for a long time. She would humbly tell anyone who asked that she “got it from her dad.” After growing up going on the French LSA every summer with her father, professor and creator of the Rassias method John Rassias, Rassias-Miles had an up-close look at the foreign language curriculum at Dartmouth.
“[My father and I] worked together for a very long time, which was of course very inspirational,” Rassias-Miles said, speaking to the family legacy of the Rassias Center.
Although she started a travel company that imitated the LSA-style experience for high school students early in her career, she soon returned to the Rassias Center.
“Dartmouth has always felt like home … it is home,” she told me.
In a short 45-minute introduction to the signature Rassias Method, I was easily convinced that the drill process makes a real difference in the quick uptake of language. John Rassias also trailblazed rapid English-learning programs abroad, and Rassias-Miles said it was always important to her father that language students “went abroad with the ability to also teach language quickly.” It was Rassias’ goal that drillees would go on to eventually become the drill instructor.
Julian Franco ’24 is a native Spanish speaker and has been a drill instructor for six terms for the Spanish department. To Franco, being a drill instructor ties him back to home.
“I enjoy speaking in Spanish a lot,” Franco said. “Being away from home, I don’t get as many opportunities to speak [in Spanish].”
Franco has used his experience in the position to enrich the experience for students, building upon the notion of drill as “a framework and jumping-off point,” as Rassias-Miles called it. Franco, as a veteran drill instructor, has continually found ways to engage each new group of students.
“I do lots of Spanish-related games. I’ll put the capitals of every Spanish-speaking country, make two teams, and have them hit the table when they recognize the capital of a country,” Franco said. “They like the competition, it keeps them invested in what we’re doing together.”
Franco’s effect on his students spoke for itself. As I interviewed him, one of his Spanish drill students, Mac Mahoney ’26, waved, walked over and shared cheerfully that Franco made his experience in introductory Spanish “the best it could possibly be.” The two fist-bumped, and Mahoney hurried off, leaving Franco noticeably content after the interaction.
“It’s another group of people on campus you wave to, see in the library,” Franco said. “It’s always nice to have that.”
For others, drill can be a helpful exercise in making mistakes towards a constructive goal.
“Drill helped me understand that it really is okay, even helpful, to make mistakes with language,” Cooper Hyldahl ’26, a current GERM 3, “Intermediate German” student, said. “Doing it with other students makes it fun, and I’ve come to love the process, since starting with German 1 this past winter.”
Drill serves the two-fold purpose of repping basic vocabulary and grammatical forms and forming an often meaningful connection between students fluent in a language and those just beginning it.
“[Drill is] so basic — it’s really about establishing patterns,” Rassias-Miles said. “When you establish a pattern, you have the confidence to speak. ”
For morning drill instructors in particular, remembering the greater service of drill can be motivating, even on the tougher, sleep-deprived early mornings. From starting GERM 1, “Introductory German,” my freshman winter to going on the German LSA in Berlin the following summer to now experiencing what helping to teach the language is like, I see the value of sweating to pick up a language quickly.
My brain felt most primed in the first three months when I really focused on vocabulary, on how the words sound and on my enthusiasm for trying a new thing. When I come back to the core of language-learning, it is about connecting with a broader reach of people — being able to reach beyond the English-speaking world and into an entirely separate view of life.
While students may get lost in the first and second plurals or lists of household items and animals, a deeper fluency in a language yields unparalleled moments — for me, those are speaking to a street vendor in Berlin fluently, conversing with my host mother in her native language, hearing street art German descriptions and feeling almost like a local in Germany. Teachers are the gateway into those feelings.
As a parting thought during our Inauguration weekend interview, Rassias-Miles smiled as the campus gospel choir belted out a song during their dress rehearsal in the background.
“Shouldn’t the student feel as positive as we all just did after the gospel choir’s performance?” Rassias-Miles asked.
That comparison inspired me. With the right effort and focus, my help with language teaching could be memorable to drill students for years. Here at Dartmouth, the Rassias method adds that uniqueness that makes language learning transformative, rhythmic — even a little magical.