AFCLC, Air Force Culture and Language Center, Air Force's Global Classroom

LEAP Scholar looks back on career filled with Language and Learning

  • Published
  • By James Brown, AFCLC Outreach Team

In his career in both the Air Force and the Space Force, Lt. Col. Samuel Shearer has traveled to many places and met many people, but one thing has remained a constant: his love of learning language. The Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) has been a way for him to pursue that passion as part of his military career.

The first foreign language Shearer mastered was Swedish. He became fluent after spending two years as a missionary in Sweden. This led to him tackling Norwegian as well.

“My mother’s ancestors come from Norway, so I have always had a fascination with Norway,” Shearer said. “Since Swedish and Norwegian are similar, I began to take the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) in Norwegian to see how well I could understand the language, and things just took off from there.”

Shearer’s pursuit of learning the Norwegian language led to three different Language Intensive Training Events (LITEs) in Norway through LEAP. These events are designed to improve a LEAP Scholar’s cultural and language mastery by immersing them in a foreign country and developing mission-ready Airmen and Guardians.

“My first LITE was in 2014, and I stayed with a young family,” Shearer said. “My Norwegian skills at that time were self-taught, so I was a bit nervous, but I knew I would make it since I was fluent in Swedish. My main mission with this LITE was to find my weaknesses in the language and to begin to fill in the gaps. I will admit I was a bit shocked to find so many subtle differences between Swedish and Norwegian, but fortunately, my host spoke Swedish as well, so she was able to correct me on the spot and help me understand the differences. I left Norway with more confidence in the language, but I knew I had a long way to go to achieve the same fluency I enjoyed in Swedish.”

On his 2nd LITE, a to Norway in 2018, Shearer stayed with a retired teacher who helped him boost his Norwegian language skills.

“My experience with her was much different than my first stay in Norway,” Shearer said. “She took her role as my tutor very seriously and pushed my language skills to the next level. I feel I got the real Norwegian experience, from food and culture to language and politics. She wanted me to succeed in achieving my mission of becoming more comfortable in all aspects of Norway and its language. She made me a traditional Christmas meal in the summer, took me to her summer cabin in the fjords, and ensured I experienced the Norwegian culture to the fullest. Every morning, we sat at her table and spent 4 to 5 hours studying Norwegian, and she would leave me with plenty of homework. We would end the day by sitting in front of the news. After the news, she would quiz me on what I heard and understood. I honestly felt like I ate, drank, slept, and in every other sense of the LITE experience, lived Norwegian. I loved it, and it was mentally exhausting. I returned home much stronger in the language and scored my first 3/3 on the DLPT.”

Shearer’s 3rd LITE in Norway took place in 2023, and it offered a different challenge than the previous two.

“I specifically requested the same tutor I had in 2018 because I had learned so much in such a short period of time,” he said. “My listening skills had atrophied, but I knew they would come back quickly. I was more worried about my speaking abilities, so my mission was to improve those skills. Instead of having a rest day before starting my Norwegian training, my tutor picked up where we left off.  On day one, she had me watch the news and explain to her what I learned. The next three weeks were speaking intensive. While I still worked on my reading and listening skills, my tutor focused on my speaking. We went to restaurants, museums, and even a series on Alzheimer’s at the local university. The ultimate test of my language skills came when I ended up in a hospital in Oslo. The hospital staff found out I was in Norway to learn their language, so they only spoke Norwegian with me. Many of them were curious about why I wanted to learn their language and enjoyed teaching me new words and phrases. One doctor would return to my room often and see if I could remember what he taught me. While not the LITE experience I was hoping for, I got to see a part of Norway most people don’t see. My speaking skills improved tremendously, and I returned home feeling much more confident in my abilities. As luck would have it, the week after I returned home, a Norwegian military space contingent visited my unit, and I went out and greeted them in their language. That shocked them and made them curious why an American would learn their language and I was able to explain what LEAP was.”

Shearer is winding down his military career and will retire from the Space Force within a year. As he looks back, he said he is thankful for the LEAP program.

“LEAP has been a game changer for my Norwegian language skills,” he said. “I had plateaued in my personal study efforts, and the LEAP LITEs breathed new life into them. I achieved DLPT scores I wasn’t sure I would ever get on my own.”

Although Norway is not an ally that most Americans think of in terms of military partners, Dr. Elizabeth Peifer, Associate Professor of Regional and Cultural Studies (Europe) with the Air Force Culture and Language Center, stressed the importance of building relationships with our Norwegian partners.

“Norway is a founding member of NATO and for a long time was the only member sharing a border with the U.S.S.R./Russia,” she said. “Also, the U.S. has identified the Arctic as a strategic area, and Norway has more experience operating in the Arctic than any other European partner.”

Shearer agreed that his Norwegian LEAP experiences had tremendous value.

“I have had many friends and even military members ask why Norwegian is a language we need to learn when most Norwegians speak English,” he said. “Our relationships with other countries should not be about what benefits the U.S. We need to be cognizant of how we are reciprocating in our relationship and helping our allies and partners. While learning the language of a country and its customs may seem a very small thing, it really matters. It demonstrates that we are serious about seeing things from their point of view, and it strengthens the relationship. While in Norway, I interacted with a lot of Norwegians and the vast majority were surprised and even pleased I was making an effort to speak their language. That simple act opened doors of friendship, and they became more willing to help me.”

This ties in with Shearer’s belief that the LEAP program is valuable to the U.S. military.

“Properly used, LEAP can build or mend bridges with other countries,” he said. “It also opens the minds of service members about the needs, wants, and goals of other countries and why we interact with them. LEAP members can help their fellow service members, and even Senior Leaders, to understand the value of other countries and their perspective on situations we, the United States, find ourselves facing. LEAP members can educate others about the gaps we have and how our allies, partners, or other like-minded countries can fill in those gaps.”

Because of the LEAP program's value to the U.S. military and to the LEAP Scholars themselves, Shearer has been enthusiastic about recommending the LEAP journey to his fellow service members.

“I have encouraged many service members to join LEAP,” he said. “I like to share the experiences I have had in LEAP, from the online language programs to LITEs. I share with them the excitement of learning about other cultures and their languages and how LEAP is a unique way for them (as an Airman and/or Guardian) to have a positive impact on the United States military’s relationships with militaries from around the world.”

AFCLC emblem. Air Force Culture and Language Center. Air Force's Global Classroom.

551 E. Maxwell Blvd, Bldg 500, Maxwell AFB, AL 36112


Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Instagram

More News