Demand Grows for Squad-level Linguist Program

MONTEREY, Calif., Oct. 25, 2011 — Last year, 74 sol­diers at Fort Camp­bell, Ky., became the first to par­tic­i­pate in a new pro­gram that pro­vides short-term, inten­sive lan­guage and cul­tur­al train­ing to deploy­ing mil­i­tary mem­bers.

The gen­er­al pur­pose force pro­gram was­n’t designed for pro­fes­sion­al lin­guists or inter­preters, explained Sam Garzan­i­ti, who man­ages it at the Defense Lan­guage Insti­tute For­eign Lan­guage Cen­ter here. Rather, the pro­gram pro­vides basic Dari or Pash­to instruc­tion, taught by native Afghan speak­ers, to help non­lin­guists — mil­i­tary police, medics, truck dri­vers and infantry­men, among them, — oper­ate more effec­tive­ly on the ground in Afghanistan.

Retired Army Gen. Stan­ley A. McChrys­tal came up with the con­cept when he com­mand­ed the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force to cre­ate what deployed forces refer to as “squad-des­ig­nat­ed lin­guists” able to com­mu­ni­cate with the Afghan peo­ple. Grad­u­ates of the pro­gram proved so ben­e­fi­cial to their deployed units that it’s now grow­ing by leaps and bounds.

Fort Car­son, Colo., one of three pilot sites when the pro­gram stood up last year, soon sent almost 300 sol­diers to a con­densed ver­sion of the train­ing before they deployed. The vast major­i­ty stud­ied Dari, with the oth­er 49 sol­diers learn­ing Pash­to. Fort Drum, N.Y., also in the pilot pro­gram, sent 55 10th Moun­tain Divi­sion sol­diers to its ini­tial gen­er­al pur­pose force train­ing.

“After that, it has just been a steady flow of class­es,” Garzan­i­ti said. Schofield Bar­racks in Hawaii signed on to the pro­gram in Sep­tem­ber 2010. Fort Bragg, N.C., fol­lowed ear­li­er this year.

The Marines jumped on board, too, with Camp Leje­une, N.C., and Camp Pendle­ton, Calif., join­ing the pro­gram last fall.

To date, about 1,000 ser­vice mem­bers have com­plet­ed the pro­gram, Garzan­i­ti said. He expects more enroll­ment in the pro­gram as word about it spreads.

Class­es typ­i­cal­ly run 13 to 16 weeks, with stu­dents spend­ing as much as six hours a day in the class­room, in addi­tion to prac­tice ses­sions and manda­to­ry study halls.

Unlike oth­er Defense Lan­guage Insti­tute pro­grams, the gen­er­al pur­pose force cur­ricu­lum focus­es on lis­ten­ing and speak­ing skills, Garzan­i­ti said. Stu­dents learn vocab­u­lary and verb tens­es and how to con­struct sen­tences. Then they prac­tice using them in var­i­ous sce­nar­ios sim­i­lar to what they might encounter in Afghanistan.

“It’s a very-focused pro­gram,” Garzan­i­ti said. “We’re not going for glob­al pro­fi­cien­cy. We are going for tac­ti­cal func­tion­al­i­ty.”

Grad­u­ates aren’t meant to take the place of pro­fes­sion­al lin­guists and inter­preters, he said. For exam­ple, they typ­i­cal­ly aren’t able to dis­cuss the news with local Afghans. They can, how­ev­er, ask for direc­tions or share pleas­antries over tea or dur­ing key leader engage­ments.

They also have the skills to ask ques­tions and under­stand respons­es at road­blocks and read street signs and even graf­fi­ti on walls that may pro­vide clues about insur­gent activ­i­ties.

“That makes them a force mul­ti­pli­er,” Garzan­i­ti said. “When they go out and do their oper­a­tions, what­ev­er they may be, hav­ing some­body there in the front able to at least greet [the Afghans] and lay ground­work for some­thing makes a huge dif­fer­ence. They are some­body to help.”

Return­ing units report that even lim­it­ed lan­guage and cul­tur­al skills have helped them in their mis­sion. “We’ve got­ten a lot of good feed­back from peo­ple who have been in coun­try say­ing, ‘Hey, this works absolute­ly great,’ ” Garzan­i­ti said. “They tell you that you speak two words and you see a face light up.”

A pro­fes­sion­al lin­guist him­self who retired from the Army last year, Garzan­i­ti said he has seen first­hand the impact lan­guage abil­i­ty had on the Afghans we encoun­tered.

“They know you took the time to learn at least a few words, a phrase, two phras­es,” he said. “It makes all the dif­fer­ence in the world.”

More units are sign­ing up as the mes­sage spreads about gen­er­al pur­pose force train­ing avail­abil­i­ty, Garzan­i­ti said.

“I def­i­nite­ly don’t see any slow­down in busi­ness,” he said. “As more com­man­ders hear the good sto­ries from our brigades and bat­tal­ions and com­pa­nies that have used these peo­ple [dur­ing deploy­ments], we see them start­ing to put their hands up and ask­ing, ‘What about me?’ ”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)