WASHINGTON — The U.S. military’s efforts to have more language-qualified servicemembers are beginning to pay off, the Defense Department’s senior language authority said this week.
Nancy E. Weaver testified June 29 before the House Armed Services Committee’s oversight subcommittee.
Knowing the language, knowing the nuances of the spoken word, understanding cultural norms and being able to have a free exchange of ideas are keys to winning the support and buy-in of a population in counterinsurgency strategy. In 2001, the U.S. military had few Dari or Pashtu speakers who could communicate with Afghans. While the military has more Arabic speakers in Iraq than it used to, a shortage persists.
The Defense Language Program looks to provide language training to communicate not only with populations, but also with allies, Weaver said, noting that the department has termed servicemembers with language capabilities as “key enablers” for operations. Languages in most demand are Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Persian, Uzbek, Pashto, Swahili, Wolof and Korean, she said.
More and more language specialists have been recruited and trained, but much more remains to be done, Weaver said. Officials need to know how many language specialists are required and what languages they need to speak, she said, so the Defense Department has asked the combatant commands “to identify and prioritize language skills, regional expertise and cultural capabilities required for their missions.” These requirements should be in place at the end of the year, she added.
The department also needs to continue language training at the service academies and for ROTC students. The program allows cadets and midshipmen to study languages during the school year and then receive immersion training in the various countries during the summers, Weaver explained.
Recruiting native speakers – servicemembers who grew up speaking a language in addition to English – is a key way of getting the expertise to the field quickly, Weaver said. More than 1,000 soldiers have graduated from the Army’s program and now are operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, she told the House panel.
Defense Department civilian personnel also need language skills, she said, and the department has initiated programs concentrated at the Defense Intelligence Agency to train civilian employees in languages.
All these programs mean the “brick-and-mortar” schools cannot handle the demand, Weaver said, so the Defense Language Institute has deployed language training teams.
“From October 2009 to the present, [the teams] have taught over 8,500 students in nonresident language training, provided nearly 43,000 students language familiarization training and have shipped over 1.5 million language survival kits,” Weaver said.
The language program has to be inclusive, Weaver said, and no one knows the language proficiency needed for the future. In the 1980s, she said, the military trained Russian speakers. In the 1990s, it was Serbo-Croatian. In the early 2000s, it was Arabic and Dari. But the earthquake in Haiti early this year highlighted the need for military Creole and French speakers, she noted.
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