USA — Official Details Foreign Language Program’s Progress

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.

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