USA — Program Bolsters Department’s Language Capabilities

WASHINGTON — Coun­terin­sur­gency oper­a­tions are based on pro­tect­ing the pop­u­la­tion, and to do that, you have to be able to com­mu­ni­cate.
Dur­ing a meet­ing in Afghanistan’s Hel­mand province, an Army spe­cial­ist stood between the Hel­mand gov­er­nor and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The young man ensured that both Mullen and the gov­er­nor under­stood not only what was being said, but the nuances in the con­ver­sa­tion.

The spe­cial­ist was an expert in Dari, the lan­guage of the region. But he also was an expert on the cul­ture. For three hours, he ensured that Mullen and the assem­bled Afghan lead­ers communicated. 

Because the Unit­ed States has world­wide com­mit­ments, the mil­i­tary, the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty and diplo­mats need peo­ple expert in the lan­guages of the world. But Amer­i­cans gen­er­al­ly don’t study for­eign lan­guages in much depth. Trav­el to the Nether­lands, and almost every­one speaks Eng­lish. Many also speak French and Ger­man and, of course, Dutch. But if you trav­el in the Unit­ed States, you’d bet­ter speak English. 

The Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Edu­ca­tion pro­gram seeks to change this par­a­digm. The pro­gram – aimed at civil­ians – has award­ed more than 4,200 schol­ar­ships and fel­low­ships to U.S. cit­i­zens to study crit­i­cal lan­guages and cul­tures. The ser­vices also recruit mil­i­tary per­son­nel to serve these com­mu­ni­ca­tion needs. 

The pro­gram gained momen­tum fol­low­ing the 9/11 attacks, and it is pay­ing off. 

Pro­gram offi­cials recent­ly hon­ored two par­tic­i­pants. Paul Mein­shausen, a 2006 pro­gram par­tic­i­pant, received the Howard Bak­er Jr. Award. Mein­shausen stud­ied Turk­ish and used the pro­gram to receive a master’s degree in Eurasian stud­ies. He is a gen­er­al mil­i­tary ana­lyst at the Nation­al Ground Intel­li­gence Center. 

Glen­da Jakubows­ki received the Sol Linowitz Award. Jakubows­ki holds a master’s degree in inter­na­tion­al and secu­ri­ty stud­ies and serves in Iraq as senior ana­lyst at the Joint Intel­li­gence Oper­a­tions Cen­ter. She speaks Ara­bic, and stud­ied in Cairo. 

The pro­gram was found­ed by for­mer Okla­homa Sen. David Boren in 1991. Boren rec­og­nized that nation­al secu­ri­ty orga­ni­za­tions need­ed these capa­bil­i­ties, and pro­posed the leg­is­la­tion found­ing the pro­gram. He now is pres­i­dent of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oklahoma. 

U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand has par­tic­u­lar­ly been push­ing the pro­gram, said Nan­cy Weaver of the Defense Lan­guage Office. 

Lan­guage and cul­ture are essen­tial to the fight,” she said dur­ing a recent inter­view. All ser­vice­mem­bers deploy­ing to the Cent­com area of oper­a­tions should receive at least an intro­duc­tion to lan­guage and cul­ture in their train­ing, she said, not­ing that lan­guage is key to under­stand­ing a culture. 

There are clues to a cul­ture that are hid­den in the lan­guage,” she explained. “That learn­ing process is con­tin­u­al. It does­n’t stop when you leave the class­room. You’ve got to inter­act with the local pop­u­la­tion in order to bet­ter under­stand what their con­cerns are and to get the infor­ma­tion you need to keep your peo­ple safe.” 

The need for lan­guage skills in a coun­terin­sur­gency fight is under­stood, but oth­er mil­i­tary oper­a­tions also require the capa­bil­i­ty, Weaver said. “After the earth­quake in Haiti, we need­ed per­son­nel who could speak Cre­ole,” she not­ed. “We were able to get many native and her­itage speak­ers there quickly.” 

Native speak­ers are those Amer­i­cans who were born in a coun­try and learned the lan­guage grow­ing up. Her­itage speak­ers are first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans who learned the lan­guage from their families. 

More than 7,000 dif­fer­ent lan­guages spo­ken in the world, and defense per­son­nel can be need­ed any­where. Still, the depart­ment has to focus on a few so-called strate­gic lan­guages, includ­ing Ara­bic, Chi­nese, Hin­di, Urdu and Dari. 

If you want to nego­ti­ate, if you want to inter­act, if you want to bet­ter under­stand the peo­ple you deal with, then you’ve got to make the effort to learn their lan­guage,” Weaver said. 

Defense Depart­ment offi­cials also look at what lan­guages are like­ly to be need­ed in the future. 

Giv­en the emerg­ing coun­tries in Africa, learn­ing those lan­guages will be impor­tant in the com­ing years,” Weaver said. “If we can start build­ing the capa­bil­i­ty now, we can have those [capa­bil­i­ties] when the need arises.” 

The pro­gram is not large by DOD stan­dards at $37 mil­lion, said Robert Slater, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Edu­ca­tion Pro­gram. He empha­sized that the pro­gram teach­es lan­guage “as a com­mu­nica­tive skill, rather than for a lit­er­a­ture major.” A gen­er­a­tion ago, he said, the empha­sis was on read­ing, not in conversation. 

Slater said the high­er-edu­ca­tion com­mu­ni­ty made a mis­take in drop­ping the for­eign-lan­guage require­ment, and not­ed that many uni­ver­si­ties are rein­stat­ing it. 

Pro­gram offi­cials are work­ing not only with col­leges, but also with high schools and ele­men­tary schools to pre­pare the next gen­er­a­tion of lan­guage stu­dents, he said. 

This is not a short-term pro­gram,” Weaver said. “It will be need­ed. You could get along with one lan­guage 25 years ago. But with tech­nol­o­gy the way it is, glob­al­iza­tion is here. Amer­i­cans real­ize that as a nation we need to work on lan­guage capability.” 

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

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