[EDLING:818] Pentagon promotes foreign-language skills
Francis M Hult
fmhult at DOLPHIN.UPENN.EDU
Sun May 15 20:45:10 UTC 2005
Pentagon promotes foreign-language skills
Christian Science Monitor
May 15, 2005 12:00 AM
MONTEREY, Calif. - The Pentagon makes no secret of the fact that Staff Sgt. Aaron Jarvis
will soon be one of its most valuable assets in the war on terror. Yet the most important
part of his daily training does not involve a fighter jet, a rifle or an obstacle course.
It involves only a classroom and constant conversation, as Sergeant Jarvis unravels the
peculiar pronunciations and subtle scrawlings of Dari, one of the two official Afghan
To Jarvis, a one-time pizza-store manager who has already learned Serbo-Croatian as an Air
Force linguist, the switch to Dari is just another assignment here at the Defense Language
Institute, or DLI. But more broadly, it is part of a fundamental shift at the Pentagon as
leaders increasingly see foreign-language skills not as a peripheral part of the
military's mission, but as crucial to the success of American forces abroad.
In the future, officers could be required to have some familiarity with a second language;
enlistees might receive language instruction during basic training. No decisions have yet
been made. Yet when the Pentagon released its Defense Language Transformation Road Map
last month, it made clear its view that security in a post-Sept. 11 world requires not
only a military capable of deploying to the remotest corner of the world at a moment's
notice, but also soldiers capable of coping with the cultural and linguistic challenges
they meet when they arrive there.
"We think this is, in the end, an essential war-fighting skill for the military of the
future," says David Chu, undersecretary of personnel.
The Pentagon's road map offers only a general outline of what language skills it feels are
needed in today's military. Yet its goals are ambitious. In essence, it seeks to take
language from the perimeter of military life - the province of intelligence specialists
translating documents and listening to radio chatter - and make it a more seamless part of
Its aim is threefold: to promote at least basic language skills among the broader base of
soldiers and officers; to improve the proficiency of linguists like Jarvis; and to
replicate efforts like the Translator Aide Program, which recruits native speakers of key
languages from immigrant communities across the country, helping the Army ramp up its
translator corps quickly.
"A broader base of competence and a selection of individuals with high-end capacity is
essential to our future success, and we need to have some way to react in an agile fashion
to unexpected events," says Chu. "No one five years ago would have foreseen that we needed
a significant Pashtun and Dari competence."
In Afghanistan and Iraq, the need is obvious and increasing. "We are trying to win the
peace, and it is very important for us to be able to communicate even at a basic level,"
says Lt. Col. William Astore, dean of students at the DLI. "I would much rather have
soldiers communicate using words rather than using a rifle butt."
Language road map
Here on the DLI's piney campus overlooking the blue canvas of Monterey Bay, the war on
terror can seem an unthinkable notion, separated by thousands of miles and the cool breeze
of a California state of mind. But it is around every corner. As the military's primary
language school, the DLI is essentially the flagship for the changes of the language road
map, and as it grows to meet the increasing demand, it has undergone as much of a
transformation as the military itself.
Some of that change is obvious in Jarvis. His original instruction in Serbo-Croatian is
like a waypost of the past, when the armed forces and DLI were nearly singular in their
focus on Russia and the Eastern Bloc. Back then, Jarvis didn't much care which language he
learned, saying of his desire to enlist as a linguist: "It was a bit of service, and a bit
of interest. . . . And I didn't want to be a mechanic."
But when Jarvis returned for his second stint last year, both he and the DLI knew where
the action was.
After Sept. 11, the DLI scrambled to create a program that covered Dari, Pashtun, Uzbek
and other languages spoken in the Afghan region, scouring local communities for
native-speaking teachers, and sometimes laying out the curriculum only a week before
instructors taught it. It was the DLI's own model of agility to meet an unexpected demand.
Jarvis wanted to study Farsi, the language of Iran. The DLI gave him Dari, its Afghan
dialect. And during the 47-week course, he has gained something beyond an understanding of
a script that reads right to left, he has gained an appreciation of Afghan culture.
"It's probably the most interesting thing, learning about the culture," he says. "Learning
about Islam, you see how it affects their life and how so much of the culture is based on
To Philip Carter, that is an invaluable lesson for any soldier. During his time as a
military-police platoon leader in Korea years ago, he became convinced of the importance
of not only language skills but also cultural understanding. His platoon included Korean
draftees who served with the U.S. military, and without them, he might have caused riots
without even knowing why.
"You need someone with a knowledge of the social hierarchy, who knows whether a handshake
is a good or bad thing, and whether it's an insult to refuse coffee," says Carter, who is
now a military analyst. The military "was slow off the dime, but now is a good time to
Pentagon going too far?
Others, however, worry that the Pentagon might go too far. Language and cultural training
makes sense at the DLI, because students are here for that purpose. But spreading even a
watered-down version to the wider officer corps, much less to enlisted soldiers, risks
undermining their primary goal: preparing for battle.
Army Capt. Adam Sellers can see both sides. As a member of the Foreign Area Officer
program here at the DLI, he understands the need for good language skills; he has
committed to spending a year in China to become conversant with its language and culture.
But he also thinks back to his time as a commanding officer and wonders when he would have
had a spare moment for language instruction amid all the drilling and training.
"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said, 'I don't have time for that,' " he
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