Pentagon to Stress Foreign Languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Apr 12 18:05:48 UTC 2005

Pentagon to Stress Foreign Languages

By Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page A04

The Pentagon has ordered a broad effort to expand the foreign language
skills of the U.S. military, calling for recruitment of more foreign
language speakers, higher proficiency levels for linguists and increased
language instruction for U.S. forces. Among measures still under
consideration, a senior defense official said, is adoption of a
requirement that all or most U.S. military officers understand a foreign

The moves reflect plans by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his
team to better prepare U.S. forces for more operations and training
missions in foreign countries and for working with international
coalitions. In recent strategy statements, the Rumsfeld group has made
clear that as part of the war on terrorism, it expects the U.S. military
to take more action abroad to prevent nations from falling prey to
terrorists or being undermined by such other threats as insurgency, drugs
and organized crime. "This new approach to warfighting in the 21st century
will require forces that have foreign language capabilities beyond those
generally available in today's force," a new Pentagon report said.

The report expressed high-level concern about what it said are serious
shortfalls in the language skills and cultural awareness of U.S. forces.
It faulted the Defense Department for doing poorly in retaining troops
with language experience or training in regional areas. It also
acknowledged that defense officials have done little to determine what
language talent exists in the force, saying such talent "is unknown and
untapped." "Language skill and regional expertise have not been regarded
as warfighting skills and are not sufficiently incorporated into
operational or contingency planning," said the report, released to little
notice last week. The ability of U.S. troops to communicate in and
understand foreign cultures, it added, has become "as important as
critical weapons systems."

Much of the Pentagon's approach to language skills dates to the Cold War,
said David S.C. Chu, the Pentagon's undersecretary for personnel. The
emphasis then was on training translators for intelligence work, mostly
focused on the old Soviet Union. Now, Chu said, the challenge goes well
beyond sustaining a small cadre of professional linguists, extending to
large numbers of combat forces and requiring knowledge of such languages
as Arabic and Chinese.

"We're really aiming to move a big part of the force -- that would
otherwise only know a few words or nothing -- up to some kind of middle
category," he said in an interview. One option under review is whether to
require every officer, in Chu's words, to "have some degree of competence
in one or more of what we call the 'investment languages,' " meaning
Arabic, Chinese, Japanese or Korean.  "We've asked the military services
for a concept on how we'd do this," Chu said.

According to Pentagon figures, about 84,000 service members have some
language proficiency. Of those, about 19,000 have had their language skill
certified and receive "proficiency pay." About 1,900 service members are
listed as proficient in Arabic. No decision has been made on how many more
professional linguists are needed or what percentage of the U.S. military
should receive language training, Chu said. But he described last week's
report as meant to signal that quiet efforts begun in 2002 to address the
language issue would be giving way to bolder action.

Titled "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap," the report outlined a
series of directives to the military services and regional commands, with
deadlines for action stretching over the next several years. By the end of
the year, for instance, a Pentagon survey is to be conducted to determine
how many military and civilian personnel in the Defense Department speak a
foreign language. A Pentagon "Language Office" is being established, and a
"language readiness index" will be devised to measure the military's

Additionally, the services have been ordered to develop plans for
recruiters to step up efforts among university students with foreign
language skills, and in immigrant and "heritage" communities in which
foreign languages are widely spoken. Officials are looking as well at ways
of quickly expanding the number of language specialists in the event of a
foreign crisis, by streamlining procedures for hiring contract linguists
and by compiling a database of linguists who previously worked for the
Defense Department. A pilot program for a Civilian Linguistic Reserve
Corps also is being launched.

The minimum proficiency standard will be raised, particularly for those
headed for military intelligence work. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being
most proficient, the traditional requirement for graduates of the
Pentagon's Defense Language Institute has been achievement of a level of 2
in reading, listening and speaking. That will jump to a level of 3 for
some graduates, reflecting what officials say are the greater demands of
counterterrorism work. "This is not just figuring out how many tanks the
enemy has," Chu said.  "This is more nuanced work. This is tracking people
who communicate with allusions, with metaphors."

To improve retention of troops skilled in a foreign language, the Pentagon
intends to provide higher pay and greater chances of promotion. Chu
acknowledged that the Pentagon has not done enough to keep these forces,
particularly Army specialists known as "Foreign Area Officers" with
extensive regional experience. Most of these officers often have not risen
above the rank of lieutenant colonel, Chu noted. "Fortunately, there was a
cadre of people who loved doing this kind of work, even if we didn't
manage them all that well," he said. "Now we're saying this is an
important warfighting skill, and we have to nurture and manage it."

 2005 The Washington Post Company

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