US: Official Responds to Congressional Findings on Military Linguistics

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Fri Dec 12 18:28:27 UTC 2008

Official Responds to Congressional Findings on Military Linguistics
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

Dec. 11, 2008 - A congressional assessment of how the Pentagon is
implementing its language strategy reflects the Defense Department's
progress and shortfalls, a Pentagon official said yesterday. "I think
the House Armed Services Committee report accurately reflects the
progress that we've made," said Gail McGinn, deputy undersecretary of
defense for plans. "It also talked about some of the things that we
haven't quite accomplished yet, which we knew."

The report, released last month, acknowledges that the department and
the services are taking additional action to complement the 90-percent
completed tasks it outlined in a language plan launched four years
ago. Known as the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, the broad
strategy aims to address national shortfalls in foreign language
skills in the United States.

But one of the report's findings is that "inconsistencies" exist in
the way the department and the services are approaching language

The report recommends that the dpartment should clarify its policy
characterizing foreign language, regional expertise, and cultural
awareness as critical or core competencies essential to its missions
as a way to establish greater consistency.

McGinn said the services' leaders understand the importance of foreign
languages, but that the demands of language training – an Arabic
course lasts 63 weeks, for example – places difficulty on a force with
finite manning.

"When you talk about wanting to get more language capability in your
officer corps, it's hard to conceive of that in an officer's career,"
she said in an interview at the Pentagon yesterday.

To mitigate this, the department has begun focusing on pre-accession
education, meaning academics undertaken before becoming a military
servicemember, she said. The idea is that troops would enter the force
having completed previous language training.

As part of this transformation, all three service academies now
feature more robust strategic language and cultural program offerings.
As a result, more cadets and midshipmen are studying languages of
strategic importance. ROTC programs also reap the benefits, with
students enjoying a wider array of destinations for study abroad.
Beyond pure language know-how, McGinn said, the military hopes to
instill cultural and regional expertise in servicemembers, which often
require less labor-intensive instruction and time than language

"There's an issue of striking the right balance: we need cultural
understanding, we need regional expertise and we need foreign
language," she said. "We need to figure out how to fit all of that
into the force, and that is still a work in progress."

To ensure that the language transformation occurs smoothly and
successfully, the department has appointed senior language authorities
in each of the military services and agencies to conduct oversight,
execution and planning. McGinn said she meets regularly with these
representatives to best determine how to steer policy.

"We want them to know what is needed, what capability already exists,
and they also help me formulate policies and programs," she said of
senior language authorities.

Anther measure of transformational progress is the department's
establishment of centers of excellence in each military service to
oversee and standardize training and impart essential and
mission-targeted cultural training.

Pentagon officials also increased the Defense Language Institute
Foreign Language Center's funding from a fiscal 2001 budget of $77
million to $270 million this fiscal year. DLIFLC, located in Monterey,
Calif., is the department's premiere language and cultural training

McGinn said the overall goals are three-fold: more foundational and
strategic language expertise in the force, the ability to obtain
expertise in a language if needed at short notice, and to develop a
cadre of linguists with higher-level language skills.

The upshot of foreign language and cultural expertise is that it helps
U.S. servicemembers communicate, negotiate and set goals with foreign
partners. It also helps troops avoid pitfalls that often surround
language barriers.

In American military lingo, for example, the term "field of fire"
refers to area in which a person can be engaged by weaponry. "Someone
in another culture might see that as a burning wheat field," McGinn
pointed out. "And that's not what you mean at all when you said those

The maxim "know a language and understand what someone says, but know
a culture and understand what someone means" rings true in this
example. Unfortunately, U.S. education does not greatly emphasize the
study of foreign language and culture, the report notes.

"One problem pointed out in the report is that the American
educational system really isn't where we would hope it would be in
terms of producing high school grads with foreign language ability,"
McGinn said. "We are not robust in strategic languages like Arabic and

As the committee report states, "The military's lack of language
skills and cultural expertise is a symptom of the larger problem
facing the nation as a whole."

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