US: Official Responds to Congressional Findings on Military Linguistics

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sat Dec 13 16:46:44 UTC 2008

Official Responds to Congressional Findings on Military Linguistics

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, 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 department 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
training. "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 center.

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 words."

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 Chinese." 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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