US: For Military, Slow Progress in Foreign Language Push
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Mon Sep 22 13:34:04 UTC 2008
For Military, Slow Progress in Foreign Language Push By WILL BARDENWERPER
WASHINGTON — Three years ago, the Defense Department set out to increase
sharply the number of military personnel who speak strategically important
languages. Progress has been slow, and the military has not determined how
to reach its goal — or what exactly that goal is. Figures from the
department indicate that only 1.2 percent of the military receives a bonus
paid to those who can speak languages judged to be of critical importance
for the current conflicts in
as well as other areas of strategic concern. The military has struggled for
years to develop a clear objective for language training.
In July, at a hearing of the House subcommittee charged with assessing the
military's progress in language training, the chairman, Representative Vic
Snyder, Democrat of Arkansas, said: "I think the Pentagon has a sense that
they're moving in the right direction. I just don't think they have a sense
yet of what that endpoint is." John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who
is co-author of the Army's new counterinsurgency field manual, said in an
interview that the military had been moving too slowly, and he questioned
the military's assertion that language needs were difficult to assess since
they were subject to changing global security conditions. The military by
now should "have a pretty good idea of what countries we're fighting in," he
Dr. Nagl, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said the
Army understood the value of having more foreign language speakers in its
ranks. But, he said, it had not "done the math on what it means" and had yet
to "build the programs and provide the leader development to get there."
He noted that after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the United States
urgently worked to develop a cadre of Russian speakers and scholars. But
after the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, neither the military nor other
government agencies executed a similarly ambitious program for Arabic
The services have adopted a number of programs that have had some success.
The Army developed a program to recruit native speakers of strategically
important languages to serve as translators; so far, more than 600 have
graduated. One of them, Sgt. Mohammed Lamaffar, earned a law degree in his
native Morocco and enlisted in the Army, where he is an Arabic linguist
working with an infantry company commanded by Capt. Eric Nelson.
"Having a soldier who speaks Arabic is a huge asset," Captain Nelson said in
an e-mail message from an outpost near Baghdad. "A patrol with a good
interpreter is 10 times as valuable as one with a lousy one."
The need is not just for Arabic speakers. The Defense Language Institute, in
Monterey, Calif., has increased its number of students in Arabic, Chinese
and Farsi to 2,171, from 1,144 in 2001. The Marine Corps now awards 40 seats
annually at the Defense Language Institute to marines who have re-enlisted
and expressed an interest in learning a language of value to the military.
The military has also increased the number of Foreign Area Officers to more
than 1,600, from 1,164 in 2001. These officers receive advanced language and
cultural training for their designated region.
Because not enough soldiers speak foreign languages, the military has had to
rely on more than 10,000 civilian contract linguists, many local Afghans and
Iraqis of widely differing abilities. Captain Nelson said that his 120-man
infantry company had 11 Iraqi interpreters, but that only nine were capable
of doing the work.
"At times," he said, "a patrol will go out with an unskilled interpreter and
fail to communicate with the Iraqis they encounter because of it."
While the military over all has been criticized as moving slowly, individual
units are taking it upon themselves to generate language capabilities. One
of those units is the Fourth Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, in
Washington State, which established an intensive 10-month Arabic course for
125 of its soldiers to attend before their next deployment, said Gail H.
McGinn, senior language authority at the Department of Defense.
Some witnesses at a Congressional hearing in September said the demands on
the military after the Sept. 11 attacks had made it difficult to find time
for more extensive language training. As a result, said Brig. Gen. Richard
M. Lake of the Marines<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/m/us_marine_corps/index.html?inline=nyt-org>,
"some units and individuals don't receive as much training in all areas to
include language as some commanders desire."
The military has made efforts to bolster the number of cadets and midshipmen
enrolled in language programs at the service academies and R.O.T.C. programs
so that they are already proficient in a foreign language when commissioned.
Still, an average of 21 percent of Army, Navy and Air
cadets complete two semesters of foreign language study. The Army
reports that only 106 of its 24,000 R.O.T.C. cadets are majoring in a
In the meantime, rather than continue to wait for the military to overhaul
its language training opportunities, enterprising soldiers like Captain
Nelson can always turn to the Rosetta Stone language software. That
software, he noted, "the government does provide at no cost to the soldier."
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