Small Wars Journal

Overcoming Our Dearth of Language Skills

Tue, 08/23/2011 - 9:15am

 Several threads on Army Professional Forums (APF), primarily in the Counterinsurgency (COIN) Operations and Security Force Assistance (SFA) forums, discuss the relevance and importance of cultural and language training in preparing future Army leaders for this “era of persistent conflict" that many, including the former SECDEF Gates and former CJCS Mullen, see as part of our future.  In order to fully appreciate any culture we are learning about, especially if we expect to conduct operations in that particular culture, it follows that learning the language will not only help one learn about that culture but be able to operate more effectively once immersed in it.  A 2010 Small Wars Journal article by LTG Michael Vane (The US Army's Shift to Irregular Warfare) also notes the importance of culture and language training by the US military due to the changing nature of the global security environment in which state-on-state conventional wars have been supplanted by smaller scale regional conflicts, trans-national and non-state terrorist actions, and other irregular security challenges conducted among local populations and lasting several years if not decades.

A question posed on APF dealt with what languages & regions to focus on given the changing security environment and our role in it.  After all, conflicts affecting US and allied interests - whether they involve foreign internal defense, counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism, or post-conflict reconstruction efforts - could spring up most anywhere.  If we consider the following, we might be able to better narrow down where we ought to focus our education & training efforts:

a)  Read Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order" and Thomas P.M. Barnett's "The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century".  In "Clash of Civilizations", Huntington talks of potential conflicts arising along cultural "fault lines", for example, where Christianity meets Islam (Central Asia/ Turkey/ Caucasus regions) or where Hindu culture meets Sinic culture (Himalaya/ Central Asian region).  In "The Pentagon's New Map", Thomas Barnett posits that the world is divided between the "connected" (primarily Western) regions/ countries and the "disconnected" or "Gap" areas, with many of those "gap" regions being in Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, etc.  Given these two authors & ideas they put forth, the Army may want to look at educating Soldiers in Turkish, Persian, Hindi, and Chinese as well as focusing on those areas for cultural/ regional education.

While I am aware of some of the criticisms of the above-mentioned authors, particularly Samuel Huntington and his position that the world can be broken down into well-defined cultural blocks along whose seams conflict may arise, I offer both authors and their ideas simply as starting points as we determine how to analyze primary areas of focus for culture and language instruction and not necessarily as the leading choices upon which to establish training policy.         

b)  Though quite radical, we may want to revive the British concept of a "shooting leave" (we'll call it something else of course).  During the period of British rule in India, both Company and Government, a "shooting leave" involved a British officer taking a few weeks or months of leave in order to travel through potentially hostile lands and gather information and intelligence, which involved the possibility of shooting or being shot at.  For our purposes, our officers ought to be able to take a sabbatical, perhaps no more than 3 to 6 months, and embed themselves in non-governmental organizations (NGO) operating in one of the regions we are interested in (with Doctors Without Borders in Tajikistan for instance) so that he may use/ improve his language capabilities, learn first-hand information about the region he is in, and work with organizations that we may end up dealing with should we become involved in those areas.  We may also want to look at embedding in foreign militaries involved in combat operations (Indians in Kashmir, Russians in the Cacausus, etc) or with private military companies (PMCs) operating overseas.  These opportunities would allow one to immerse in a local culture, refine language skills, as well observe routine activities (whether in conflict or non-conflict zones) in those areas of interest (a similar idea was proposed by COL (R) Scott Wuestner in his paper Building Partner Capacity/ Security Force Assistance: A New Structural Paradigm, Feb 2009).

An obvious concern regarding the institution of the "shooting leave" program is one of security....will those who participate be in grave danger from kidnapping, torture, and/ or death with all of it posted on some jihadist website for all to see?  Clearly anyone who volunteers for an assignment that affords one the opportunity to live and work in a foreign environment, especially an unstable environment, would understand the high risks involved.  In fact, I suspect those who volunteer would do so partly for that reason.  Then there are the concerns of those leaders charged with ensuring the safety of our troops and, in recent years, they have shown themselves to be quite risk-averse.  Getting them to buy off on sending individual Soldiers or even small groups of Soldiers to live, work, or possibly fight along side foreign military forces or private military companies would be tricky to say the least. 

But those fears might be quelled by adopting a modified version of the "Volckmann Program" proposed by COL Eric Wendt in his paper The Green Beret Volckmann Program: Maximizing the Prevent Strategy from the July-September 2011 edition of Special Warfare magazine.  COL Wendt proposes that select SF Soldiers be afforded opportunities to embed directly into foreign military forces as a routine part of their careers and that such embeds be managed by the Security Cooperation Office (SCO) in the resident US Embassy.  Modifying this program to allow general purpose forces (GPF) to embed while being managed and secured by the local US embassy SCO team, coupled with thorough combat and survival training of the embedded GPF and vetting of the host-nation units or NGOs to be embedded in, would reduce, though not eliminate, the admittedly high risks.  The resident SCO team would maintain a life-line to the GPF embeds in a manner similar to the program outlined by COL Wendt for his SF Volckmann team members.  For those embedding in PMCs, they would also be managed by the SCO team but the legal ramifications regarding their status would have to be addressed, perhaps treating them in the same way that war correspondents are viewed and treated, and potentially constraining them to observers only.

The obvious question here is "Why not leave such a program to the SOF community since this is precisely what they were designed for?”.  A valid question, but security force assistance (SFA) and building partner capacity (BPC) are now core competencies of the conventional Army (as stated in FM 3-07.1 Security Force Assistance), not just the SOF community.  In order to ensure that the GPF are capable of executing such duties, they must be integrated into programs that routinely take them to various cultures and afford them opportunities to develop and improve their language capabilities so that such missions can be effectively conducted during continuous combat operations versus haphazardly thrown together as was the case during our current conflict.

c)   Indiana University, through their Department of Central Eurasian Studies, provides language and cultural instruction about Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia to Army ROTC cadets in preparation for their expected deployment to that region.  Such instruction ought to be a commissioning requirement in all commissioning sources with language/ cultural choice based on current and projected Army requirements.  If language proficiency cannot be achieved while in the program due to the other established pre-commissioning requirements, perhaps mandating that cadets achieve a minimum score of 95 the Defense Language Aptitude Test (DLAT) can substitute for language skill at commissioning. 

The Army currently offers the Critical Language Incentive Pay Program (CLIPP) which was initiated in 2008.  Under the program, ROTC cadets receive financial incentive for studying a key language, like Russian, Chinese, Farsi, and Arabic, and the incentive increases each year the cadet participates.  It also covers language immersion and study-abroad programs.  Further expanding this program by mandating it for all ROTC (and service academy) cadets will help us build a cadre of officers fluent, or least somewhat conversant, in languages that we are expecting to need in the future.

Not all universities hosting Army ROTC programs have extensive language curricula; nor are all universities amenable to imparting instruction that may have a direct impact in the conduct of combat operations.  However, if the language instruction were consolidated at certain universities with strong language programs (like Indiana University, Brigham Young University, George Washington, University of Georgia, Ohio State University, etc), this would enable cadets to get their (and the Army's) preferred language as well as boost enrollment (and revenue, courtesy of DA/ DoD) at those particular universities.  In order to ameliorate any ill-will among certain faculty members, we would have to emphasize the (generally) non-combat purpose behind such instruction, i.e. learning the local language will help reduce misunderstanding, generate a positive relationship, and help us assist in reducing or extinguishing violence and conflict in those areas.

d).  Should any of these ideas for overseas training be too unpopular due to the perceived dangers, perhaps a more palatable alternative that might achieve a similar effect would be to immerse our leaders in foreign cultures here at home.  Detroit has one of the largest Arabic communities in the USA.  The Twin Cities area (Minneapolis – St Paul) has one of the largest Somali communities in the country.  Large communities of people of Asian descent live in major cities on our West Coast.  An analysis of which of these immigrant areas are growing the fastest may give us an idea of which languages to focus on since these communities may be growing due to a worsening of the security environment in the “old country”, driving these immigrants to the safety of the US.  Allowing our troops to spend extended periods in these “foreign” neighborhoods within the US would allow for some degree of cultural immersion and language development beyond what is possible in a school or training environment.  It might not be as thoroughly authentic as living overseas and functioning in that particular culture but it would be better than doing nothing.

Political and fiscal constraints coupled with public fatigue after a decade of war will limit US desire and ability to deploy robust forces to contend with the variety of threats endemic in this era of persistent conflict.  Building partner capacity has been identified as a key area of concern as we look for better, and cheaper, ways to assist friends and allies, and help others defend themselves as Mr. Gates put it.  In order to do this effectively, we must field more leaders that can communicate with host-nations forces in their own languages which will allow us to better understand those host-nation environments since little will be lost in translation and cultural understanding will be enhanced.  Improving our language skills may lead to more effective and efficient techniques for building the capacity of our current and future partners and reduce the need for deployments of robust US forces.



Wed, 09/07/2011 - 10:29am

In reply to by jcustis


Agreed....foreign language ability is not needed to kill bad guys...unless you feel the need to inform them in their native tongue that they're about to get smoked by a .50 Cal, JDAM, etc...

As for the "silly parlor games", I guess that depends on what the mission is.

My reason for advancing the idea of more language training is based primarily on what Mr Gates said regarding the need to enable our "allies" to fight VS doing the fighting ourselves. If our (military) future is going to be more about assisting others to fight (FID), it helps to be able to communicate in their language. It's easier to transmit your ideas that way, it's faster than going through a terp, and you gain some credibility with those you're helping by speaking to them in their language.

As for embedding in an NGO, I agree...this might be a bit tricky. However, we might be able to model such a program on our Train With Industry (TWI) program that allows officers to work with Company X in order to share ideas and methods & learn about each other's organizations. TWI assignments are usually 12-18 months long, the NGO embed would be 3-6 months long, perhaps less. I've met Transportation Corp officers who worked for CSX Railroad and a PAO guy that did a stint at CNN.

What NGOs would accept an active military officer? Unknown. But I'm guessing that the officer would have to bring something of value to that NGO (beyond language ability). I can see medical officers serving with certain NGOs like Doctor without Borders (don't they always need more doctors?), or aviation officers embeded with NGOs who provide air service to third-world regions, or public affairs officers serving with an NGO in order to learn about where they operate and what they do and broadcast that to a wider audience. That may help increase funding to that particular NGO (and they always need money). All the while, the embed officer would be able to use/ improve his language skills, learn about that particular area, and about that NGO which may likely run into should we have to conduct operations there.

As far as I know, Mr Panetta hasn't said anything that indicates his intention to shift from what Mr Gates spoke of - reducing operational deployments, reducing the size of the force, and helping allies to fight terrorists VS having us to do it. I don't claim that increasing language training is the way to do all of this, but I think it may be a worthwhile part of it.

Hopefully, SWJ posters will chime in with their ideas.


Wed, 09/07/2011 - 7:03am

In reply to by jcustis

It is true that you don't need to talk to people you're about to kill. There is value in talking to people you haven't decided to kill or not. Try to watch a foreign movie without then with subtitles and compare your understanding of the movie. You got the visuals and the big picture but my guess is you may have missed the entire plot. That is all (sarcastically) language skills gives you: the real meaning of what is happening in your AO.

Because the US Army hops in (12 month tours) and then hops out we may not see the benefit of language skills. Our tours need to expand for those in leadership and those who need a longer view of the AO. You argue for understanding the "economic development/ reconstruction/ security apparatus construct is for their future area of operations, from the security forces and governmental bodies on the ground". Good luck if you can't communicate with the future locals. Did you hear about the wells built in town the local women keep destroying? They want to go outside town for water where the men can't interfere with their social life. Too bad no one had the language skills to ask before "economically developing" the town via a well.

The military officer within the NGO must bring a USEFUL skill set to the NGO. It could even be language skills required by dentists, for example. The skill set might be more of a PAO who can tell the Army, and potential donors, about how great the NGO is doing. The officer wouldn't have to be in uniform to perform useful work for the NGO and the Army.

P. Meyer, great observation. We do not need language capacity to kill knuckleheads. We also don't need language capacity to conduct engagement at the tribal and district level, unless of course we are more focused on playing silly parlor games in an attempt to portray that we "get it" with regard to the tribal elders' plight.

heck, we have a broad range of officers who don't understand the difference between resistance and revolutionary insurgency, don't grasp the stark contrast between pop-centric and enemy-centric COIN, have never heard of classical counterinsurgency, and if you really want to split hairs, have no idea that what we are actually doing in OIF and OEF is FID, vice COIN.

The only folks who benefit the most from the orgy of cultural and language immersion are the cabal of "expert" who are peddling their wares at a handsome price to every battalion and brigade about to cross into the breach.

Instead of focusing on being able to ask for the naan bread, leaders would be better off learning what the economic development/ reconstruction/ security apparatus construct is for their future area of operations, from the security forces and governmental bodies on the ground.

"For our purposes, our officers ought to be able to take a sabbatical, perhaps no more than 3 to 6 months, and embed themselves in non-governmental organizations (NGO) operating in one of the regions we are interested in (with Doctors Without Borders in Tajikistan for instance) so that he may use/ improve his language capabilities, learn first-hand information about the region he is in, and work with organizations that we may end up dealing with should we become involved in those areas. "

Mr. Smiley, I'm curious where you might find a NGO that is wiling to do this. I have been a student of NGO security for a very long time, and I have yet to find any indication that a NGO would allow a serving military officer within its ranks at the risk of compromising its transparency and acceptance.


Sat, 08/27/2011 - 5:32am

Great article pointing out an obvious deficiency. Like most good things correcting this takes time. Smiley's biggest service is pointing us in a couple of likely language sets to concentrate our efforts.


Fri, 08/26/2011 - 3:01am

Having commissioned from a West Coast ROTC program, I can say first hand that the Army has many officers entering the service with very diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. What we fail to do with this, though, is assign these unique officers to positions where their language skills can be used to their full potential. For instance consider my friend, a fluent speaker of Vietnamese, being assigned to the Ordinance branch and sent to learn how to manage the Army supply chain process. In the mean time, I wouldn't doubt that there was an officer attending the DLI struggling to learn the same language for his/her next assignment as a FAO.

Additionally, to expand on the author's suggestion that we tap into the abundance of different cultures on our own soil, perhaps we can focus our officer recruitment efforts in those communities where we currently have a dearth of qualified officers. There is a very large Afghan community in central California. I wonder if UC Santa Clara's ROTC program is making an effort to recruit some of those individuals (if they're allowed to target cultural demographics). And, if they are, are those officers being considered for their language and cultural background when it comes time to assess them and assign them a job in the Army?

Perhaps we're already doing these things. I really don't know. If we're not, though, it's certainly something to consider.


I wrote the article with officer education in mind but would like to see it applied to senior NCOs as well.

I agree with you that learning a new language as an adult may be a bit more difficult than as a child (and I fully support more language ed at an earlier Latin helped me with Dari). However, I feel that we have a lot of troopers, officers and NCOs, that are quite capable of picking up another language. I've watched them do it in both A'stan and Iraq. They weren't fluent but they picked up enough to make a good impression.

Do we need a foreign language to kill bad guys? Not necessarily. Would it help in finding out where the bad guys are? I think so. Would knowing another language help us avoid actions that create more bad guys to kill? I think so. If nothing else, it would help expedite a mission since we wouldn't have to communicate thru a terp who may or may not translate our words correctly.

P. Meyer

Thu, 08/25/2011 - 3:25pm

Why do you need language skills to kill bad guys? I ask this facetiously, but the idea that soldiers need to have language skills so that they can do every kind of mission imaginable is both unwise and unrealistic. It is unwise because it admits as valid the theory that this is how our Army should be used. It is unrealistic because most enlisted soldiers are not capable of effectively learning a foreign language as an adult. Don't get me wrong - I think the world of enlisted soldiers - but very few of them should be attempting to learn a second language at this stage of life. It's just not possible.

If we're talking about officers, though, then yes, it's theoretically possible for most officers to learn a second language, and the suggestions above are all helpful.

Disregarding whether it's prudent or practical to give soldiers more language training, though, I have a more radical proposal: start educating American children better in foreign languages now so that they'll be better prepared to serve our nation in the coming decades, whether in the military or some other way. If this truly is the "long war," then we need to start placing emphasis on future warriors now. And since children are able to learn languages much better than adults, it only makes sense to begin that training as early as possible.

Children should start foreign language training far sooner than they currently do. 1st grade, kindergarten, or even pre-school isn't too early. Kids are able to memorize things much better than adults - we should capitalize on this. Simple Latin and Greek roots should be first (there's a good list of them on Wikipedia: Mnemonic systems should be used to help kids remember words (i.e., to teach kids that the Latin root "bell-" means "war" (which we find in the English words "bellicose" and "belligerent"), show them a picture of the liberty bell and explain how it was rung in Philadelphia during the American Revolution - thus visually linking "bell" with "war"). Learning Latin grammar is also a great tool for learning English and other languages, and would undoubtedly help kids learn a more difficult language like Arabic or Chinese later.

If we began a better early education system for foreign languages we might - might - be able to produce enough highly-skilled linguists to do everything our government currently calls us to do. At the very least, we would be better off as a nation.