Small Wars Journal

Organic Language Proficiency: A Revolutionary Opportunity

Mon, 07/30/2018 - 12:32am

Organic Language Proficiency: A Revolutionary Opportunity

Tom Ordeman, Jr.

Introduction: The Need for Organic Language Proficiency

America should teach each recruit, be they commissioned or enlisted, how to speak a foreign language.

One need look no further than recent history to see the need for such a revolutionary change. In 2001, mere weeks after the international security apparatus failed to prevent the most catastrophic terrorist attack in American history, I stood in a formation of young Naval ROTC midshipmen and officer candidates as our battalion commander read an announcement calling for any personnel with skills in a subset of strategic languages - Arabic, Farsi, Pashtu, et cetera [01] - to report to the NROTC unit leadership for possible mobilization.

Clearly, the need for language proficiency organic to units facing host nation personnel is every bit as important in 2018 as it was in 2001. And yet, except for a select group of occupational specialties, foreign language proficiency among uniformed personnel remains a statistical blip. Instead of investing more resources into a serious effort to train American warfighters to speak host nation languages, the Department of Defense typically elects to teach host nation forces to speak English, rather than preparing warfighters to function in the host nation environment. [02][03][04] Reporting in 2009 on a press release that highlighted a solitary Air Force officer's ability to speak Pashtu, Wired writer Nathan Hodge noted:

"The fact that this is considered newsworthy and exceptional - a U.S. military officer speaks one of the official languages of Afghanistan! - doesn't reflect well on the national commitment to Afghanistan. Eight years after its involvement in Afghanistan began, the U.S. military still relies overwhelmingly on contract interpreters, and troops by and large aren't equipped with survival-level Dari or Pashto. Why don't all of the [Provincial Reconstruction Team] members speak the local lingo?"[05]

As Hodge notes, the DoD's failure to adapt produces a conspicuous dividend: the need to employ veritable armies of contractors - linguists for written content, interpreters or "terps" for verbal communications - to render host nation languages into English. Within the United States, scores of expatriate role players populate villages at the DoD's combat training centers, and presumably hundreds or even thousands of them support DoD and intelligence community human and signals intelligence operations. Overseas, and particularly in active combat theaters such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, first generation American citizens deploy as contractors to provide primarily rear echelon language support, while local nationals support units both within- and beyond-the-wire. (In fact, the much-discussed Counterinsurgency Field Manual, FM 3-24/MCWP 3.33-5, dedicates an entire appendix to linguist support. [06])

In theory, the paradigm offers several benefits. Employing domestic linguists and interpreters as contractors allows for scaling and adaptation of the DoD's linguistic capabilities based upon evolving needs. Employing host nation linguists and interpreters also allows warfighters to inject capital into host nation economies and ties strategic success to the livelihoods of local nationals. However, even perpetual optimists would be hard-pressed to conclude that this paradigm offers a net benefit, particularly in the case of overseas personnel. From an operational standpoint, the mere cost of salaries and sustainment for hundreds of local interpreters is staggering. These costs become strategically significant upon evaluation on a regional scale. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the ongoing humanitarian crisis (and its impact on American prestige) that results from the lengthy asylum deliberations for Afghan and Iraqi nationals who supported coalition forces in good faith, only to be left behind when American resolve ebbed.[07] Of at least comparable concern is the degree of strategic leverage that this paradigm forfeits, as interpreters often become kingmakers.[08] The intelligence and counterintelligence ramifications of the DoD's linguistic shortfalls should also be obvious.

In fact, the DoD recognized this shortfall, and published the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap (DLTR) in 2005. As U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer (FAO) Colonel Richard Outzen noted in Small Wars Journal in 2012, the DoD had, at that point, spent seven years failing to implement the DLTR.[09] Later that year, FAO Major Jason Kim, also writing in Small Wars Journal, articulated the criticality of language proficiency for Regionally Aligned Forces (RAF).[10] RAF was an Obama-era concept that called for individual units, particularly U.S. Army brigades, to establish enduring relationships with strategic partners around the world. RAF units would assist in building partner capacity and deploy in support of partner forces if such a need arose.

While the RAF concept itself seems to have fallen out of vogue, it was succeeded by the Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) concept. The SFAB serves as a tacit admission that U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets), who have traditionally accomplished the SFA role, lack sufficient force strength to meet the strategic need. This shortage is further complicated by the special operations forces (SOF) community's operational tempo for direct action missions around the globe, which reduce the volume of teams available for SFA missions. [11] The reader should note that part of the training pipeline for a Green Beret is foreign language training focused upon the region in which their assigned Special Forces Group operates. Therefore, if language training is part of the Green Beret training pipeline and acknowledged to be critical to the success of the RAF concept; and if the SFAB effectively replaces RAF and supplements the Green Berets; then SFAB troops at a minimum require language training.

Of course, this need is confined to neither SFA Brigades, nor the Green Berets, nor the Foreign Area Officers, nor even the Army itself. The DoD and its allies operate globally. In 2011, the Air Force's Language Professional of the Year was a native Russian speaker whose language skills facilitated his unit's mission in Kyrgyzstan.[12] In recent years, Navy deployments have provided scheduled humanitarian support, and emergency disaster relief, in the USSOUTHCOM and USPACOM areas of responsibility (AOR), among other locales.[13][14] Marine Corps units have operated with, and provided embedded training for, Afghan and Iraqi forces, among other global partners.[15] For more than twenty-five years, the National Guard has aligned with foreign partners through the State Partnership Program.[16]

Clearly, the need for language proficiency throughout the military enterprise remains urgent. The question remains: how can the DoD make it happen?

Historical Precedents

Four historical precedents sustain this proposal's viability; three are military in nature, and two have operated successfully for decades - one for nearly two centuries.

The best example of foreign language immersion in a military environment is the French Foreign Legion. French citizens comprise roughly one quarter of the Legion; and while the remainder likely comprise at least some recruits from Francophone nations, the Legion assumes no French language competency upon a recruit's enrollment in training. By the time a recruit completes his training, he can speak French commensurate with the requirements of his duties in the Legion. Former Legion Caporal Chef Simon Murray describes the Legion's use of songs to improve French proficiency:

"We are making some progress in spite of ourselves. My French is getting better with increased confidence and employment, and we are becoming quite accomplished singers. Tremendous emphasis is laid on the singing. When we return to camp after a day in the hills, we march proudly through the streets of Mascara, singing our guts out as we try to break the windows with our voluminous melodies. The slow marching plod and the sheer force of the body of men singing in deep ringing tones with improvised harmony is like nothing I have ever seen or heard before."[17]

A 2000 documentary about the Legion highlights the challenge of teaching French to recruits with no prior knowledge of the language:

"Another force bonds the soldiers together: language. French is the only language every recruit speaks. Many arrive not knowing a single word. 'He simply showed up at the door, wanting to be a Legionnaire. He's Mongolian, and of course, they have a totally different alphabet and culture. We took him in just like the others, but, of course, it's hard, because we'd never had a Mongolian, and our two languages are so different.'" [18]

The U.K. Ministry of Defence boasts a similar, albeit narrower, precedent for mandatory language learning. Prior to their deployment to Oman in the 1970's, British loan officers - who filled roles similar to those of contemporary SFAB officers - were required to take a crash course in "Jaish Arabic", or Arabic with a military focus. Retired Royal Marines Brigadier Ian Gardiner recounts his experience as a young lieutenant, preparing for his impending deployment to Oman:

"Arabic is a beautiful language. It is sonorous, mellifluous, and poetic, and being idiomatically not greatly dissimilar to English, I found it surprisingly easy to learn. Having a Scottish accent, I had no trouble at all getting my tongue round the tighter corners, and I found I had a memory for sounds. It must also be said that I had the best possible incentive to learn: my survival depended on it. For ten weeks in the Spring of 1973 at the Army School of Languages at Beaconsfield, my fellow loan service officers and I were immersed in Arabic... We were given twenty words to learn each day, and soon we were conversing. Our instructors were Arabs, and we took them out with us in the evenings to pubs and restaurants where the instruction continued. Each word was written down on a little card - English on one side, Arabic on the other - and we amassed pockets full of these, held together in piles with rubber bands. We would flick through them testing our memory, then turn them over and go through them again in the opposite direction. The beauty of this system is that you can do it almost anywhere: in a train, in bed, at a bus stop; and the pubs around Beaconsfield were frequented by small groups of officers shuffling decks of little cards and uttering strange sounds. It was great fun but we never forgot the serious purpose behind it all: we were going to war, and from time to time news would come through of a battle in Dhofar with names of men wounded or killed."[19]

Even the staff veterinarians, who deployed to perform the counterinsurgent task of providing medical care to the local populace's livestock, attended the course at Beaconsfield. [20] Veterans of the Dhofar War recount the value of their ability to communicate with the subjects of their tutelage, as well as the beneficiaries of their security operations.

A non-military instance merits consideration: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known colloquially as "Mormons". Most young Mormon men, and some young Mormon women, serve an evangelical mission lasting from eighteen to twenty-four months. While many missionaries serve in Anglophone areas, many others receive intensive language and religious training at one of the Church's Missionary Training Centers (MTCs). Most notable among these is the campus in Provo, Utah, which is second in size only to the Defense Language Institute. In nine weeks or fewer, missionaries can expect to leave with functional competency in one of fifty-five languages, sufficient to cover daily life and the specifics of the Mormon faith. Lessons are administered in large part by recently-returned missionaries. [21]

In the case of the Legion, recruits literally learn to function in a foreign language as part of basic training; the difference between basic training and life at the MTC may very well be a difference without a distinction. It seems obvious that if the need exists, the DoD can build a similar program for its personnel.

Finally, an anecdotal example of organic language capability's value for warfighters comes from the Gurkhas' deployments to Afghanistan. Gurkhas are Nepali soldiers who serve as British infantry soldiers. They may be the world's finest soldiers, simultaneously noted for their friendliness in peacetime and their ferocity in combat. Independent journalist Michael Yon embedded with Gurkhas in Afghanistan.

"Gurkhas serving in the British Army have been rotating through Afghanistan. They can converse with many Afghans, at least on a basic level, by speaking Hindi. The Gurkhas also look like many Afghans (especially Hazaras), and in fact many Filipinos, Thais, Nepalese and Hazaras look very similar. As British soldiers, Gurkhas travel the world and see many things and they also live for years in the United Kingdom and Brunei. They travel to Africa, Central America, Europe and often America. Add to this fact that these men tend to come from remote, rugged villages where the terrain will match or possibly even exceed any of the severe difficulties found in Afghanistan, and the insight created from this confluence of experience can be invaluable."[22]

Clearly, American warfighters would benefit immensely from even an incremental boost to their organic language proficiency; and the precedents for introducing a functional level of linguistic knowledge exists both within and beyond the military context.

Des Empreintes Jaunes: Immersion From Day One

Having covered the "what?" and the "Why?", we must now move on to the other relevant questions: the "when", the "who", the "where", and the "how".

When should this happen? During recruit training and following into Advanced Individual Training/A School for most recruits. From the moment that a recruit's feet hit the infamous yellow footprints, immersion into the language to which they have been assigned should begin. Key languages could be staggered: for example, one class of recruits might learn French, the next might learn Farsi, and the next might learn Russian. By the time a recruit has finished the initial training that qualifies them for assignment to a unit, they could possess survival level proficiency in the foreign language vernacular for their occupational specialty. As with any new military training program, the process would begin slowly; however, just as veteran Legionnaires and returned Mormon missionaries facilitate newcomers' learning, commitment to this system would eventually yield a growing cadre of qualified intermediate and senior officers, non-commissioned officers, and petty officers with formal training and overseas experience to their credit.

Who should undergo this training? Ultimately, all recruits should complete recruit training, AIT or A School, and service Officer Candidate School with a foreign language requirement. Perhaps a more important question is this: who should administer this training? This initiative provides an opportunity to further develop American relationships with international partners by integrating liaison and/or exchange officers and non-commissioned officers into the existing supporting establishment. American facilities could host a small cadre of Legionnaire instructors on temporary assignment to train a phase in French. Moroccan or Jordanian instructors could integrate with American drill instructors to teach Jaish Arabic. Instructors from former Warsaw Pact NATO partners, such as Lithuania or Georgia, could teach Russian. In addition, just as French citizens comprise a quarter of the French Foreign Legion, native speakers from partner nations could complete their recruit training in American recruit training facilities alongside American troops. The opportunities to improve international interoperability while building a revolutionary skill set within the American military enterprise is compelling.

Where would this training take place? Fort Benning, Fort Jackson, Fort Leonard Wood, Fort Sill, Naval Station Great Lakes, Naval Station Newport, Lackland Air Force Base, Maxwell Air Force Base, MCRD Parris Island, MCRD San Diego, and Marine Corps Base Quantico. Eventually, this initiative would encompass every location at which an American transitions from civilian to private, seaman, airman, lieutenant, or ensign.

How would this initiative be implemented? As referenced earlier, the initiative would emulate historical and contemporary programs, both military and civilian. A great deal of education and exposure would be accomplished through immersion, as evidenced by the Legion and MCT precedents. Additional to this immersion, an existing curriculum already exists in the form of Language Survival Kits produced by the Defense Language Institute. These include Basic Guides and supplemental phrasebooks for Air Crew, Civil Affairs, Cordon and Search, Force Protection, Medical, Military Police, Naval, Public Affairs, and Weapons, with accompanying MP3 tracks, in dozens of languages. [23] Every recruit would be required to memorize the Basic Guide for their assigned language, and most would be required to learn at least one more: Medical for medical personnel, Military Police for security personnel, and so on.

Conclusion: Costs Versus Benefits

Seventeen years (and counting) since 9/11, history demonstrates that Americans can no longer assume that their partnerships will consist primarily of Europeans who speak fluent English. Americans have witnessed the dividends, and paid the financial costs, of failing to integrate language skills into the military enterprise. Following a series of engagements in which every factor could tip the balance, one could argue that this shortfall may very well have tipped the balance between strategic success and strategic failure.

In 2005, the DLTR identified language skills as a core warfighting skill akin to marksmanship. The initiative described above may seem ambitious - even radical - and it is. This reflects not only the desperate need to integrate organic foreign language capabilities into the modern joint force, but the real opportunity for radical integration of this content into recruit training and the standard military skill set.

The French Foreign Legion teaches the French language to every recruit, regardless of their national origin or linguistic aptitude. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints trains a significant subset of their evangelist missionaries to communicate complex theological ideas, in addition to functioning day-to-day, in languages with which they have no prior familiarity. In the 1970's, the budget-conscious British Ministry of Defence trained dozens of officers how to communicate in Jaish Arabic so that they could lead foreign platoons and interact with the local populace in rural Oman. If these organizations can succeed, the United States can succeed in a radical integration of functional foreign language skills into recruit and officer training.


[01] Ashley, Lieutenant General Robert P., Jr. USA; Department of the Army Strategic Language List; Department of the Army Memorandum; June 20th, 2016;

[02] Miles, Senior Airman Alyssa C.; Future Iraqi pilots learn to speak English; U.S. Air Forces Central Public Affairs; Camp Taji, Iraq; 15 October 2009;

[03] The Telegraph; Afghanistan's first female military pilots arrive in US for training; The Telegraph; N/A; 14 July 2011;

[04] Wollenberg, Staff Sergeant Robert; Afghan Pilots Learn English at New School; American Forces Press Service; Kabul; 14 January 2008;

[05] Hodge, Nathan; Breaking News: Air Force Officer Speaks Pashto!; Danger Room Blog; N/A; 30 October 2009;

[06] FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 Counterinsurgency Field Manual; Headquarters, Department of the Army; Washington, D.C.; 2006; Appendix C, Linguist Support

[07] Bowker, Dane; Forget the Syrian Refugees. America Needs to Bring its Afghan and Iraqi Interpreters Here First; The Washington Post; September 17th, 2015;

[08] McHugh, John D.; Video: Afghanistan - Lost in translation; The Guardian; June 11th, 2008

[09] Outzen, Colonel Richard USA; Language, Culture, and Army Culture: Failing Transformation; Small Wars Journal; March 20th, 2012;

[10] Kim, Major Jason USA; Cultural Awareness and Language Proficiency: Critical for Regionally Aligned Forces; Small Wars Journal; November 16th, 2012;

[11] Ball, Tim; Replaced? Security Force Assistance Brigades vs. Special Forces; War on the Rocks; February 23rd, 2017;

[12] Harrison, Karen; Jet engine mechanic wins language award; U.S. Air Force Press Release; February 6th, 2012;

[13] Kirk, MC1 Amy USN; USS Kearsarge Deploys in Support of Continuing Promise 2008; U.S Navy Press Release; August 7th, 2008;

[14] Williams, Carol J.; U.S. leads Philippine disaster relief but most Americans unengaged; Los Angeles Times; November 19th, 2013;

[15] Cillessen, Captain Brian G. USMC; Marine Advisors: Can the Marine Corps Better Prepare Them; February 2007;

[16] N/A; State Partnership Program; National Guard Bureau; N/A

[17] Murray, Simon; Legionnaire: Five Years in the French Foreign Legion; Presidio Press; 1978; Part One: Incubation

[18] Warriors of the French Foreign Legion (documentary); 2000;

[19] Gardiner, Ian; In the Service of the Sultan: A First-Hand Account of the Dhofar Insurgency; Pen and Sword Military; 2006; Chapter 3: Learning the Words

[20] Higgins, Andrew; With the SAS and Other Animals: A Vet’s Experiences During the Dhofar War 1974; Pen and Sword Military; 2011

[21] Fletcher Stack, Peggy; Mormon Missionary Training Center: An Elite Boot Camp; Salt Lake Tribune; July 24th, 2013;

[22] Yon, Michael; Common Scenes & Common Thoughts; Michael Yon Online Magazine; Helmand Province, Afghanistan; 05 August 2009;; (Article)

[23] N/A; FAMiliarization; Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center; Monterey, CA; 2018;

About the Author(s)

Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an Oregon-based information security professional, freelance military historian, and former federal contractor. A graduate with Distinction from the University of Aberdeen’s MSc program in Strategic Studies, he holds multiple DoD and industry security certifications. Between 2006 and 2017, he supported training and enterprise risk management requirements for multiple DoD and federal civilian agencies. His research interests include the modern history of the Sultanate of Oman, and the exploits of the Gordon Highlanders during the First World War. His opinions are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of any entity with which he is associated.



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