Language Corps Members Employ Skills for Nation
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 9, 2013 A man translates the deposition of a Somali pirate for the FBI.
A woman who speaks Mandarin Chinese works with the Coast Guard aboard a cutter off the African coast to monitor Mandarin fishing vessels.
A federal agency requests humanitarian help following the outbreak of a disease in a small, foreign village, which quickly garners a group of volunteers who speak the language of the community.
These translators are among the 4,000-member National Defense Language Corps. They volunteer their second-language skills and cultural knowledge when the need arises across the Defense Department and the federal government, said Dr. Michael Nugent, director of the Defense Language National Security Office and National Security Education Office.
Nugent said the corps’ language assistance is one of the largest innovations in the federal sector. Agencies foreign and domestic that have sought the corps’ capabilities include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Peace Corps, the Department of Labor, and Interpol.
The volunteer members of the corps, a DOD organization, fill needs for any one of 260 languages and cultural knowledge, he said.
“If you are a combatant commander, you cannot have on hand 260 linguists who speak all those languages. It’s just too cost prohibitive [and] it’s very difficult to find those resources,” Nugent said.
“We at the Department of Defense, plus the rest of the federal government, have an incredible need for language skills and these skills are enduring,” he said. “The language corps provides a way to augment our federal service in times of need through [the use of] volunteers.”
The volunteers in the program must be at least 18 years old. None are full-time employees but are on call to report for work, which could last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of months, Nugent said, adding that most volunteers work a week at a time. He added the corps is seeking nonfederal workers, to augment the federal sector.
Volunteers receive training and are compensated for their services by becoming temporary federal employees during the time they travel and work.
Once partially a pilot program, the corps has become permanent, following President Barack Obama’s Jan. 2 signing of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.
Many volunteers have grown up in other countries or have heritage language skills spoken at home, Nugent said, noting some are retired military linguists.
And with 4,000 volunteers, Nugent expects the corps to boast 15,000 members as the program is ramped up to further complement the federal sector.
The volunteers’ cultural knowledge of the languages they speak is crucial, Nugent said.
“[By] growing up in another country or speaking another language, there are different ways of doing things in different countries, and what these folks bring with them is an understanding of how things are done in other … cultures,” Nugent explained.
Having people with those cultural and language skills makes a big difference, he said.
“In these times when we are drawing down a lot of capabilities, the corps offers an opportunity to retain a lot of language capability,” Nugent noted. “It’s hard to create that capability in-house; it’s costly. The corps gives us an opportunity to retain that capability and draw upon it in times of need. That’s one of the most important aspects of the corps.”
Nugent said members of the corps sign up for one particular reason.
“They want to volunteer and serve the nation,” he said. “They’re not trying to make money out of this. They’re trying to give back to the country.”