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DoD Seeks People With Language Skills, Regional Expertise

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2005 – If you speak a foreign language or have the desire and aptitude to learn one, Uncle Sam wants you.

The Defense Department is on the lookout for people with language skills to support not only current operations, but future ones as well, according to Gail McGinn, deputy undersecretary of defense for plans.

And just as important as language skills, she said, is an understanding of other countries' geographies, cultures and people.

The military has the greatest language and cultural expertise in four primary languages: German, French, Spanish and Russian, McGinn said during an interview with the Pentagon Channel. But when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, thrust the United States into the war on terror, the department simply didn't have enough linguists fluent in Arabic or in Dari and Pashtu, the languages of Afghanistan, she said. Similarly, she said, DoD has come up short on linguists for other areas of the world that have attracted increased U.S. interest during the war on terror.

McGinn said the revelation has been described as a "Sputnik moment." When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first satellite, in 1957, the United States quickly began promoting math, science and language in its schools so it could play catch-up.

Similarly, after 9/11, the United States recognized its language deficiencies for certain parts of the world. "The global war on terror made us realize that we need these capabilities, and we need people to have these skills," she said.

Language and cultural skills help servicemembers interact with the local people, McGinn said. Civil affairs specialists and interpreters deployed throughout Iraq are demonstrating the value of those skills daily as they interact with local citizens and their leaders.

But if more servicemembers had language skills, the operational payoff could be tremendous, she pointed out. For example, when coalition troops were headed north toward Baghdad at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, what if the local people had information they wanted to share? And what if the U.S. troops wanted to warn them about something, or to diffuse a situation?

"I think you can see, just from that set of activities, how important it is to have the ability to communicate in the language of the country that you're in," McGinn said.

To help boost language skills within the military, McGinn said, DoD has launched or plans to introduce several new initiatives:

-- Increased the Defense Language Institute's budget by more than $50 million to go toward curriculum development and improved foreign language testing, to develop more "crash courses" for developing troops, and to begin training students to higher levels of proficiency.

-- Received legislative authority to increase foreign language proficiency pay for military linguists from the current high of $300 a month to a top rate of $1,000.

-- Pays stipends to college students involved in regional studies and language studies who agree to seek jobs within the U.S. national security establishment, through the National Security Education Program.

-- Established the National Flagship Language Initiative, in which colleges and universities offer advanced language training in Arabic, Korean, Chinese and Russian to students who agree to work for the national security establishment.

-- Initiated a pilot program within the Army encouraging Iraqi Americans to join the Individual Ready Reserve, providing a pool of Arabic linguists, ready when needed. Of more than 200 people recruited through the program, 44 have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and another 19 are awaiting deployment.

-- Will survey members of the current force, both military and civilian, to determine who has language skills that could prove useful in current or future operations.

-- Issued a white paper encouraging the United States to promote the emphasis placed on language skills nationwide.

-- Promoted the development of technology with language and translation software.

-- Is considering establishing a database in which American citizens can register their language skills or sign up for a civilian linguist reserve corps that could contribute to national language requirements as needed.

McGinn said these and other initiatives under consideration will help the United States better position itself for future military operations, wherever in the world they occur. "We're working on a lot of those initiatives to try to anticipate the unanticipated," she said.

She sees the new initiatives as solid first steps in changing the importance DoD places on foreign language skills.

"This is really more than just finding linguists and people with the ability to speak languages," she said. "It's a transformation in the way language is viewed in the Department of Defense how it is valued, how it is developed and how it is employed."

Integrating foreign language and regional expertise into the military mindset will have far-reaching implications, McGinn said, affecting "the way we conduct operations and the way we conduct ourselves in the world."

Contact Author

Gail H. McGinn

Related Sites:
Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Plans

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