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DoD Studies Foreign Language Needs of Future

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

COLLEGE PARK, Md., June 22, 2004 – Four years ago, would the National Language Conference have examined its role in fighting terrorism?

Today, it is doing just that.

The United States is engaged in a global war on terror, and how a foe thinks and acts may be more important than what weapons he has. Also, the United States is working with a worldwide coalition against terrorism. Knowledge of the languages and customs of the various countries may be key to success.

The National Language Conference here is sponsored by the Defense Department and the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland. The subtitle of the conference is "A Call for Action." The conference is not to deal with short-term issues, officials said, but rather to look at longer-term steps that would improve the U.S. ability to protect its interests in today's global village.

"This conference is a 'call to action' to create a more language-competent society for the United States," said David S.C. Chu, defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness. Chu said more Americans must be able to speak foreign languages.

The challenge, Chu said, is "How do we make being competent in a second language cool? How does the country get people to want to study foreign languages?"

Out of the conference will come a White Paper detailing long-range plans for increasing the number of American who speak foreign languages. The conference is not limited to the government. In an era of globalization, it is equally important for private industry to embrace this effort, Chu said.

"We are a nation that has brought all peoples, languages and cultures into the great melting pot for the purpose of creating a single unified nation," he said during a speech to the conference. "In that national experience, English has been a unifying element, and the standard of a single language for the country has been one of the ways that we have brought cohesion out of the rich diversities of cultures that make up America."

But now the United States has "grown up," he said. In the past, new immigrants insisted their children learn only English to survive in the United States and adapt to the new culture. Chu said he believes that cultural need is a thing of the past, and that Americans should embrace other languages. "As the country has grown more educated, we can move beyond just getting English right to also nurturing interest in other languages," he said.

The need for language skills and cultural knowledge is not new. Chu said that as far back as the 1960s, experts complained about the lack of language training in the United States. But with the war on terrorism, it is now a prime national security concern. How a country and people reacts to the United States is important. How the United States treats it allies and friends is important. Doing so with a firm knowledge of the culture and language is part of that, Chu said.

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, our national security concerns have taken us from the streets of Manhattan to the mountains of Afghanistan to the resort city of Bali," he said. The country -- and specifically the military -- needs people who can relate to all those areas and more, he added.

Chu said the United States cannot delay taking action. He said the conference must look at how to create a demand for linguists. The conferees, he said, must consider the supply of qualified people and should examine where, how and when the instruction should take place.

Chu said the time is now to change the Cold War requirements. In those days, the military was concerned about order-of-battle issues the number of tanks, aircraft and men. Now the U.S. military has to deal with nuance, illusions and culturally coded speech.

NATO still runs using two languages: English and French. Now, the languages used in Iraq alone range from English to Mongolian. The United States has to have more language competence, both at higher levels and on the ground, Chu said.

The conference will run through June 24.

Contact Author

Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S.C. Chu

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