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Transformation Efforts Expand to Include Focus on Languages, Culture

By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 8, 2005 – The Defense Department is working to improve capacity and competence in world languages and culture, a top official said April 7.

While the U.S. military always has had personnel with basic competence in foreign languages, there is a greater need for these skills in the post Sept. 11 world, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S.C. Chu told reporters in his Pentagon office.

"In today's world," Chu said, "we need people with a higher level of linguistic competence. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, the typical level of competence during the Cold War was about 2. What that meant in practical terms was an ability to read well-organized materials and speak in standard dialects.

"In this era of global terrorism, that's not good enough," he added. "We need more people in the civilian and military ranks with a capacity in one or more of the 'investment' languages, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic (and) Farsi."

Chu said proficiency must go beyond standard speaking and reading skills to include competence in the various dialects of a language, slang, and an ability to write. "(Military linguists) must be able to understand people speaking in nuanced terms or alluding to current or historical events in a culture," he said.

"People working in the field must also be able to understand the political environment and the leaders working in that environment. So both linguistic and cultural competency must be at a higher level. We need greater depth," he said.

Chu said the Defense Transformation Language Roadmap, which predates the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, reflects a long-standing priority of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and is designed to accomplish three major goals:

  • Create a foundation of linguistic and cultural expertise within the civilian, officer and enlisted ranks of both active and reserve forces;
  • Create the capacity to surge beyond in-house capabilities when necessary; and
  • Establish a cadre of foreign language specialists with advanced levels of proficiency.
The roadmap outlines several ways to accomplish these goals, Chu said. For example, one way to help build a foundation of expertise is to strengthen the skills of personnel who currently have some language proficiency. Another possibility is to "raise the starting point" by building language requirements into the curriculums of the service academies, requiring junior officers to complete language training, expanding programs for studying abroad, and making foreign language ability a criterion for general- and flag-officer advancement, he said.

Chu said DoD also is working with other government departments and agencies to "lift national competence" through early or university education. While many countries view the study of other languages as preparation for adult life, foreign-language competency is not a requirement for most U.S. schools and universities, he said.

To help build a surge capability, "we need to see if we can't tap into the heritage communities in the United States," Chu said. "Ours is an immigrant population. Everyone came from someplace else, many of them recently. We need to recruit them."

He said about 200 people with expertise in needed languages have already been recruited, and nearly 50 have been deployed. "They are earning rave reviews from commanders," he said.

"Originally, we saw this as temporary service, for two years or so," Chu said. "However, a significant fraction (of soldiers recruited for their language skills) said they want to stay in the Army."

DoD officials intend to build a database of military and civilian individuals with foreign-language expertise who could be tapped when needed. "For example, if we needed a water-purification expert who also speaks Arabic, we could find him," Chu said.

In addition to building capacity, Chu said, DoD is working to improve the linguistic and cultural competence of the force. For fiscal 2005, the department has increased Defense Language Institute's budget from $103 million to $153 million. An additional $45 million has been requested for fiscal 2006, and another $330 million increase has been programmed for fiscal 2007 to 2010. [[bullets]]

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