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Modern Missions Rely on Languages, Cultural Awareness, Official Says

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2007 – The Defense Department needs more servicemembers who understand other languages and cultures to meet current and envisioned 21st-century challenges, a senior official said at a Capitol Hill hearing.

“Foreign language and regional expertise, which includes cultural awareness, are emerging as key competencies for our 21st-century Total Force,” Gail H. McGinn, deputy undersecretary of defense for plans and the department’s senior language authority, said in her prepared statement submitted to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee April 25.

Military operations conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States highlighted “the reality that the Defense Department needs an improved capability in languages and dialects of strategic interest,” McGinn said.

To address this need, the department in 2005 began assembling a cadre of high-proficiency-level language specialists who could be employed in multinational military operations, as well as peacekeeping and civil-military affairs missions, McGinn said.

For example, the department’s foreign area officer program develops a corps of commissioned officers who are trained to understand and recognize the nuances of foreign cultures and are skilled in one or more languages spoken in their regional area of expertise, McGinn said. Today, about 1,600 FAOs have been designated, qualified or are in training, she said.

The Army’s 09L interpreter/translator program is another success story, McGinn said. The Army launched a pilot program in 2003 to recruit people living in communities in America who understand Arabic, Dari and Pashto to join the Individual Ready Reserve and support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, she said.

“The program was so successful that in 2006, the Army formally established the 09L Translator Aide as a permanent military occupational specialty with a career path from recruit through sergeant major,” McGinn said. To date, the program has trained and deployed more than 317 such linguists, she said, with another 175 people in various stages of training.

Senior leaders also recognized that the department “had to assume a more proactive role in promoting and encouraging language education in the American population,” McGinn said. To that end, President Bush announced the National Security Language Initiative in January 2006.

This initiative is designed “to dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical-need foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi,” McGinn explained, noting the Defense Department’s contribution to the president’s initiative is made through the National Security Education Program.

The NSEP “provides scholarships and fellowships to enable U.S. students to study critical languages and cultures in return for federal national security service,” McGinn explained.

Other NSLI initiatives such as the Flagship program reach out to kindergarten- to college-age young people who are interested in learning a foreign language that’s deemed critical to national security, McGinn noted. One such Chinese-language partnership enlists the University of Oregon and Portland (Oregon) Public Schools.

“While focusing on early language learning, this effort has already succeeded in enrolling 10 students, as freshmen, from the Portland high schools in an experimental advanced four-year Chinese program at the University of Oregon,” McGinn reported. Similar partnerships, she added, have been established with Ohio State University and the Dearborn, Mich., public school district.

The Language Corps is another Defense Department initiative that contributes to the president’s language-skills outreach program, McGinn said.

“This effort will identify Americans with skills in critical languages and develop the capacity to mobilize them during times of national need or emergency,” she explained. “We just awarded a contract to assist us as we begin a three-year pilot (program) to meet our goal of 1,000 Language Corps members.”

McGinn said the Defense Department also is coordinating a series of regional meetings with state and local governments, educational institutions, school boards, parents and businesses to communication the need for more foreign-language specialists.

“These summits will take place later this spring and action plans will be produced by the fall (of) 2007,” McGinn said.

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Gail H. McGinn

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