Army to Activate First Company of Native Linguists-Turned-Soldiers
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2008 The Army will activate its first company of native linguists-turned-soldiers next week to act as interpreters and translators, representing a new phase in the service's reinvigorated approach to foreign language.
This unit of "heritage speakers" -- known as the 51st Translator and Interpreter Company -- comprises members of the service's most recently added military occupational specialty, 09L, referred to as “09 Limas.” In addition to holding the Army's newest job, this cadre of native linguists trained at Fort Irwin, Calif., also reflects a change in Army recruiting strategy.
"We've found it's easier to train a linguist to be a soldier than to train a soldier to be a linguist," said Army Brig. Gen. Richard C. Longo, director of training in the Army’s Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Training.
Since cultivating a working knowledge of foreign language and culture is time- and labor-intensive, the Army is unable to "surge" a group of linguists in the same way it has in the past with combat troops. This is why when the Army was tasked by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in February 2003 to establish a pilot program that focused on recruiting native and heritage speakers of Arabic, Dari and Pashto to meet critical foreign language requirements, it launched 09L.
The program became an specialty three years later, and the Army now recruits speakers of Arabic, Kurdish, Dari, and Farsi, with hopes to expand to African languages in coordination with the recent standup of the U.S. Africa Command, Longo said.
About two-thirds of 09 Lima soldiers are legal permanent residents of the United States, with the remainder entering the program as U.S. citizens, according to the Army's Web site. In addition to receiving a signing bonus, these native speakers also are offered an expedited path to citizenship.
The 09L program is one of several initiatives the Army has created to help harness foreign language as part of its arsenal. To date, the service has narrowed down 14 "critical languages" – Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, Korean, Swahili, French and others, in addition to those aforementioned – and has a growing list of training programs to achieve broad proficiency.
Longo, who said he spends roughly half his time in his current post focusing on language, noted the Army hopes to provide rudimentary training to all soldiers. The programs will aim to instill a balance of linguistic and cultural training.
"If you speak the language, then you know what they're saying," Longo said at an Army roundtable earlier this month. "But if you know the culture, than you know what they mean."
Army Col. Sue Ann Sandusky, commandant of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., said that about 80,000 soldiers responded to a recent voluntary survey inquiring about language skills, and about 50,000 reported having some foreign language skill. Of these reported skills, the majority probably was referring to Spanish language, said Longo, adding that the statistics are immature at this point. Achieving a force-wide assessment of soldiers' foreign language skills is one of the current Army goals.
Meanwhile, the Army has increased the number of foreign area officers -- military officers with regional and linguistic expertise -- embedded in combatant commands, and the Defense Language Institute, or DLI, has doubled the number of Arabic students and tripled the enrollees of its Urdu program.
Among rank-and-file soldiers, about 178,000 have taken language lessons through the popular commercial supplier Rosetta Stone, and DLI has shipped a million language survival kits to troops overseas.
Linguistic training also is finding wider appeal on college campuses. Language curriculum is now mandatory coursework at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and universities that implement language training that intersects with the National Security Education Program can receive grants. A dozen schools already have received funding, and a dozen others are in the early phases of adopting the NSEP curriculum.
The Army estimates that roughly 60 percent of all ROTC cadets will take at least one semester of a foreign language. About half of the cadets currently enrolled in language training have completed a semester of a critical language. As of August, cadets who participate in these programs can earn up to $100 to $250 extra per month.
The Army also has taken advantage of melding language with emerging technology. Using a portable music player, soldiers can listen to their proficiency enhancement program almost anywhere at any time. And at DLI, classroom sizes have been slashed, allowing professors to pay greater attention to students, with an average of about six per class. The general force also can receive tuition assistance – a separate benefit from their GI Bill education incentives – to further their own foreign language skills, Longo said.
The Defense Department is one of many federal agencies working with Congress and the White House on spearheading linguistic initiatives. This broad, cooperative effort underscores the increasingly prominent role language skills play in U.S. missions at home and abroad.
"Deficits in foreign language learning and teaching negatively affect our national security, diplomacy, law enforcement, intelligence communities and cultural understanding," a National Security Language Initiative fact sheet on the State Department Web site says. "The NSLI will dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages … through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through university and into the work force."