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Official Responds to Congressional Findings on Military Linguistics

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 11, 2008 – A congressional assessment of how the Pentagon is implementing its language strategy reflects the Defense Department’s progress and shortfalls, a Pentagon official said yesterday.

“I think the House Armed Services Committee report accurately reflects the progress that we’ve made,” said Gail McGinn, deputy undersecretary of defense for plans. “It also talked about some of the things that we haven’t quite accomplished yet, which we knew.”

The report, released last month, acknowledges that the department and the services are taking additional action to complement the 90-percent completed tasks it outlined in a language plan launched four years ago. Known as the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, the broad strategy aims to address national shortfalls in foreign language skills in the United States.

But one of the report’s findings is that “inconsistencies” exist in the way the department and the services are approaching language transformation.

The report recommends that the department should clarify its policy characterizing foreign language, regional expertise, and cultural awareness as critical or core competencies essential to its missions as a way to establish greater consistency.

McGinn said the services’ leaders understand the importance of foreign languages, but that the demands of language training – an Arabic course lasts 63 weeks, for example – places difficulty on a force with finite manning.

“When you talk about wanting to get more language capability in your officer corps, it’s hard to conceive of that in an officer’s career,” she said in an interview at the Pentagon yesterday.

To mitigate this, the department has begun focusing on pre-accession education, meaning academics undertaken before becoming a military servicemember, she said. The idea is that troops would enter the force having completed previous language training.

As part of this transformation, all three service academies now feature more robust strategic language and cultural program offerings. As a result, more cadets and midshipmen are studying languages of strategic importance. ROTC programs also reap the benefits, with students enjoying a wider array of destinations for study abroad.

Beyond pure language know-how, McGinn said, the military hopes to instill cultural and regional expertise in servicemembers, which often require less labor-intensive instruction and time than language training.

“There’s an issue of striking the right balance: we need cultural understanding, we need regional expertise and we need foreign language,” she said. “We need to figure out how to fit all of that into the force, and that is still a work in progress.”

To ensure that the language transformation occurs smoothly and successfully, the department has appointed senior language authorities in each of the military services and agencies to conduct oversight, execution and planning. McGinn said she meets regularly with these representatives to best determine how to steer policy.

“We want them to know what is needed, what capability already exists, and they also help me formulate policies and programs,” she said of senior language authorities.

Anther measure of transformational progress is the department’s establishment of centers of excellence in each military service to oversee and standardize training and impart essential and mission-targeted cultural training.

Pentagon officials also increased the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center’s funding from a fiscal 2001 budget of $77 million to $270 million this fiscal year. DLIFLC, located in Monterey, Calif., is the department’s premiere language and cultural training center.

McGinn said the overall goals are three-fold: more foundational and strategic language expertise in the force, the ability to obtain expertise in a language if needed at short notice, and to develop a cadre of linguists with higher-level language skills.

The upshot of foreign language and cultural expertise is that it helps U.S. servicemembers communicate, negotiate and set goals with foreign partners. It also helps troops avoid pitfalls that often surround language barriers.

In American military lingo, for example, the term “field of fire” refers to area in which a person can be engaged by weaponry. “Someone in another culture might see that as a burning wheat field,” McGinn pointed out. “And that’s not what you mean at all when you said those words.”

The maxim “know a language and understand what someone says, but know a culture and understand what someone means” rings true in this example. Unfortunately, U.S. education does not greatly emphasize the study of foreign language and culture, the report notes.

“One problem pointed out in the report is that the American educational system really isn’t where we would hope it would be in terms of producing high school grads with foreign language ability,” McGinn said. “We are not robust in strategic languages like Arabic and Chinese.”

As the committee report states, “The military’s lack of language skills and cultural expertise is a symptom of the larger problem facing the nation as a whole.”

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Biographies:
Gail McGinn
House Armed Services Committee Report

Related Articles:
Defense Department Navigates Language Roadmap



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