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Media Roundtable with Dr. David Chu, Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness)

Presenters: Dr. David Chu, Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness)
January 05, 1999 1:00 PM EDT

Media Roundtable with Dr. David Chu, Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness)

            Mr. Turner:  As you probably know, later today the President is going to announce the launch of the National Security Language Initiative which will dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages.

 

            Dr. Chu, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness is here today to talk about the department's role in this effort and then will take a few questions 1:25 at which time I'm going to have to cut it off because he's got to go to another meeting.

 

            His remarks are on the record, but will be embargoed until 4:00 o'clock today.

 

            Dr. Chu?

 

            DR. CHU:  Thanks, Jim.  I appreciate it.  I appreciate all you coming this afternoon on short notice to talk about this important issue.

 

            Let me just say a few words of introduction and then respond to your questions if I can.

 

            First, I would emphasize the degree to which from a very early point the present Secretary of Defense has emphasized his concern that in dealing with the world as we in the United States confront it today, meaning in the early 21st Century, that we need a stronger capacity to understand and work with the cultures and peoples of other nations.  The essential part of that capacity is linguistic facility, ranging from basic to pleasantries on the part of perhaps senior commanders, to in-depth, fluent, knowledgeable, attuned to nuance in another land.  And particularly in the future this is going to involve what might be seen from an American perspective as "non-traditional" languages, in other words Chinese, Arabic, Pashtu, Dari, although we would not have forecast those last two languages in early 2001, I would acknowledge, as being part of our set.

 

            That goes to the approach the department is using in this regard which is enshrined in a language transformation road map that the then Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz who was likewise a strong believer in this set of needs signed in February of, I think it was February of this year.  I'll have Jim check the date and he can make that document available to you.

 

            It sought to lay out a way ahead in the department against three broad goals.  First, we need a stronger foundational capacity.  In other words, broad-based, more people need more facility in languages, other than English.  Second, we have to have some capacity to expand our capability on short notice.  That's the Pashtu/Dari problem, in areas we might not have foreseen in advance where we would have a need.  And third, we need some people who are deeply competent in a long set of languages, we've identified two dozen that are of interest to us in this regard. 

 

            Part of the latter involves stronger efforts on what people call the Foreign Area Officer field.   The Army has long has a good program in that regard, although it hasn't always been kind to its incumbents, I would acknowledge.  That's changed in the last decade.  You have Carl Eikenberry as the most senior example of success in terms of military career rank, now serving as a three star officer and publicly acknowledging the advantages that he has dealing in Afghanistan, having in-depth understood China, its language -- he's a pretty fluent Mandarin speaker and was a China FAO, and was the U.S. attache in Beijing for a number of years, et cetera.  Besides his explicit capacity regarding China, it gave him a way to think about cultures that would be very different from those in the United States and I think that's an important foundation that our [seniors may] need to have.

 

            What I think is important as you look at the department's various plans and different pieces that are here in the overall program, is to appreciate the extent to which the Secretary's perspective is now the perspective of the department as a whole.  This is something I think the Quadrennial Defense Review document, when you get it in a few weeks, will celebrate as one of our future directions.  It's something we're going to put money against in the President's budget, and that's why this department is delighted to join its sister agencies, especially State and Education, in this National Language Initiative that the President will announce this afternoon.

 

            We are contributing some money, we're also contributing some leadership.  The initiative is benefiting from our early experimental efforts.  One of the things the initiative will do that I think is very important from the long-term perspective is to underwrite as a leadership model on the part of the federal government in the American public education system, K-12 programs in important foreign languages.  Important in the sense that they are not normally going to be languages Americans would acquire, and that means specifically including languages like Chinese and Arabic.  We did fund through the National Security Education Program the first such program in Oregon.  There's a great story out there.  I'd encourage those of you who aren't familiar with it to get it from Colonel Krenke because the state has picked up, the university is willing to offer scholarships to people who graduate from the program when they get there.

 

            The model comes out of findings at a National Language Conference that this department sponsored in 2004 which acknowledges that if you don't -- let me put it positively.  If you start when you're five, you have a great advantage in facility, in accent, in the ease with which it's acquired, and I'm no biologist, but my understanding is increasingly the thinking is that the brain is in some sense wired for language acquisition in young ages in a way that it's not so wired for those of us who are adults and have to sort of trudge through this.  Particularly with languages tough for an English-speaker to acquire, and a tonal language like Chinese is an example of that.  It's much better if you start early.

 

            We recognize that it's not going to pay off tomorrow, it's not something on Rumsfeld' tenure as Secretary of Defense that we're going to see some product on, but it's our responsibility to contribute to the nation's capacity because we will benefit just as the country as a whole will benefit.

 

            I'm delighted to see that just the fact that agencies are willing to say they're interested has encouraged local groups as an example of this in California with a similar Chinese immersion program starting I think at the kindergarten level, that local groups are saying you know, if there's going to be a demand out there, if someone's going to hire somebody with this skill and it's going to make a measurable difference in their lives, we'll start the program.  It doesn't require federal funding all the time, and I'd underscore, that we can help blaze a path, we can set a direction here.  So it's not a proposal to underwrite every program in the country.  It is a proposal to help get the country moving in an important direction.

 

            I'm impressed with the degree of response we've already gotten at the local level, the enthusiasm that's out there.  I'm impressed by the degree to which young people are interested in acquiring foreign languages.  One, the post I think had yesterday or the day before an article which reported on the college boards, asking about who would be interested in an advanced placement Chinese test, and the response was overwhelming.

 

            We see that in the military cadets who want to learn languages that they see as important to their futures as military officers.  So they're as eager to begin as we are.

 

            With that, let me conclude and respond to your questions.

 

            MEDIA:  Can you talk a little bit about the effect of language deficiency within the military right now, the effect that's had on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan?

 

            DR. CHU:  Let me put it positively because I think that's where we would want to emphasize.  We recognize that ability to speak to someone in his or her  native language and to understand the idiom is a very significant advantage to any operation -- whether that's peacekeeping in the Balkans, whether that's operations around Afghanistan today.  It's one of the reasons we started in the department, as you are aware I'm confident, about 2.5 years ago a program to recruit what people like to call heritage speakers, meaning someone who grew up speaking that language, and we offer them appointments in the Reserve and the opportunity to be called to active duty.  The Army runs this program under the moniker of 09-L for Lima, which is just the MOS specialty they created for them.  It's been wildly successful.  About 250 people in this program have either graduated or are in the pipeline leading up to graduation.  The comments, again, Colonel Krenke can get these for you, from the field commanders are lyrical in their description.  If I were writing the puff piece for it I would be embarrassed at claiming such success.  [Laughter].  But these are people on the ground.  They have nothing to gain by saying either a good or bad thing about this program.

 

            An example.  A commander writes in, "This 09-Lima goes with me everywhere.  The great advantage is that he..." not all are men, by the way.  Some are women, but this is a man. "...that he is an American soldier first but also a facile linguist and his Arabic is so good he can tell which region of Iraq people are coming from.  Since he's dressed in American battle gear everyone thinks of him as just an American soldier, so he can tell me what's really going down on the street, not just what I might be told officially is happening."  So his ability to provide what you might call instant intelligence to the commander of great value, obviously is enormously appreciated by that officer.  This was a battalion or brigade commander who was speaking in this particular case.

 

            So on the positive, we recognize the payoff in terms of effectiveness to having someone who is in American responsibilities.  An American soldier, an American civilian who can really interact with the local community.  That's one of the reasons why as part of this National Language Initiative the President will announce, we will form what we're going to call a Civilian Language Reserve Corps, in other words a set of civilians who would agree to come to our assistance in a language of need when we had that requirement.  So our belief is it's going to substantially expand our capacity to cope.

 

            The military's done that for a long time, as you appreciate.  This is true in the Horn of Africa, for example, it's true in Ethiopia in troubles in the past and the present.  It will comb through its records and say who grew up speaking this language?  It will yank that person and say you know, young man or young lady, you're going to get a free trip to wherever.  And they've always been very supportive because of course they're delighted to add this additional skill to their contribution.  But this is now a much more organized effort to do this, or at least one part of that organized effort.

 

            MEDIA:  Can I just briefly follow up?

 

            DR. CHU:  Yes.

 

            MEDIA:  You mentioned the Civilian Language Reserve Corps.  What's the timetable that you see for getting that thing up?  Is it going to be roughly a thousand people in it?

 

            DR. CHU:  The current plan is roughly a thousand people.  That's not to be overly prescriptive.  If it's successful we might expand beyond those numbers.  My hope would be we'd make significant progress on that within the next year or so.  This is not a ten year -- unlike the K-12 program, this is not a ten year horizon.  This is something we need to get started on sooner rather than later.

 

            MEDIA:  So you're not saying that in one year we're going to have a thousand people --

 

            DR. CHU:  No, no.  I'm not saying in one year we'll have a thousand people.  Now if we had a thousand people in one year I'd be delighted to report that, but let's see how we do.

 

            MEDIA:  Can you talk a little bit about the surge capability and what that means to your average, in terms of if he or she is going to be deployed to X place or even to Afghanistan or somewhere where there are already forces.  What does that mean?  Is it like a quick injection of language training --

 

            DR. CHU:  The short answer is yes, and it really comes, broadly speaking, in two flavors.  First, we are investing and that's what some of the money will go for here.  We've already done some of this and we have some early experience both in what to do and what not to do, in crash courses for pre-deployment.  In order words, you're going to Iraq, wouldn't it be better if somebody in the unit -- lieutenant, captain, colonel, whatever the case might be -- spoke at least a few words of Arabic or could read a few words on a street sign?  If you don't read Arabic script, you have no idea what these signs say.  And that's the two week, three week, four week rapid acquisition idea.

 

            There are divided views on how much good that does.  I think we view it as some use.  It's not a panacea, it's not going to solve all the problems.

 

            The other kind of surge capability we're investing in is the sort that the 09-Lima program represents.  In other words, how do we reach into communities that already exist within the United States and capitalize on their talent?  So that means recruiting people.  So we do plan, we will announce with the QDR to expand the 09-Lima program - in other words more people, more languages.  Up to now we've emphasized Arabic, Pashtu, Dari.  We will expand beyond those languages.

 

            We will also do a better job of simply taking inventory of the skills that our military people have and our civilians have.  Not that we don't do a reasonable job now. Civilians we don't.  We will change that so that we know what our civilians at least say they can speak.  There's the further issue of how much you want to invest in testing people to know well, yes, you say you can speak Tagalog, but actually you're down there in the 0-5 scale at the one-plus level.  You couldn't do interpretation for a ministerial meeting for me if that were the assignment.

 

            MEDIA:  Does this mean you'll be going into classrooms, say the college level or the high school level, where you know you've got pools of people who are learning these languages and have some level of proficiency and trying to get them to either join the military or be a part of the civilian corps?

 

            DR. CHU:  It probably won't be quite that direct.  I don't want to create an image where the recruiter is visiting every college classroom and saying all the Swahili speakers please stand up.  But we will be looking at a variety of steps that are of that spirit.  So as an example, the Air Force Academy will plan to start looking at language preparation as one of the several areas of strength that it would like to see in some of its candidates  for the future. 

 

            I think the message here is we don't want to just continue with what you might call our old business model.  Our old business model, which you're all familiar with, was the Defense Language Institute.  It's still a great business model, but in that model of how to proceed, we take a young American who shows a proficiency to learn a foreign language where you have an aptitude test for this purpose that we give, and we say great.  We know you always wanted to learn Chinese and we're sending you to Monterey for, fill in the blank.  52 weeks, 66 weeks, it's a long course for the tougher languages, and you're going to learn Chinese from scratch.  That's what a lot of this is aimed to move beyond.  That's still an important model.  Still a way to get a lot of linguists.  A lot of the nation's Russian and Chinese capacity was developed that way.  None of those China scholars came through DLI when they were 18, 19 years of age.  We will still do that. 

 

            We've expanded DLI.  That was a decision taken last year in the budget and program cycle.  But we recognize that we cannot possibly cover the needs that we have that way.  So these various steps are all designed to say how do we build more capacity, both in the department and the country from which the department can benefit?

 

            Now back to your question.  So the Academies will start looking at this both in terms, in the Air Force case it wants to look at pre-accession; they all want to look at stronger programs during the Academy years.  You will see us when we announce the QDR rolling out grant programs for schools with large ROTC programs that are interested in expanding their language instruction in areas of our need.  Basically this will be seed money.  We're not going to underwrite it forever.  We're going to say we will help you get it started.  We're going to be there on the long haul looking to cadets to learn these languages.  So the demand, that's what universities always want to hear.  They want to know that a student wants to take this course to the extent of course they'll pay tuition and so on and so forth.  So we'll help you get it started, but then it's going to be up to you. 

 

            So there will be some money going into existing classrooms, trying to encourage people to go.  But we have done an inventory of where all the schools are in terms of what language programs they have, and there is a fair amount of capacity out there but it is disproportionately, and I don't mean that critically, disproportionately what you might call the classic Western European languages.  So as a country we're strong on French, Spanish, German instruction.  We are not strong, however we need to be, on Arabic, Chinese, et cetera.

 

            MEDIA:  The crash course that you spoke about, that four weeks, do you see that as something for all soldiers or just for unit commanders?

 

            DR. CHU:  We believe that's something that each deploying senior unit commander needs to decide.  The model we have tried for several Iraq rotations, we've tried two models.  One is where the bulk of a unit gets instruction, so everybody gets some.  And the other we tried is give us one person, because this does take away from other training.  There are only so many hours in the day.  Give us one person in your unit who you think is proficient enough anyway at his or her responsibilities, and let's train that person up in as much, in this case Arabic or Pashtu, Dari as we can -- it's all been Arabic I believe to this point, as we can provide.

 

            We are really still feeling our way, I would want to acknowledge, on what kind of emergent instruction really makes sense.  I shouldn't endorse brand names here or the General Counsel will be on my back.  But you all recall, there is a firm out there that has, at least year ago, advertised about how if your business is going to Country X, in three weeks we can make you proficient.  There's even the theory out there that if you play the tapes at night while you're sleeping you'll learn something.  I don't know if that theory is right or wrong, but I'll let you research that issue.

 

            MEDIA:  When do you expect these new and improved crash courses to be --

 

            DR. CHU:  We've already tried several. We will finance more with the '07 budget request, beyond the current level.  So it's an evolving set that we're talking about here.

 

            And I want to emphasize, it's just one tool.  And the language specialists would advise, you know, really not a great idea because there's only so much you can learn in that period of time.

 

            On the other hand, I do think for breaking the ice, whether that's at a senior level or on the street, an ability to just say hello, thank you, please, you know, where is the toilet.  Simple questions.  It goes a long way, at least in my experience in visiting overseas countries. Just the fact that you tried, and that's what senior commanders report to us, just the fact that they tried to say a few words in the local language was deeply appreciated, so for them it's more on the order of can they at least learn to pronounce the words correctly and are they intelligible when they read off the script that they're provided by the staffs?  That's going to vary by who you are in the system.

 

            MEDIA:  Obviously the services are doing various initiatives already.  Is this like a template to put over what everybody is already doing or is this kind of almost like a DoD mandate to say, and I don't mean this nasty, but you, Marine Corps, will do it this way; you, Army, will do it this way.  Is it guidance or is it a new program that you will --

 

            DR. CHU:  It really is a new and different program.  That's why I call your attention to this defense language transformation road map.  Yes, people are doing a variety of things, but in offering this template we're not trying to make it overly restrictive, so I'll give you an example.

 

            We are telling each of the War Colleges that it needs to -- We will be telling in the Quadrennial Defense Review report, each of the War Colleges, that it will include some degree of cultural awareness in its program. 

 

            Now the Marines have already decided, and you can talk to them about their program, that I believe at the Command and General Staff School everybody is going to take Arabic.  Everybody.  At least that's what they tell me.  Now we're not mandating that, because one of the push-backs you get in this area is 'I'm not so good at foreign languages, you know?'  Or 'I'm not enthused.'  The Marines have decided you're enthused.  [Laughter].  And they're going to start at that level.  That's wonderful. 

 

            The other thing we're telling the War Colleges, for those officers who arrive with some language facility this is a great opportunity for them to tune themselves up because one of the problems for anybody with a busy career is how do you keep facility.  So we're telling the War Colleges, one of your responsibilities is if someone arrives with beginning Korean, he or she needs to be afforded during the War College period, which is a little more relaxed, a chance to get back into shape, so to speak, and to get a little further up on the step in that language.  We're leaving to them how they're going to do it.  We're not prescribing what they have to do, how many hours they have to teach, et cetera.

 

            So it's not prescriptive in the sense that you've got to do it this way. It is prescriptive in the sense we are going to do this.  This is, and I would emphasize, it's a prescription that has the enthusiastic backing of the department's civil and military leadership.  That's the really profound change here in terms of what we're doing.  You'll see I think that spirit in the Quadrennial Defense Review report when it's unveiled, and that's why the department is so delighted to partner with State and Education on this National Language Initiative.  We want to participate.  We do not want to lead this program, we don't want to dominate this program, we are not going to be the major financing source for it.  That was something off in one report.  We are not the major financial source for the program.  But we are eager to contribute.  We want to help shape the kinds of programs that are undertaken to be sure they're effective, and we're willing to put up some cash to do that.

 

            MEDIA:  The press release said $750 million over five years.

 

            DR. CHU:  That's adding up all the bits and pieces I've been describing.  Given OMB's neuralgic view of this issue I can't today give you a breakout of each piece, how much is there.  We'll let the budget guys do that.

 

            MEDIA:  This is an increase over, what's the current level of annual spending?

 

            DR. CHU:  The major part of the spending, and I don't have those numbers at my command but I can try to get them for you through Ellen and Jim later today.  The major part of current spending is in the Defense Language Institute which we already plussed up over $300 million in the last budget round, in other words the '06-'11 round.  So this is a further increase that we're proposing to make which includes some more money for DLI although they're not the important beneficiary in the latest decisions.

 

            MEDIA:  What I'm trying to get at, is this a doubling of the money that you're spending or a tripling?

 

            DR. CHU:  Doubling may be a little too high.  It's a significant change from where we are.  Now part of this depends on how you count all the DLI-like expenditures the department makes, including for testing that goes on.

 

            With that I better withdraw.

 

            MEDIA:  Thank you very much.

 

            DR. CHU:  Thank you very much.  It's good to see you.

  

            A full copy of the Language Transformation Roadmap is available at http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Mar2005/d20050330roadmap.pdf  .

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