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Language Is Latest Weapon in America's 21st Century Arsenal

By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2005 – Despite the tremendous advances in military hardware and technology on display in the global war on terror, there are still some capabilities only humans can provide.

That was the thinking behind a new initiative to improve foreign language and cultural expertise at the Defense Department.

In an April 15 interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service here, a top DoD official stressed the importance of language in worldwide military operations.

"Language has always been important in the Department of Defense," David S.C. Chu said, "but it is particularly important now, because we are operating in parts of the world where English is not widely spoken, where we need to work with local leaders and local populations, and where we need to understand more about their culture." Chu is undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

"We simply must develop a greater capacity for languages that reflect the demands of this century," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in announcing the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap on March 30. "No technology delivers this capability; it is a truly human skill that our forces must have to win, and that we must have to keep the peace." The roadmap, Rumsfeld said, "is a commitment to our men and women that they will have that skill and ability."

Translators acting as go-betweens aren't the whole solution, Chu noted. "We need to communicate better," he said, "and while you can always do that through translators, a great deal, as we used to say, gets 'lost in translation.'"

Chu praised the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., for instilling a good reading and listening capacity in its foreign-language students in a year to 18 months. "It's a terrific program," he said, "but, it's not enough. It doesn't take people as far as we now need them to go.

Chu said the department is beginning a new effort to broaden language competency within the military ranks and challenge more officers and enlisted to develop language skills.

Chu said the program has four primary goals:

  • Broaden the linguistic and cultural knowledge base in the uniformed and civilian ranks;
  • Develop the ability to respond quickly to crisis requirements;
  • Produce a cadre of linguists proficient at a much higher level; and
  • Develop a data base of linguists and their levels of competence so that when there is a need the talent can be brought to bear.
In the past, linguistic and cultural expertise were not regarded as warfighting skills, and thus were not sufficiently incorporated into operational or contingency planning, Chu explained. That is not the case today, he added.

In addition to the possibility of conflict against enemies who speak less commonly taught languages, the new roadmap outlines several other reasons for an increased foreign-linguist capacity in DoD:

  • Robust language and foreign expertise are critical to sustaining coalitions, pursuing regional stability and conducting multinational operations.
  • Changes in the international security environment, as well as the range of potential conflict zones, expand the number of likely partners with whom U.S. forces will work.
  • The U.S. military's new global footprint and transition to a more expeditionary force will bring increased requirements for foreign languages and regional knowledge.
  • Adversaries who attempt to manipulate the media leverage sympathetic elements of a population or politicians to divide international coalitions.
Chu said that while technology, including language technology, is helpful, "technology will never replace a smart human being."

"Today's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines," Chu said, "are so much smarter than ever before. At the same time, we are asking a lot more of them. And we recognize that that young corporal on the line in Iraq is making decisions that affect the foreign policy for the United States, and if we can give him or her a little bit of an edge - linguistically -- they're going to be far more effective."

Chu said he would like to encourage all young people to think about language as a skill - a skill they can acquire.

"And it's a warfighting skill, a skill we need in the theater. It's important that we not only acquire it, but keep it sharp over time," he said.

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