Defense Department Seeks Civilian Language Corps Volunteers
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2008 Starting today, Uncle Sam wants skilled speakers of Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili or any other of 10 “critical languages,” to join a Defense Department pilot program designed to build a cadre of trained linguists.
By 2010, the National Language Service Corps hopes to amass a pool of 1,000 civilian language experts, willing to volunteer their foreign tongues on behalf of the United States if an immediate national need arises.
“The concept of the language corps really appeared because there was a recognition that there’s simply no way the federal government -- or for that matter, state or local governments -- can ever plan and program their work force to address all the language issues that might come up,” said Robert O. Slater, director of the National Security Education Program, which administers NLSC.
“We’ve recognized in the past five to 10 years that language skills are a difficult commodity to find in the United States,” he said. “The concept of a corps would be one that identifies this kind of expertise and warehouses it, because we never know when we’ll need it; we never know what disaster will strike.”
People in the Southeast remember Aug. 25, 2005, as the day Hurricane Katrina battered their homes, flooded cities and altered the course of their lives in a national crisis exacerbated by demolished phone lines, power outages and downed Internet networks. But in addition to a crippled communications infrastructure, a swath of the affected population was made incommunicado for another reason.
“We know from a lot of postmortems that have been done on Katrina that there were 50,000 to 100,000 displaced Vietnamese in families that needed a lot of support,” Slater said. “It was difficult to find people -- especially professionals -- who understood the Vietnamese language and culture enough to guide the displaced populations through the maze of regulations and issues that would be required for them to deal with.”
Had a cadre of critical linguists deployed as part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency response, the population left culturally marooned might have recovered with greater fluency.
To shore up foreign language gaps within the U.S. government, the Defense Department will establish an elite community of speakers -- known as the “dedicated pool” -- and assign linguistic units to specific government agencies. In addition, the current U.S.-wide dearth of organized critical linguists would be filled by the “national pool,” consisting of a broader array of talent to be called upon during times of need.
The Pentagon has begun working with Congress on establishing a budget for language corps recruiting, training and compensation disbursed to volunteers called to serve, Slater said.
“Long term, the department will need to work with Congress on establishing authorization and appropriation for the permanently established corps. That will be critical to the future of the corps,” he added.
The NLSC program is a component of the Defense Department’s comprehensive language roadmap and the National Security Language Initiative President Bush proposed a year ago.
Gail H. McGinn, deputy undersecretary of defense for plans, oversees the Defense Department’s foreign-area officer program, a linguistics initiative that embeds cultural and linguistic specialists with military members in their region of expertise.
In an interview with American Forces Press Service last month, McGinn said language has a unique ability to connect U.S. operators with their foreign counterparts and local civilians.
“To be able to communicate with the people, to understand what they’re saying, to understand what they’re thinking, to understand what their habits are and the correct way to interact with people is incredibly important,” she noted.
The cooperation among federal agencies, Congress and the White House on linguistic initiatives 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.”
U.S. citizens interested in volunteering or who want more information should call 1-888-Say-NLSC (729-6572) or visit the NLSC Web site.