May 1, 2005


Boot camp, camouflage, guns - and Farsi lessons?: The Defense Language Institute is at the forefront of the Pentagon's growing emphasis on linguistic and cultural skills. (Mark Sappenfield, 5/02/05, The Christian Science Monitor)

The Pentagon makes no secret of the fact that Staff Sgt. Aaron Jarvis will soon be one of its most valuable assets in the war on terror. Yet the most important part of his daily training does not involve a fighter jet, a rifle, or an obstacle course. It involves only a classroom and constant conversation, as Sergeant Jarvis unravels the peculiar pronunciations and subtle scrawlings of Dari, one of the two official Afghan tongues.

To Jarvis, a one-time pizza-store manager who has already learned Serbo- Croatian as an Air Force linguist, the switch to Dari is just another assignment here at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). But more broadly, it is part of a fundamental shift at the Pentagon, as leaders increasingly see foreign-language skills not as a peripheral part of the military's mission, but as crucial to the success of American forces abroad.

In the future, officers could be required to have some familiarity with a second language; enlistees might receive language instruction during basic training. No decisions have yet been made. Yet when the Pentagon released its Defense Language Transformation Roadmap last month, it made clear its view that security in a post-Sept. 11 world requires not only a military capable of deploying to the remotest corner of the world at a moment's notice, but also soldiers capable of coping with the cultural and linguistic challenges they meet when they arrive there.

"We think this is, in the end, an essential war-fighting skill for the military of the future," says David Chu, undersecretary of personnel.

The Pentagon's roadmap offers only a general outline of what language skills it feels are needed in today's military. Yet its goals are ambitious. In essence, it seeks to take language from the perimeter of military life - the province of intelligence specialists translating documents and listening to radio chatter - and make it a more seamless part of modern soldiering.

Its aim is threefold: to promote at least basic language skills among the broader base of soldiers and officers, to improve the proficiency of linguists like Jarvis, and to replicate efforts like the Translator Aide Program, which recruits native speakers of key languages from immigrant communities across the country, helping the Army ramp up its translator corps quickly.

Would have been useful for the military of the present too.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 1, 2005 8:55 PM

We've been fighting wars against non-English speaking nations since 1846(the 1630s if we want to count Indian Wars) and it took till now to realize it might be a good idea for our soldiers to understand the languages of the places they serve?

It is much easier to take patriotic Americans and train them in foreign languages than to take foreigners and expect them to be patriotic Americans.

Posted by: bart at May 2, 2005 8:35 AM

There's no evidence of that.

Posted by: oj at May 2, 2005 8:38 AM

By definition, foreigners owe their allegiance to foreign countries and our intelligence services and State Department have been riddled with spies over the years as a result.

Posted by: bart at May 2, 2005 11:27 AM

America is an idea not a country. Plenty of foreigners have fought well for the idea and few poorly.

Posted by: oj at May 2, 2005 11:51 AM

DLI is a top-notch school but its mission is to train small numbers of translators to a high level of proficiency, not mass indoctrination/introduction. The basic Arabic course, Middle East School 1, is 63 weeks in residence (6 hours per day in class with 3-4 hours homework), and has a washout rate of about 40 percent. If memory serves they run about twenty classes a year with 50-60 students, so with a 60% graduation rate you're looking at only 600-700 graduates per year for all four service branches + FBI, DoD etc. And most of those folks will end up in signals intelligence (i.e. translating radio and telephone intercepts), not as boots on the ground.

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 2, 2005 11:56 AM