Language Barriers

/ September 22, 2008 at 5:00 AM

The New York Times reports that the Defense Department has been slow to train military personnel in different languages, particularly Arabic. Though the Pentagon planned three years ago a sharp increase, the Times' story says the ramp-up has been slow and the objective is not entirely clear.

Figures from the department indicate that only 1.2 percent of the military receives a bonus paid to those who can speak languages judged to be of critical importance for the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other areas of strategic concern.

The military has struggled for years to develop a clear objective for language training.

In July, at a hearing of the House subcommittee charged with assessing the military's progress in language training, the chairman, Representative Vic Snyder, Democrat of Arkansas, said: "I think the Pentagon has a sense that they're moving in the right direction. I just don't think they have a sense yet of what that endpoint is."

John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who is co-author of the Army's new counterinsurgency field manual, said in an interview that the military had been moving too slowly, and he questioned the military's assertion that language needs were difficult to assess since they were subject to changing global security conditions.

The military by now should "have a pretty good idea of what countries we're fighting in," he said.

Improving the military's cultural awareness and language capabilities has been a key goal for many DOD officials -- and, most notably for our purposes, is among the top 25 transformation priorities in Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England's Aug. 9, 2007, memo laying out objectives defense leaders wanted to see accomplished by the end of this year, before a new administration takes over.

The language issue generally falls inside a broader debate on how best to conduct strategic communications, or win the "hearts and minds" of an occupied country's residents.

-- Marjorie Censer

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