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Language, cultural learning important to Army mission

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 17, 2008) -- The Army should be on target with its language and cultural capabilities within five to 10 years.

By then, every Soldier should have a broad competence in cultural knowledge and should posses at least some rudimentary capability in a foreign language. Other Soldiers would posses expertise in both language and a particular area of cultural studies, said Brig. Gen. Richard C. Longo, director of training in the Army's Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Training, G-3/5/7.

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"A successful Army is where we have in our units a blending of this broad general capability amongst most people, coupled with the expertise among a few," Longo said, saying that should happen within five to 10 years.

A report released in November by the House Armed Services Committee reviewed the Department of Defense's efforts to develop language capability in the armed forces. The report suggested that while DOD had set goals to create "foundational language and cultural skills" in the armed forces, the individual services seemed satisfied with focusing simply on developing cultural capabilities.

"The difference between the Department's goal and the Services' approach calls into question whether the two even agree on what they are trying to accomplish," the report said. "The Department must work more closely with the Services to achieve a common understanding of the language skills needed in today's force."

Longo said the Army is working to develop cultural capability but is also working to develop language capability. In particular, the Army is focusing on its "targeted language list" which includes such languages as Arabic, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Chinese, some languages spoken in Africa, and even French.

"Each of the languages is a difficult language to learn," Longo said. "And not all of us have the propensity to learn Arabic. So we try to attack that a couple of different ways. I've said it before that it is easier to take a linguist and train him to be a Soldier than it is to take a Soldier and train him to be a linguist. And the Army knows that."

The Army now has programs to teach new languages to Soldiers, and programs to entice native language speakers to join the Army. The 09 Lima program, for instance, is one of the programs designed to pull native language speakers into the Army and put them into uniform.

"Instead of training a Soldier to be a linguist, we have somebody that understands the language already and maybe more importantly the culture -- and we train them to be a Soldier," Longo said.

The 09L program pulls "heritage" speakers who are already Americans into the Army and into the 09L military occupational specialty.

Heritage speakers have been speaking a particular language their entire lives, in the home or in school. Soldiers in the MOS are often recruited from communities in the United States where many of the residents speak the same foreign language and share a common ethnic background.

In October, the first company of 09L Soldiers, the 51st Translator Interpreter Company, stood up at Fort Irwin, Calif. The unit will eventually include more than 140 native speakers of languages like Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish and Dari.

Another program still in development will be designed to get highly qualified native speakers and Health Care Professionals into uniform is the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest (MAVNI) program. Based upon Department of Defense (DOD) guidance the Army is developing a test program to offer non-immigrant alien native speakers and health care professionals the opportunity to serve in the Army.

"We said if you want to join the Army, we will make that happen," Longo said. "And the goodness of this is, as this program gets bigger, there are maybe one or two people of these in every organization. We try to spread them out."

Soldiers already in the Army are also being incited to learn language on their own and with the help of the Army. The Army recently endorsed a DOD policy which provides Tuition Assistance to all soldiers who take postsecondary language courses offered by an accredited body, even if it is not part of a degree plan. In the past, Soldiers on active duty needed to pursue a degree program to qualify for TA educational funding. Today, Soldiers can receive TA funding without pursuing a degree program, if they are taking language courses.

Soldiers are also being asked to self-identify their own language capability to the Army if they have not already let the Army know.

"How many people out there have a language capability that haven't been tested," Longo asked. "We as an Army might not be aware if we have 500 Tagalog speakers. We don't know, but we probably do. Would that be useful to know that? Yes, it would."

Longo said the Army is now going through a process to identify language capabilities at whatever level, for all Soldiers. "We need an inventory of what language capability that we have," he said.

Students in the Reserve Officer Training Corps are also targeted for language development. In fact, in August, Longo said, the Army kicked off a program where ROTC cadets are offered increased pay if they opt to take a foreign language while in school. Students are paid monthly based on the level of language course they are taking.

For Soldiers already in the force, the Army offers, free-of-charge access to the commercial language-learning software, "Rosetta Stone." That software is available through Army Knowledge Online. The incentive for taking those language courses and doing well in them may be increased promotion opportunity for Soldiers, Longo said.

"If all other things are equal and one guy is a master linguist and another isn't, who do you promote?" Longo asked.

But Longo also said providing Soldiers with cultural capability is critical. That means teaching Soldiers that there are other belief systems in the world besides their own -- making sure when Soldiers interact with civilians in other nations they are sensitive to the differences.

"We provide Soldiers with a universal cultural awareness," he said. "It's a series of lessons that say there is more to the world than just Peoria, Ill. These are the broad things that people care about in other cultures. These are the things that, though seemingly inoffensive in the United States, are generally offensive outside the United States."

Over time, he said, as Soldiers develop professionally, they will get increased and more targeted cultural awareness training. That, he said, coupled with language skills, is something the Army realizes as important to its own mission.

"Regardless of what style of operation we are going to do, whether it be a major combat operation or irregular warfare -- for the foreseeable future we are going to operate amongst the people," Longo said. "That is fundamental to our doctrine. If you are going to operate amongst the people, then, to have any hope of doing that in a way that supports your objectives rather than undermines them, you have to have a cultural sensitivity and some language expertise, in order to communicate."

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