Improving language skills of military personnel is easier said than done

It's widely understood that if U.S. troops spoke the languages of the foreign populations they encounter in battle zones, military operations would be more effective and efficient. But creating a large pool of troops proficient in the languages they are most likely to encounter has proved enormously difficult.

A recent bipartisan report by the House Armed Services Committee's panel on oversight and investigations concludes the military services have a long way to go to develop the language abilities needed in today's conflicts. What's more, the services' efforts to improve skills are hampered by a public education system that fails to inculcate the importance of language and cultural studies in an increasingly globalized world.

"The Department of Defense and the services are trying to enhance these skills, but they've inherited a national problem that slows them down considerably," said Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., chairman of the oversight subcommittee.

According to the report, "The nation, as a whole, lacks an educational infrastructure than can produce the dramatically increased numbers of highly proficient individuals needed, not only for national security, but also for economic competitiveness."

The report lauded the Defense Department's wide-ranging goals to boost foreign language skills and cultural literacy within the services and among outside educators. But it also noted that the department's internal efforts have fallen short of expectations.

Despite a 2004 directive from then-Defense Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to establish strategic guidance to transform language and cultural capabilities, the department still lacks a clear understanding of what its language-related operational requirements actually are in the field. Similarly, Defense does not have a process for identifying emerging requirements.

In 2005, the department issued the "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap," which outlined four goals: achieve a foundation of language and cultural expertise within the services; create the capacity to "surge" skilled linguists and cultural experts when necessary; establish a cadre of advanced language specialists; and develop a process for tracking the career progression of language professionals.

But the roadmap did not include long-term strategic goals and funding priorities, which congressional staffers and auditors with the Government Accountability Office say are necessary.

"The services' primary efforts appear to be far more aimed at developing a culturally aware force than a linguistically capable one," noted the report. That difference "calls into question whether the two even agree on what they are trying to accomplish."

GAO found considerable disparity among the military services and how they have defined language requirements. At a briefing for congressional staffers in late November, GAO noted that as of last March, combatant commanders had identified 141,000 requirements for personnel with language skills or regional expertise and machine-translation tools. Yet each organization followed its own criteria for making those determinations, raising questions about how meaningful the data might be. For example, Pacific Command's requirements outnumbered the requirements of all the other combatant commands combined -- including Central Command, which is responsible for prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

GAO plans to issue a report on the topic soon.

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