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.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.