The Language Corps

The federal government wants to create a pool of linguists for emergencies at home and abroad.

Americans speak more than 160 "living" languages (and several dozen extinct languages as well), but when it comes to official business, with few exceptions the government generally speaks with one voice, and that's in English. While plenty of federal, state and local agencies print forms and offer assistance in multiple languages to more effectively serve diverse communities, those efforts fall far short of the communication skills needed in a national emergency. The Defense Department hopes to change that by creating a Language Corps whose members could be deployed during a crisis.

"You can imagine a whole set of scenarios that might require short-term needs for people with language skills," says Robert O. Slater, director of the National Security Education Program and the program manager for the Language Corps pilot, a three-year effort to test and demonstrate the concept. Under the pilot, Defense will recruit at least 1,000 volunteers to serve in a national pool of linguists that can be tapped for emergency relief work at home and abroad; within that pool of volunteers will be a dedicated group under contractual obligation to serve various government agencies or organizations on demand, much like a military reserve unit operates.

Natural disasters and disease outbreaks loom large among the scenarios for which the corps could be deployed. When Hurricane Katrina barreled across the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans, many of them shrimp fishermen who spoke little English, fled flooded homes only to find themselves adrift as refugees in new communities. So serious was the situation, the U.S. Agency for International Development sent two Vietnamese translators to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Recovery Center in Mobile, Ala.

Likewise, the military frequently is called upon to lend logistics support for global humanitarian relief operations, such as recent mudslides in the Philippines or the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. "The military deployed a lot of professionals to help, but language skills clearly were lacking," Slater says. "It could be any kind of international scenario, either in hostile surroundings-obviously any member of the corps would have to agree to that before they were deployed-or a disaster," he says.

Defense has contracted with General Dynamics Information Technology to develop and test various organization concepts for the Language Corps to work out the mechanics of recruiting, hiring and certifying linguists, and help determine the pay and benefits required to attract sufficient talent. Slater does not envision any age restrictions, other than the minimum age limits for employment prescribed under federal law, or fitness requirements for joining the corps.

Program officials expect to begin recruiting this fall for the 10 languages that will be represented in the pilot program. The languages had not been chosen by late June, but the goal is to select languages for which there is a very large pool of speakers, such as Korean or Chinese, as well as for obscure languages for which the pool is extremely small, which will represent a range of challenges the corps likely would experience.

Working out the nature of the contractual arrangement for dedicated personnel will be a challenge as will identifying the best way to organize a permanent corps after the pilot expires in three years, Slater says: "How is this going to be financed? How is it going to be structured in a way that doesn't create an enormous, expensive bureaucracy?" Defense isn't necessarily interested in operating the Corps over the long haul, according to Slater: "We just agreed to take this on at the pilot level."

"In theory, everybody admits [the Language Corps] would be an important contribution [to national preparedness]. We haven't run into any opposition, but I think there's some skepticism that it can actually work," Slater says.

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