Pentagon Ramps Up Training to Cut Language Gap

At a graduation ceremony at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., there is a familiar air of anticipation and excitement.

Dozens of officers, children and sweethearts mill around a buffet table, loaded with cakes and punch bowls. Fresh-faced graduates, dressed in heavily starched uniforms from every service of the U.S military, move about the room, introducing their instructors.

Frequently, the conversations break into Arabic.

There are 27 newly minted Arabic speakers in this graduating class, just a small portion of the more than 1,000 Arabic-language graduates who passed through the Defense Language Institute last year.

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 exposed many flaws in U.S. security, from airport screening to intelligence.

As the government reacted to the attacks, it became apparent that there was another critical weakness: a severe shortage of translators and linguists in the U.S. military. Over the past five years, the Bush administration has made foreign language training a priority, but Defense Department officials say there is still a shortfall.

Officials say the DLI is the largest foreign language school in the world. Since Sept. 11, the Army-owned institute has become an integral component in the war on terror. Army Col. Tucker Mansager, the commandant of the DLI, says the Pentagon realized its foreign-languages capacity was inadequate.

Mansager said there was also a realization that the military needed not just better-trained linguists but many more of them. Shortly after Sept. 11, the Pentagon launched an exhaustive review of the services' language capabilities, says Capt. Angie Carson of the DLI foreign language center.

"Intelligence experts laid down a map and looked at the areas they would need to search for the Taliban and al-Qaida," Carson said. "They found there were at least 13 obscure languages spoken on the ground. The U.S. didn't have any real training capability in these areas."

The areas included Kurdistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Pakistan. The military — gearing up for war with Afghanistan — found itself flat-footed.

Almost no service members spoke either Dari or Pashto, the two main languages of Afghanistan. The Pentagon, and many of the nation's universities, had been focusing on Russian and other languages from the Cold War.

Within a couple months after Sept. 11, the DLI created the Emerging Languages Task Force, in an effort to quickly train students to speak some of the more obscure languages and dialects. Carson says in the beginning it was difficult to find teachers and books.

In order to build up its library, soldiers who were deployed to Afghanistan and other areas brought back any materials they could find. Carson says graduates of the institute's course in Farsi, the language of Iran, were run through a four-month crash course in Dari. Dari is closely related to Farsi. She says that's how the DLI got its first Dari linguist.

Now, about 200 students are pushed through the Dari and Pashto courses each year. The emerging language school is now looking at the Philippines, Malaysia, Bangladesh and languages of other countries that might be needed in the future.

The military decides what language a student will learn, often with the help of an aptitude test. Relatively easy languages such as Spanish run about six months. Languages such as Dari and Pashto take a year to complete. It takes about 18 months for the hardest languages, such as Arabic, Korean, Russian and Hindi.

Chief Petty Officer Edo Forsyth, the chief military language instructor at DLI, says the courses are intensive.

"You're taking a more than a four-year, college-level language program, and you're crunching it into less than a year, really," Forsyth said. "The analogy I use is ... trying to drink from a fire hose. We are throwing grammar and vocabulary and skills at you that quickly, and you have to figure out a way to grasp it and run with it."

The language institute has increased its number of students by about 40 percent since the Sept. 11 attacks. That number will keep rising until it reaches a plateau of 3,900 students by 2008.

The Defense Language Institute teaches 23 languages. Late last year, the Pentagon injected more than $360 million into the institute. That means more teachers, classrooms, and better technology.

Carson said the institute uses new computerized audio equipment, which can give students a simple exchange at first, and later, put background distraction or sub-dialects in the recording.

As quickly as the military students graduate, they're put into the field as linguists — mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kevin Hendzel, with the American Translators Association, says the new linguists have the basic skills to accompany troops. But, Hendzel says, they are not trained as translators and interpreters, which requires a higher skill level.

"That's where we're really hurting, because we don't have a long pipeline to train people in that," he said. "In Russian, for example, it took us about 20 years to go from zero all the way up to where we had enough linguistic talent."

Pentagon officials say it will take years, probably a generation, to acquire the full language capability it needs right now. In the meantime, the military is increasingly using contractors, and is tapping into the community of native Arabic speakers in the U.S. to help get up to speed in Iraq.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.