Bone-Headed American Attitude to Foreign Languages Results In Lack of Military Preparedness

For Military, Slow Progress in Foreign Language Push

WASHINGTON — Three years ago, the Defense Department set out to increase sharply the number of military personnel who speak strategically important languages. Progress has been slow, and the military has not determined how to reach its goal — or what exactly that goal is.

Figures from the department indicate that only 1.2 percent of the military receives a bonus paid to those who can speak languages judged to be of critical importance for the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other areas of strategic concern.

The military has struggled for years to develop a clear objective for language training.

In July, at a hearing of the House subcommittee charged with assessing the military’s progress in language training, the chairman, Representative Vic Snyder, Democrat of Arkansas, said: “I think the Pentagon has a sense that they’re moving in the right direction. I just don’t think they have a sense yet of what that endpoint is.”

John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who is co-author of the Army’s new counterinsurgency field manual, said in an interview that the military had been moving too slowly, and he questioned the military’s assertion that language needs were difficult to assess since they were subject to changing global security conditions.

The military by now should “have a pretty good idea of what countries we’re fighting in,” he said.

Dr. Nagl, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said the Army understood the value of having more foreign language speakers in its ranks. But, he said, it had not “done the math on what it means” and had yet to “build the programs and provide the leader development to get there.”

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