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Posted at 3:45 PM ET, 06/10/2010

Soldiers and diplomats still lack language skills

By Jeff Stein

Can we talk?

Not if it’s a foreign language, according to government auditors, who issued a highly critical review of national security agencies’ programs Wednesday.

Tucked deep into the Government Accountability Office report was a brief, disparaging passage on the foreign-language capabilities at the departments of State and Defense.

The language situation was not only not improving, it said, it was going backward.

The Defense Department still “lacks a comprehensive strategic plan for addressing its language skills and regional proficiency capabilities,” John H. Pendleton, who wrote the GAO report, told a congressional panel.

But the percentage of foreign language-capable personnel in the State Department actually decreased between 2005 and 2009, Pendleton said, with “31 percent of the State Department’s generalists and specialists in language-designated positions …not meet[ing] the language requirements for their positions, an increase from 29 percent in 2005.”

A State Department human resource spokeswoman said the GAO figures lacked context.

“There are more language-designated positions,” she said, insisting on anonymity. “We’re playing catch-up.”

“Since 9/11, language-designated positions have more than doubled,” she added. “Super-hard language positions have more than tripled, and Arabic language positions have increased five-fold.”

The Pentagon was not able to supply a rebuttal of the GAO’s findings within several hours.

A year ago, however, the Defense Department said it “planned to complete the development of a strategic plan by September 2009.” By the sound of Pendleton’s testimony, it failed to meet that benchmark.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, decreed last year that each platoon have at least one soldier who could speak basic Dari, one of the country’s two national languages.

But the troops’ training for the unusually difficult language, which is largely spoken only by Afghanistan’s professional classes (including police), not rural farmers and shopkeepers, lasts only two weeks, soldiers say.

“I doubt you can get much from two weeks,” a Special Operations Forces veteran commented on the Captains Journal military blog last month. “It takes about one year of intense training to speak a language“ and commanders can’t spare ground troops that long.

“If 2 weeks isn’t nearly enough,” added a blog read who indicated he or she was with the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Infantry, “then 1st BDE 101st isn’t on the chart.”

“We’ve been issued pocket references with various vocabulary and phrases broken down phonetically,” the soldier added. “There was a half-hearted attempt at a ‘30 Key Phrases’ program, but it was never enforced."

“I see no issue with fitting a professional language program in the training schedule“ the soldier added. “1st BDE has been aware of their deployment schedule and target area for well over a year. How hard would it have been to outsource tutors on a weekly basis?"

“It pains me,” the soldier added. “This would’ve been a simple process…”

By Jeff Stein  | June 10, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Intelligence, Military  
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Having "been there, done that," there is a huge disincentive to learn foreign languages because the senior managers, who never speak anything but English, do not utilize or value their staff who speak foreign languages, and the "time out" from regular duties to study a language counts against you in a promotion panel.
Dari was mentioned above, which is not a hard language (it has indo-european roots) but is a one-country language written with a non-Roman alphabet. It is spoken by the general masses in the northern areas of Afghanistan where people speaking "Farsiwan" languages live -- but we are no longer fighting there. Now it is Pashto, the language of Helmand and Kandahar, that is needed. I wonder how many soldiers who worked hard to master Dari are now sitting in Marja totally unable to communicate. Better a warm body where the fighting is that use that body with special skills where they can be best used.
If you can get to be a Col. without speaking a foreign language, where is the incentive for the Lt. to learn?

Posted by: DCNative41 | June 14, 2010 10:14 PM | Report abuse

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