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Talking the Talk: Language Training Helps Troops Relate to Locals

May. 29, 2013 - 10:12AM   |  
By ALAN DRON   |   Comments
In Afghanistan, foreign language skills have proven useful in helping troops glean information and build a rapport with local Afghans.
In Afghanistan, foreign language skills have proven useful in helping troops glean information and build a rapport with local Afghans. (Defense Department)
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Training troops to speak the local language isn’t easy or cheap, but more and more militaries are coming to see linguistic training as a force multiplier.

It can diminish the “them and us” factor with local inhabitants and can even shock locals into conversation talking out of sheer surprise at meeting a foreigner who can speak their language — especially if it is a tongue they expect few outsiders to know.

One example of this came in feedback to the U.S. Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, Calif., from an unidentified soldier of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, following a tour in Afghanistan.

“One patrol particularly stands out,” he said. “We met two men who had never seen Americans before. While the patrol leader was questioning one of the gentlemen, I was chatting up his friend. The PL couldn’t get the one man to co-operate. ... I on the other hand was given a flower and the phone numbers of both men as well as a promise to participate in future shuras [tribal assemblies].”

It’s a small incident, but such conversations can provide the initial foundation for a relationship that might eventually provide useful human intelligence.

The U.K.’s Defence School of Languages at Beaconsfield, west of London, has the task of linguistically preparing British troops heading to foreign postings and taking up intelligence roles. Instructors teach English to foreign students coming to the U.K. for officer training.

DLIFLC is the U.S. equivalent and, understandably, by far the largest provider of military foreign-language training. Some 4,000 students pass through its doors annually, 10 times the number handled by the DSL. In terms of curriculum it is also the leader, with 23 languages taught on campus and a further 65, mainly less used, available in its Washington, D.C., branch.

The DLIFLC is waiting to see how the U.S. pivot to the Pacific will alter its work. As involvement in Afghanistan starts to run down and the U.S. moves to different parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, soldiers will likely require different language skills. Although the school has taught Mandarin and Korean for many years, it has yet to see a sharp uptick in demand for those languages, said its chief of staff, Clare Bugary.

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At DSL, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian and English (the latter for foreign military personnel) are classed as “enduring languages,” for which there will be an ongoing requirement.

Afghanistan has been the driving force behind much of the training efforts from both the U.K. and U.S. specialist language establishments. Fifteen years ago, many members of Western militaries were unaware of the existence of Pashto or Dari. But equipping troops for the soft skills needed in Afghanistan comes down to more than teaching vocabulary and grammar.

“Afghanistan brought home to many operational commanders how difficult the job was if you didn’t have language- and culturally capable personnel,” said Lt. Col. Matt Sharp, DSL’s commanding officer.

Troops have to be aware of a plethora of details: whether lateness for a meeting is expected or likely to cause offense, or whether asking about a female family member is likely to trigger a bad reaction. The best way to learn about language and culture simultaneously is through immersion training. The U.K. operates such courses in Tajikistan, where the similarities to neighboring Afghanistan are sufficiently strong to make the exercise valuable.

In the U.S. Army, meanwhile, the demand that every platoon should have a trained linguist has driven the provision of competent foreign-language speakers. For units about to deploy to Afghanistan, it takes around 10 weeks to get a trainee to “Level 1,” which is survival-grade skill in speaking and listening. Those trainees then become the linguistic focal point in their individual units and cascade their new knowledge to colleagues.

As the drawdown of coalition forces in Afghanistan accelerates over the next two years, the demand for Pashto and Dari will fall accordingly and DSL will continue teaching its “enduring” languages. But all languages are not created equal. Some are more difficult to grasp than others, meaning a longer lead time for training new students, particularly if a shift to Asia occurs.

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“Arabic is fundamentally different from European languages. Russian and Arabic are both classed as being difficult, although at the top end of difficulty are Mandarin, Japanese and Korean.” Sharp said. “The Russian course is 18 months long, but to get the same proficiency from a French course you’d be here for less than six months.”

Not Like Other Schools

Understandably, the language training at both the U.S. and U.K. schools differs substantially from that at a civilian college.

“It’s very practical,” said DLIFLC’s Bugary, noting that the language contains military phraseology. It is also designed to be as realistic as possible and has taken on many aspects of simulation. “It started out as regular classroom training, but we realized quickly that [soldiers] grasp the language quicker if it is scenario-based,” Bugary said.

With this in mind, a classroom block was transformed to represent an Afghan market, in which “patrols” could interact with native-speaking instructors and hone their fledgling skills. DLIFLC also uses a campus isolation immersion facility, where students stay up to three days during their course and speak only in the new language.

Being able to communicate with local people in their own tongue has a hugely beneficial impact, Bugary said. “For the soldiers interacting with the public, it makes a really big difference, to show that you care enough to have learned their language. It means a lot to local people.” ■

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