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American Forces Press Service

Defense Officials Promote Language Programs to Recruit Linguists

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 22, 2007 – As language and cultural sensitivities factor more and more into military operations, defense officials are promoting several initiatives to increase the number of servicemembers and employees with critical language skills.

One of the most innovative programs is the Army’s effort to recruit “heritage language” speakers from countries the U.S. is engaged in, Gail McGinn, deputy undersecretary of defense for plans, said in an interview today. These soldiers have backgrounds in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, and already have a thorough knowledge of the languages and cultures in those areas.

“If you have a native language, you have the accent right, but more importantly, you also have the culture right, and you know something about the part of the world where your family’s from, where you grew up for part of your life,” McGinn said. “And that brings a great advantage to you in working with our forces.”

The program, called the 09L interpreter/translator program, started with the Individual Ready Reserve, McGinn explained. Native speakers were recruited into the IRR and trained in translation skills and English, if they needed it, then sent into the force as soldiers. Now the Army offers the program in the active-duty and reserve components as well, she said.

When the program started in 2003, the Army set an initial goal of 250 native speakers recruited per year, McGinn said. The Army is now meeting that goal, and in the last fiscal year recruited 130 percent of the goal, she said.

“That’s a tribute to the Army and its recruiters, but it’s also a tribute to these great Americans who are coming forward to help us,” she said.

Right now the program focuses on potential recruits who speak Arabic, which is spoken in Iraq, and Pashto and Dari, the two main languages of Afghanistan. But Defense Department officials hope to expand the program in the future, McGinn said. Many of the soldiers who join under this program are motivated by the possibility of U.S. citizenship, she said, but many also have a deep sense of patriotism and want to serve.

“A lot of them have escaped persecution or have been wounded in combat or fought in civil wars. They’ve come to the United States with their family, and there’s a great sense that they would like to pay something back,” she said.

Commanders in the field have given very positive feedback about the soldiers recruited under interpreter/translator program, McGinn said. These soldiers have helped prevent attacks and problems in Iraq and Afghanistan because of their language and cultural knowledge, but also are effective soldiers who fight alongside their counterparts, she said.

“A soldier picks up a weapon and goes into combat with you and is there right by your side and obeys your orders, and you can trust them. And (the soldier) really becomes a part of the team,” she said. “And I think that’s what we’re hearing from commanders, is the value that they bring.”

Another initiative the Defense Department is exploring is the Language Corps, which would be a set of Americans with language skills available to assist in times of crisis, McGinn said.

The department is working with other federal agencies on a pilot program that would identify individuals with critical skills and possibly help them sustain their language skills and use them on a regular basis, she said. These people would be available for military operations and humanitarian relief efforts. The program would focus initially more on critical languages, such as Arabic and Chinese.

The Defense Department has hired a contractor to set up the program, and the goal is to bring 1,000 people into the corps, McGinn said. “In that process, as a part of the pilot, we will actually do some exercising of it to see how it would work,” she said. “So I’m really excited; we’re really in the beginning of the action steps now.”

In an effort to establish a more well-rounded officer corps, the Defense Department also is working with universities to implement language programs into ROTC studies, McGinn said. Under the last Quadrennial Defense Review, the department awarded four grants to universities to set up language programs.

“We have been trying to figure out how to get our military officers more language capable, because we think it’s important for interacting with populations and for interacting with our allies, and it’s part of the core competency an officer should have,” she said.

The Defense Department eventually will award 50 of these contracts to universities over the next five years, McGinn said.

Language initiatives will continue to be important to the Defense Department, so leaders always are thinking about future programs, McGinn said. With the establishment of Africa Command, African languages will start to be important, she noted. The department is conducting a military-wide survey to identify existing language capabilities that may be needed in the future.

“That’s how we’re trying to hedge our bets in the future in terms of what other languages might be important to us,” she said.

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