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American Forces Press Service

Mullen: U.S. Military Benefits From Language Training

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 11, 2009 – No training is more crucial to the U.S. military than education in critical foreign languages and cultures, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said yesterday.

Speaking at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told students that their lessons in the languages of Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, have potential to pay great dividends.

“As you go through these courses, no matter how long, they are as important as any undertaking that we have in the United States military right now,” he said. “And you really have great, great potential for making a huge difference.”

Mullen said the flexibility of language training in the military underscores the state of global flux, he said, adding that change is the “new normal” on today’s international climate.

“A few years ago we would not have been focusing on, as we are now … Dari or Urdu or Pashtu or Farsi or Arabic or Hindi, and many other languages which are covered here,” he said. “But just that group speaks to the extraordinary change that we’ve gone through as an institution in our requirements.”

While language is a necessary tool for the exchange of information and ideas, it also can be a window into the culture of a foreign people. That’s why the language institute, the Defense Department’s flagship foreign culture learning center, complements language with additional training.

Mullen described the approach at the Defense Language Institute as “culturally attuned.”

“It is really important that we listen to other people, that we listen to other cultures, that we pay attention to how they see their problems,” he said. “I call that seeing it through their eyes -- putting yourself in a position that actually focuses on what they are thinking about, as opposed to how we think about them, or how we think about, in our Western ways, we might solve their problems.”

In addition to the lengthy and intensive training regimens at the institute -- with an average Dari course, for example, running for 47 weeks and demanding devoted study outside the classroom -- practicing language in the field demands a large degree of patience, Mullen said.

“Sometimes that takes more patience than we would like to admit,” he said. “But in the long run, if you’re able to solve a problem using the approach through other people when it’s their problem, the outcome is much more positive. And it will be much more long-lasting.”

Mullen characterized students at the institute as being “at the heart,” both of the military’s public outreach efforts in places like Afghanistan and within the U.S. military amid the cultural reform taking shape.

“You are at the heart of change, and that’s what I would call the external effect,” he said. “But what you’re also causing is change internally to our services, because we’re going to have to figure out different ways to promote, different ways to educate, different ways to train, compared to what we’ve done in the past.”

The chairman said the burgeoning linguists are at the forefront during a critical juncture.

“As you go through these studies, or these courses, you need to come away from here absolutely the best possible linguist, the best possible education in terms of cultural sensitivity and attuning to the needs of others because you’ll really make a difference down the road,” he said.

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