Intelligence: Listening In Tongues


September 4, 2010: After nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the U.S. Army still can't find enough linguists (interpreters to help troops dealing with locals and translators to handle documents and recordings). Even before September 11, 2001, the army was having problems finding enough linguists. During the 1990s, there was a big need for Albanian and Slavic language linguists to support American peacekeeping operations there. Currently, the army is spending over $250 million a year for contract linguists. The big demand now is for those who can speak Pashto and Dari, the two major languages in Afghanistan.

The U.S. military has had some success in finding American troops who speak foreign languages well enough to operate as battlefield translators. This was a major boost for intelligence gathering, since a lot of what you want to know can be found in what the locals are saying. But after five years of effort, there are still problems in identifying troops who can speak specific dialects. The problem is agreeing on how to test for these kinds of skills. It’s complicated, mainly because there are so many dialects in the Arab world, and places like Afghanistan.

The Department of Defense is also trying to find troops who have sufficient cultural knowledge of a foreign area to be certified as expert enough to be militarily useful. Again, the problem has been one of deciding on criteria, and then applying it effectively. This is all a work in progress, although a solution is promised soon. It always is.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has created several programs to get more translators. The Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus Program, pays troops a monthly bonus if they speak certain languages. But the monthly bonus is paid only when the language is used. For example, the U.S. Navy will pay French speaking sailors an extra $500 a month if they are involved in a part of the world (like Africa) where French is a common second language. Thus it is a contingent (on having to actually use the skill) bonus. In the past, the bonuses were only paid for those who had passed a proficiency exam, and spoke a language the military had few translators for. In particular, Arabic, Pashto and Farsi (the last two are common in Afghanistan) are still in great demand. But the old system paid the troops that $500 a month whether they were using their language skill or not. Now the top bonus is $1000 a month.

Then there is the LES (Language Enabled Soldier) program, which offers ten months of language training for volunteers. If the student is successful, they qualify for the bonus. Troops also realize that more interpreters make their job a lot easier in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, brigades are going to Iraq and Afghanistan with a hundred or more troops qualified as translators, to one degree or another.

The military has also been actively recruiting recent immigrants who could go through training to improve their skills and teach them how to use those skills for translation in a military situation. This is the EHLS (English for Heritage Language Speakers), which takes native speakers of these languages, living in the U.S., but lack the English language skills to be effective translators. The program involves a government paid, six month (720 hour) intensive course that improves the students English language skills. Those who successfully finish EHLS will be offered translating jobs with the U.S. government, but the students are under no legal obligation to take any of those jobs. However, those who speak one of the needed foreign languages as their native language, and express interest in a government translator job, will be given priority in getting into the EHLS program. The Department of Defense currently has a shortage of translators able to handle Arabic, Persian, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Pashto, Urdu and Korean. This program has been successful, although the government continues to employ thousands of contract translators.

The U.S. Department of Defense believes it needs 140,000 translators, for over 60 languages. A survey of the entire Department of Defense found that 217,000 people (about eight percent of all active duty reserve and civilian personnel) could speak a foreign language. But it's taken a lot of effort, and new programs, to get the translators for the right languages, to the places where they are needed most. In the meantime, the Department of Defense has found that private firms are more efficient (and expensive) in finding suitable linguists. These contract linguists can earn up to $200,000 a year, compared to $15,000 a year for local hires. The contract linguists often have security clearances (essential for secret documents and situations), and there are never enough of those. While the local hires are cheaper and more abundant, they are not as reliable. There's always the potential for incorrect translation (often because the interpreter simply doesn't like the tribe you are dealing with).





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