Intelligence: Dealing With The American Language Problem

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January 7, 2006: The United States has long had problems with getting enough language interpreters for military use. While this wasn't that great a problem during World War II, because of so many German, Japanese and Italian speaking immigrants (or children of same). But in Korea and Vietnam, there were difficulties, because so few people from those countries had immigrated to the U.S. Even so, until 1991, most of the military interpreters were trained to deal with Russian and East European languages. But just as the Cold War ended, problems in the Middle East got critical. There were simply not enough Arabic speaking Americans available for the military during the Gulf War. Using local civilians helps, but the civilians must be kept away from classified information, because some of them are going to be working for the bad guys (either voluntarily, or coerced.)

Currently, the U.S. military has about 17,000 troops who speak languages like Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Iran), Urdu (Pakistan), Hindi, and Korean. That's not enough, especially since many of these troops have jobs other than doing translations. To solve the problem, a long term program is being established to provide more interpreters in the future. This will include a requirement that future new officers know at least one foreign language, and paying troops who are proficient in a needed foreign language, a monthly bonus. The Department of Defense's current language training capabilities would be expanded, and financial aid for language instruction would be given to ROTC programs. Money would also be given to language programs in elementary and high schools (for languages the Pentagon needs, or thinks it will need.)

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense is establishing the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Those who qualify (in terms of skills, and ability to get a security clearance) would be paid a monthly fee to be available, in an emergency, to come work for the military. The Pentagon found a lot of American Arabic speakers during the Iraq war, because these civilians went to work for contractors, or directly for the government, to provide translation services in the United States and Iraq. Many of these interpreters are already qualified for the Civilian Linguist Reserve.

The Department of Defense has known for decades how valuable foreign language, and cultural knowledge, is. That's because of the U.S. Army Special Forces, where everyone specializes in a foreign language, and the culture where it is spoken. During the 1990s, the army became aware of the need for linguists in peacekeeping operations (Haiti and the Balkans). But awareness, and a long term solution are two different things. Now the two have merged, although it will be 5-10 years before a noticeable impact will be felt.

 


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