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Pentagon’s Foreign-Language Problems

Aug 26, 2011

Only 25% percent of Americans are fluent in a foreign language. Compare that to 38% of UK citizens who can speak at least one other language than English. Foreign language skills are in critically short supply in the U.S., a major liability for America’s economic future and competitiveness. According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, it is also a major liability for U.S. military operations, as reported in Time magazine.

A decade into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, very few soldiers speak the local language (Arabic in Iraq and Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan). Ground commanders say that the ability to communicate with locals is as valuable as a soldier’s skill with a rifle. No doubt American soldiers trying to win the hearts and minds of locals will find it very difficult to do so without at least a rudimentary understanding of what the locals are saying.

What’s the solution? Currently the Army orders soldiers headed to Iraq and Afghanistan to take 4-6 hours of online language training. Marines conduct two-day courses before heading to Afghanistan. That seems woefully inadequate. As anyone who has ever tried to learn a new language can tell you, it takes several weeks just learn basic phrases and vocabulary. If the Pentagon really believes that language training is “as important as marksmanship,” then it should require soldiers to take an intensive language course before deployment, or even begin incorporating language classes in basic training.

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