31 October 2009

On Language

(H/T Wired's Danger Room and Reach 364)

Earlier this week, I came across a press release which expressed great admiration for a US Air Force major who became fluent in Pashto, one of the native languages of Afghanistan. While I certainly applaud this man's achievement, Wired.com hit the nail on the head--this shouldn't be breaking news. We should have hundreds of service men and women fluent in Pashto. Instead, we rely on contractors, tapping into a pool of roughly 7,000 Pashto speakers in the US, not all of whom actually speak the language fluently enough to comverse with locals, and even fewer that are in the right physical shape to accompany Soldiers and Marines through treks up and down the mountains in full body armor.

A few years ago, then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who was the commander of the US Army Combined Arms Center, made the following observation in an interview with Nathan Hodge: during the Cold War, when Soldiers were assigned to Germany and Italy in large numbers (some hardship tour that was!), Soldiers went through a mandatory 1-3 week introductory course in the local language--learning just enough to get by, get directions, and generally engage in some degree of public diplomacy with the locals.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that being assigned in a foreign country gives you great language immersion training, but not from the 1-3 week introductory course. Indeed, in order to motivate men to do anything, you need to appeal to the basics--throw them into the local environment and force them to eat, drink beer, and try to hook up with the local chicks, and they'll be fluent within a few months. Guaranteed. If you want to learn even more quickly, get wild and drunk and try to talk your way out of trouble with the authorities (but this is an awesome story for a later time).

Now, granted, the "long-haired dictionary" approach won't work in Afghanistan, but better language immersion training will help. Prior to deployment, all troops get a one-hour class in Arabic or Pashto, which is hardly enough to stay fresh and current in the local language--it's "check the block" training.

Reach 364 had some interesting ideas, such as suggesting that AFN nix many of the awful PSAs (seriously, the Army needs to tell us not to rape women?!) and replace them with language tips--even if it only teaches us the basics of "hello" and "good-bye". He also recommends putting all of the Defense Language Institute's Curriculum online so that it is accessible to all. I thought the military had been doing this with Rosetta Stone software, but more accessible language training will always be appreciated.


John Brown said...

This is an excellent, "true to life" piece that I hope will be widely read by persons who are under the false impression that a language can be learned -- even in an elementary way -- in a matter of weeks.

As they say about studying Russian, "the first twenty years are the easiest."

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I realize I'm bypassing the entire thrust of your post, but

(seriously, the Army needs to tell us not to rape women?!)

Yes. In FY08 there were 2,908 reports of sexual assault involving Military Service members. And those represent a roughly 9% uptick in reported incidents, and not an estimate of actual estimates. I wish I could agree, and I don't think those PSAs are particularly fruitful, but at least it's saying something.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, I mean, "estimate of actual incidents." Words, hard.

Unknown said...

It's true that the military makes Rosetta Stone widely available. The problem is that Rosetta Stone is a really lousy tool for learning language, especially harder languages like Arabic. The company's marketing is far more impressive than its product. The military spends millions of dollars to keep up these contracts.

If you can untie the legal and bureaucratic knots and pull it off, putting DLI curriculum online would be a relatively inexpensive investment that would dramatically increase available language resources... especially for languages like Pashto that are only taught at a handful of schools in the US.