Interview with Scott McGinnis, Coordinator for the Interagency Language Roundtable, USG and Academic Advisor & Professor, Defense Language Institute

As we have seen over the past year, language is currently and will continue to play a crucial role in the government, in particular for defense interests (see our article with commentary from Glenn Nordin here). To further explore this topic that is not usually considered when looking at language education, we talked to Scott McGinnis of the Defense Language Institute to see his views on where language’s role in government is now and where it will be in the future.

As a language program run by the Department of Defense, what are some of the unique challenges that you face as an educational institute?

It’s important to note that there is no such thing as “Defense Language Institute-Washington.” It’s the Washington Office of the Defense Language Institute. We work on a competitive contract model, soliciting proposals once every five years, for proprietary/commercial schools in the DMV to provide language training as needed for DoD personnel based or sent to the greater Washington area for that training. So unlike the mothership out in Monterey, we do not “own” the teachers and curricula for our students.


Do you do research into pedagogy and best practices? If so, what kind?

Despite the fact that on paper, I am a tenured full professor at DLIFLC (= the institution out in California), I do not fall into the traditional professorial models from academia, although I did spend the first decade of my post-doctoral degree career as a tenure-line professor at a couple public universities (University of Oregon and University of Maryland), and established a fairly strong research record on pedagogical issues for the Chinese language in particular, including tonal perception and production, learner styles and strategies, and the unique features of Chinese heritage language learners. My more recent scholarly work has focused more on language policy- and planning concerns, including the overall development of the Chinese language field at all educational levels (primary, secondary, and tertiary).


What are some of the key languages being taught right now?

For DLI-W, that depends on who the student is. Because so many of our DLI-W students will be serving as attaches and foreign area officers (FAOs) working in embassies and consulates of our allied nations, French and Spanish still make up a large percentage of the languages being studied. But because we also cover the waterfront for all those languages that are not taught in Monterey, and for which there is an ongoing morphing prioritization within the Intelligence Community, there are both the usual suspects (e.g., Arabic, Chinese, Persian, Russian) and the unexpected surprises.


Are there any challenges or barriers to teaching these?

Yes, depending on the available resource base, both human and material. Sometimes with the more commonly taught languages like French and Spanish, the biggest problem is trying to decide what not to use. For the truly Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) – or as I have tongue in cheek termed them, the VNTs (= virtually never taughts), resource availability has increased dramatically in my 16 years at DLI-W, particularly through both the internet and social media. But there will never be as much as we need, again, both human and material.


How does the DLI determine what languages are going to be critical in 10-20 years?

We don’t. As we have put it in a PowerPoint presentation we use to brief everybody from incoming DLI-W directors to visiting three-star generals, “we don’t decide what languages to teach – we just make it happen.”


What role do you see K-12 schools and universities playing in the role of language education for defense purposes in the future?

For many years now, drawing from the incredible foresight and vision of Richard Brecht and the late A. Ronald Walton, dating back to articles they began writing in the early 1990s, I have advocated that meeting American language needs depends on the input of five provider sectors – academic (i.e., now PreK-16+), government, proprietary, overseas, and heritage. In an ideal world, the capacity to articulate both vertically and horizontally among these five sectors are crucial to meeting not just defense, but all national needs. Put in the parlance of an earlier time, guns and butter issues are equally important.


How can other government agencies, defense-related or not, play a role in creating more multilingual government employees?

If those USG agencies validate and support language and cultural competency – and not just, but including, monetarily – they can play an incredibly important role.


I see you are also part of the ILR. (For our readers: the ILR, or Interagency Language Roundtable, is a non-funded federal group dedicated to providing a space for government employees interested in languages to come together to discuss their information and concerns with other government and non-government groups.) What role do you see the ILR playing for the government as a whole?

While the ILR initially was established as a USG-internal entity, it’s important to note that beginning under the ILR Coordinator leadership of my predecessor’s predecessor, Glenn Nordin, whom you interviewed in an earlier edition of this forum, we came to understand that an Interagency Language Roundtable that is only USG in its membership runs the very great risk of isolation and irrelevance. As a result of Glenn’s, and then following him and before me, Rick Jackson’s, work, we now draw to our 9 monthly meetings each “ILR year” representatives from all five of the aforementioned provider sectors. I deeply believe that it is only by that sort of demographic profile that the ILR can play the role it was meant to play – to help the United States meet all of its language and cultural capacity needs.


Has the ILR ever played a role in guiding what the DLI does?

In what was developed by the ILR in its earliest days – namely, the development of the Skill Level Descriptions (SLDs) for language proficiency in the traditional four modalities (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) – the ILR has provided a framework for the design of curricula, assessment metrics and professional development for DLI. But it has done so as well for all USG agencies and instructional institutions, and quite directly, many elements of academe. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) based its own proficiency levels model on the ILR SLDs.