The Future of Language Learning Part 6: Languages in Defense Interests

The past articles in The Future of Language Learning have largely been concerned with secondary, and some elementary, education. Without a doubt this is the largest segment of the country’s language learners.  It is important to remember that while there is a segment of the population who want to learn a language for the sake of learning, there are also many, many practical applications to a new language too. One of the largest recruiters of future linguists and language specialists in the US today comes from the nation’s intelligence and defense communities.

As learning becomes more and more based in practical application, it is without a doubt important to consider language’s role in national defense, intelligence, and diplomacy. Although the shift has moved away from grammar exercises and sterile readings and more towards a learning of language through culture, experience, and actually using the language, the US has still not completely embraced language’s role as a key for national interests, and this is being reflected in our critical gaps of linguists and language specialists.

Although the military and intelligence sectors of the government hire and train an extremely large number of linguists, it’s no secret that America does not have the linguists it needs. Part of this stems from availability of language experts.  According to a Pew research poll in 2015, only 25% of Americans consider themselves multilingual, and according to Robert Kennedy’s 2008 book Of Knowledge and Power, post-9/11 America is only at 30% capacity for language specialists in the military. While it is useful to have a soldier in a foreign country who can speak the language, it does not replace having an interpreter who not only understands the language, but also understands the culture and people that are being dealt with. Someone who simply knows a language may see information and determine it would require military action, while a linguist who understands culture, colloquialisms, and is trained in interpretation can read the same information and determine whether or not the information is actionable or requires less critical steps.

Although linguists, interpreters, and others play a vital role in the military and other intelligence agencies, with the rise of the Internet and integration of technology in all levels of the military, it has already become key that there is an availability of people who are not only bilingual, but also experts in hacking, cybersecurity, and information technology. But if there is such a critical shortage of linguists, how do we expect to find people that are not only linguists but also experts in other fields?

The NML reached out to Glenn Nordin for insight on how to get schools and other language institutes to understand the importance of language in today’s world. Mr. Nordin, one of the many presenters in the NML’s Amelia Murdoch Speaker Series, provided some insight into what could be focused on. “It is a national problem and needs to be dealt with at the national level including the executive and legislative branches of the US Government with the assistance and support of the national professional associations[1] devoted to improving the nation’s capability to accurately translate and interpret information received in foreign languages. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau on Language Business Statistics provides a base to describe the language industry outside of government and the direct financial and support relationship with the government. The first step is the presentation in the clearest terms the points at which the total of government and non-government language capabilities fail or are non-existent today and the costs of that failure or lack.

For example, data on the number and related costs of failures in providing qualified and available interpretation and translation in the nation’s courts needs to be collected and presented to the US Courts System. The military needs to review the lessons learned in engagements over the past three decades and depict the capabilities that should have been available to the commanders in those engagements as an integral part of their operating force.

Nordin noted that a person who is truly proficient in a second or more languages can be paired with domain experts in areas such as cyber warfare or medicine and, in time, the language person will become skilled in translating or interpreting from or into the required language in that domain. Very few linguists would be adept in the jargon and culture of power grid operations, often cited as targets for hacking and disruptions. A proficiency in the language of expected opponents in cyber warfare could be made a priority for training or hiring a computer engineer. The dual-language programs now gaining popularity should be of value in developing candidates for domain education and training in the skills required for cyber warfare and security. In other words, begin with the language capability and train the specialty. To achieve this, the government needs to establish a list of languages that will be needed to fulfill plans.  I believe It is far easier to train a bilingual person in another specialty than it is to train a specialist in another language.

Nordin points out there is a need for greater opportunity for continuing language education and maintenance of skills based on the work of the government language schools –the DLIFLC, the FSI SLS and the ILI[2] as well as the Department of Education Resource Centers. Digital platforms such as the interactive CL 150 currently available over the open online networks can create the courseware and administration of that continuing education for proficiency to be retained and enhanced. Availability of access to such continuing education and time to make use of the platform must be included in staffing and outfitting the language workplace.  “Those of us who have become somewhat proficient in a language all know how fast that proficiency fades without daily exercise. Just as a good concert pianist will adhere to an almost daily exercise, the qualified translator, interpreter and language analyst will require a daily skill refresher even if actively performing in those arts and skills as part of the daily work.”



[2] Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Foreign Service Institute School of Language Studies, Intelligence Language Institute, National Cryptologic Language School