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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Language Programs Needed For Special Operators
Language Programs Needed For Special Operators
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

— As Special Operations Command shifts to a more global focus, its personnel have an urgent need to learn new languages, particularly in African, European and Asian countries, officials said May 21.

Special operators over the past decade have worked alongside tribes and local communities in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries building relationships. This required them to become fluent in Farsi, Urdu and other local languages, said Chief Master Sgt. Greg Smith, with Special Operations Command Europe. But now operators need to rapidly learn a variety of different languages.

"There has been such a focus on Farsi, Dari [and] Urdu,” Smith said during a panel discussion of senior enlisted advisors at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. As special operators go back to their theater commands — which include regions such as Africa, South America and Europe  — leaders have found “a tremendous atrophy of some core languages.”

In Europe, there are 24 core languages, not including dialects, Smith said.

In Asia, there are more than 3,000 dialects, said Command Sgt. Maj. Tony Pettengill Sr., of Special Operations Command Pacific.

Smith called on industry to develop new technologies that can help operators learn languages rapidly. "There is a tremendous market out there." 

Currently, personnel stationed in Pacific nations use a combination of language institutes, open-source language tools and videos to practice, Pettengill said. There is a need for cost effective tools because paying thousands of dollars for translators is unfeasible. “We just can’t afford to do that,” Pettengill said.

Effective communication with partner nations is key to developing strong relationships, said Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Gibbs of Special Operations Command Africa.

“Language … adds to our effectiveness with our interagency partners. Often times, that’s the first thing a country team is going to ask: 'Do we have a language ability?'” he said.

Costs are also a major factor when considering where to invest across all acquisition programs, said Chief Master Sgt. Matt Caruso, from Air Force Special Operations Command.

“Do not price yourself out of the ability to give to the components,” Caruso said. “The bottom line is, money is an issue now. Some of this technology advances very quickly, [and] it becomes pricier and pricier.”

It is getting to the point where the command has to prioritize who trains with certain technology, and that is not what the service wants, Caruso said.

Members of the panel also stressed that interoperability with partner nations is a priority. They called on industry to work with Special Operations Command to create communication devices that will allow them to connect with partner nations more easily.

For the past 13 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, special operators did not have to worry about interoperability, said Command Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris. But now, as the force refocuses, they must be concerned about it.

Many countries simply do not have the technology or infrastructure to allow the seamless distribution of information and intelligence, he said.

Photo Credit: Defense Dept.


Re: Language Programs Needed For Special Operators

If the DoD were serious about this--and I doubt it is beyond it being merely a good idea--it would not be looking for new technology to teach languages. The technology is already very good. Let's use Khmer as the target language. A U.S. service member who is to learn Khmer should be taught as far as having a workable day-to-day vocabulary and grammar, which can be achieved in three months of intensive classroom learning. Then s/he should be detailed to a military unit in the respective branch of the Cambodian military for one year. No more than a single U.S. person per foreign unit. Equally as important as learning the language is learning the culture and customs. The U.S. person gets to learn the language, the culture, the customs, the food, the habits, the things that drive and influence individuals in that culture, and how the Cambodian military does things. In return, the U.S. person can offer insights and alternative ways of doing things of a military nature as a peer rather than as a trainer (U.S. TTPs).
Tom Lee at 5/22/2014 11:22 AM

Re: Language Programs Needed For Special Operators

Concur - the language training I have seen in Spec Ops (having supported NSW 2005 - 2008) was somewhat haphazard.  The language lab was well run and convenient, and staffed with native speakers, but the operators were always being pulled out for "more important" work.  Also, the operators chose their own classes, and the Spanish classes were far more heavily attended than the Arabic ones - immersion training in South America being much more interesting than immersion in Egypt. 
Nicole Hatch at 5/22/2014 11:56 AM

Re: Language Programs Needed For Special Operators

I agree with both of the comments above. Immersion is so valuable. I've seen foreign officer in US military environments. They generally greatly improve their English language skills by the end of their tours.

Language abilities are so important to mission success. Keep them in the class surely there is another SOF soldier that can do the other "important" job. 
J Nichols at 5/22/2014 12:16 PM

Re: Language Programs Needed For Special Operators

My experience was a lack of interest in learning languages by those already tabbed before the new requirement for language proficiency was required for the Q course even with the FLPP incentive. 

Alot of the new guys who came in from the ranger battalions did not take to the FID type of missions and were more interested in DA missions and CQB training. The old timers were more aware of the need for cultural and language tools.

Those who were run through the crash courses at Ft. Bragg after language training became required for completion of the Q course did not retain much of what they studied or the interest more time into maintaining their language skills given the optempo of direct actions operations being run in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most often people raised speaking a language other than or in addition to English like Tagalog or Spanish were the few who spoke a language fluently.
1/19th SFG at 6/8/2014 6:17 PM

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