Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Language Training in the Military is Broken

Language Training in the Department of Defense is broken, there is no other way to describe it.

Language training is in thrall to a huge bureaucracy that has poorly adapted to the needs of the Global War on Terror.

DLI has tenured professors teaching languages irrelevant to the Global War on terror, so there is less money available for teaching other, more relevant languages. When tensions were high in the 1980's, DLI rightfully hired more German and Russian linguists. While this made sense at the time, DLI is like any other bureacracy in the Federal Government. Once DLI hires people, they are never fired even when they are excess to needs. So what has happened to all there German and Russian instructors who are no longer needed? DLI created a new department for formal instruction so that former instructors in Cold War languages can teach newly hired instructors the ins and outs of generic "language instruction." What is the value of this? The value has never been studied, the value has only been asserted. This pattern, as we will see below, is common practice with DLI. Assert the value of something without actually studying whether the assertion is correct. Then spend more money as if the initial assertion is correct.

The version of Arabic being taught at DLI is a "synthetic language" that is virtually unintelligible by Iraqis with whom the Marine learning the language must interact. The formal name is Modern Standard Arabic, which is only used in "...as a second language at school and through exposure to formal broadcast programs (such as the daily news), religious practice, and print media." Instructors assert that learning MSA lays the groundwork for study of other Arabic dialects like Iraqi. There are at least four problems with this assertion: 1) As above, this assertion has never been studied, so it has never been proven. 2) The cost in time and money is prohibitive. It costs approximately $80,000 per Marine per year for instruction and takes 63 weeks of a Marine's 208 week enlistment. While in absolute terms, this is expensive instruction, in relative terms, it is even worse because even AFTER this instruction, Marines require an extra 6 month's on the job instruction in the Iraqi dialect to make them intelligible. 3) Empirical evidence from the Operating Forces suggest that if you provide intelligent Marines with rudimentary "smart cards" featuring the basics of Iraqi dialect and provide these same Marines with the 6 month OJT, their level of proficiency is the same as the DLI trained linguist Marines. 4) Teaching a synthetic language is counter intuitive to learning an actual spoken dialect. It is as if learning Esperanto and Latin would help someone in the study of Spanish. Maybe it would, but at what cost in time and money for what dubious benefit? And in real terms, I know from experience that learning a root language such as Chinese helps in no way to learn a dialect like Taiwanese or Cantonese. Learning these dialects would require virtually as much time as learning the root language.

Because the instructors at DLI are tenured and are civilians, they cannot be forced to update their curriculum annually, as is required by every other school in the military. For example, the course for Persian had not been updated since the time of the Shah. This is a function of the strange hybrid that DLI represents. DLI's real master is the National Security Agency and is run by civilians but the end user of their product, linguists, are the military services. Even though the military has requirements for review of curricula and studies of the effectiveness of product once they hit the operating forces, DLI can ignore these requirements, and they do.

Language training is broken, and desperately needs an overhaul.