Lousy Excuses Against Language Training for Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 7 months ago

Every now and again I pass by a particular report that doesn’t make it to the response stage, but also occasionally, I’ll circle back around and hit it when I have time.  Also of note is that sometimes subjects are timeless.  Language is one of them.

In The Enemy of My Enemy The Captain’s Journal highlighted a great example of what language can do for counterinsurgency.  Make sure to read it (if you haven’t yet) or read it once again (if you have already).  We have been calling for better language training for almost two years.

Without going into the debate over conventional versus COIN that has so plagued the pages of Milblogs lately – The Captain’s Journal wants a balance, with good preparation for conventional ops while at the same time equipping our warriors for the fight they face today – take a short look at this justification for leaving language training just as it is.

“Some of the interpreters aren’t very good,” Petronzio said. “What I am proposing is to identify half a dozen senior interpreters and link them with company commanders.” What about Marines learning Pashto or Dari, the main languages of Afghanistan, rather than relying on contract linguists? “You’d have a hard time doing that. Every year one third of the United States Marine Corps turns over. How are you going to generate a Dari or a Pashto capability? We focus more on the culture than the language.”

The question impales us on the horns of a dilemma.  It isn’t necessary to pose the question as EITHER training Marines in language OR relying on interpreters.  It can be BOTH – AND.  If the interpreters aren’t very good, get better ones.  If the Marines would function better with better language training, then give it to them.  The fact that every year one third of the Corps turns over isn’t a relevant objection, since this same objection can be made about any training (except for the fact that language takes longer).

Since language indeed takes longer, we train to the extent we are capable and simply understand when we don’t create Marines who are fluent within a few years.  While the debate about conventional versus COIN has taken many pages of ink lately, the debate usually focuses on theory.  Seldom does the debate get into the dirt of application and example.

You can’t get your hands any dirtier than with this example.  If we believe that the campaign in Afghanistan is a long one, and we should, then there isn’t any excuse for not embarking on a serious language training program in both the Corps and the Army.

Finally, one more example of how language can help.

“We try our best with our Arabic to speak to them, make them feel comfortable to talk to us, make sure they have a good visit,” said Airman 1st Class Aaron Bahadori, an 887th ESFS member deployed from MacDill AFB, Fla. “It makes them feel comfortable. Yes, I am wearing an American uniform, but I can also speak their language, and they don’t feel they are in a foreign area while visiting. Some of the visitors can speak English. For them to have taken the time to learn English and for us to have taken the time to learn Arabic is mutual respect, so they appreciate it.”

Whether aiding contact with the enemy or engendering mutual respect with the population, the benefits are worth the cost.



  • Abu Zayn

    As a former linguist analyst with the UK MoD in Iraq for a number years I am in agreement with what you say. I would like to add a suggestion: training of contract linguists. With more than 5 years experience of working with US contract linguists I can safely say that the majority of them had no training outside of a basic pre-deployment course that didn’t cover language training.

    Of vital importance is for linguists (and intel officers) to be trained in and understand the need for translating in accordance with IC transliteration standards. I consistently came across shoddy translations of Arabic names that led to confusion by identifying suspects incorrectly, misidentifying prisoners and releasing them, and confusion over place names etc.

    This can be rectified with a few hours of training for contract linguists, military linguists and analysts/debriefers/targeters/intel officers. I suggest that the DOD insist that all linguist contract companies provide this before deployment.

    Blanket language training for the military is also a waste of resources and, due to the complicated nature of Arabic for example, often produces less than competent linguists. There is much that can be done with relatively few hours. Teaching linguists to identify tribes from family names is one example. Someone with the surname of Al-Tamimi indicates they are from the Bani Tamim tribe; Al-Bu Aswad = Al-Aswadi; Al-Bu Fahad = Al-Fahdawi etc etc etc. Training in Arabic naming conventions too would reap great dividends. Given Name + Father’s Given Name + Grandfather’s Given Name + Great Grandfather’s Given Name. This system is naturally suited for identifying someone’s relatives within their social/tribal network.

    More language training is vital but more important is the question of what kind of language training and for whom.

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You are currently reading "Lousy Excuses Against Language Training for Counterinsurgency", entry #2108 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Counterinsurgency,Language in COIN and was published February 9th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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