Boot camp, camouflage, guns - and Farsi lessons?

The Defense Language Institute is at the forefront of the Pentagon's growing emphasis on linguistic and cultural skills.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Pentagon makes no secret of the fact that Staff Sgt. Aaron Jarvis will soon be one of its most valuable assets in the war on terror. Yet the most important part of his daily training does not involve a fighter jet, a rifle, or an obstacle course. It involves only a classroom and constant conversation, as Sergeant Jarvis unravels the peculiar pronunciations and subtle scrawlings of Dari, one of the two official Afghan tongues.

To Jarvis, a one-time pizza-store manager who has already learned Serbo- Croatian as an Air Force linguist, the switch to Dari is just another assignment here at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). But more broadly, it is part of a fundamental shift at the Pentagon, as leaders increasingly see foreign-language skills not as a peripheral part of the military's mission, but as crucial to the success of American forces abroad.

In the future, officers could be required to have some familiarity with a second language; enlistees might receive language instruction during basic training. No decisions have yet been made. Yet when the Pentagon released its Defense Language Transformation Roadmap last month, it made clear its view that security in a post-Sept. 11 world requires not only a military capable of deploying to the remotest corner of the world at a moment's notice, but also soldiers capable of coping with the cultural and linguistic challenges they meet when they arrive there.

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"We think this is, in the end, an essential war-fighting skill for the military of the future," says David Chu, undersecretary of personnel.

A linguistic roadmap

The Pentagon's roadmap offers only a general outline of what language skills it feels are needed in today's military. Yet its goals are ambitious. In essence, it seeks to take language from the perimeter of military life - the province of intelligence specialists translating documents and listening to radio chatter - and make it a more seamless part of modern soldiering.

Its aim is threefold: to promote at least basic language skills among the broader base of soldiers and officers, to improve the proficiency of linguists like Jarvis, and to replicate efforts like the Translator Aide Program, which recruits native speakers of key languages from immigrant communities across the country, helping the Army ramp up its translator corps quickly.

"A broader base of competence and a selection of individuals with high-end capacity is essential to our future success, and we need to have some way to react in an agile fashion to unexpected events," says Dr. Chu. "No one five years ago would have foreseen that we needed a significant Pashtun and Dari competence."

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the need is obvious and increasing. "We are trying to win the peace, and it is very important for us to be able to communicate even at a basic level," says Lt. Col. William Astore, dean of students at the DLI. "I would much rather have soldiers communicate using words rather than using a rifle butt."

Here on the DLI's piney campus overlooking the blue canvas of Monterey Bay, the war on terror can seem an unthinkable notion, separated by thousands of miles and the cool breeze of a California state of mind. But it is around every corner. As the military's primary language school, the DLI is essentially the flagship for the changes of the language roadmap, and as it grows to meet the increasing demand, it has undergone as much of a transformation as the military itself.

'A good time to catch up'

Some of that change is obvious in Jarvis. His original instruction in Serbo-Croatian is like a waypost of the past, when the armed forces and DLI were nearly singular in their focus on Russia and the Eastern Bloc. Back then, Jarvis didn't much care which language he learned, saying of his desire to enlist as a linguist: "It was a bit of service, and a bit of interest.... And I didn't want to be a mechanic."

But when Jarvis returned for his second stint last year, both he and the DLI knew where the action was.

After Sept. 11, the DLI scrambled to create a program that covered Dari, Pashtun, Uzbek, and other languages spoken in the Afghan region - scouring local communities for native-speaking teachers, and sometimes laying out the curriculum only a week before instructors taught it. It was the DLI's own model of agility to meet an unexpected demand.

Jarvis wanted to study Farsi, the language of Iran. The DLI gave him Dari, its Afghan dialect. And during the 47-week course, he's gained something beyond an understanding of a script that reads right to left - he's gained an appreciation of Afghan culture.

"It's probably the most interesting thing - learning about the culture," he says. "Learning about Islam, you see how it affects their life, and how so much of the culture is based on it."

To Philip Carter, that is an invaluable lesson for any soldier. During his time as a military-police platoon leader in Korea years ago, he became convinced of the importance of not only language skills but also cultural understanding. His platoon included Korean draftees who served with the US military, and without them, he might have caused riots without even knowing why.

"You need someone with a knowledge of the social hierarchy, who knows whether a handshake is a good or bad thing, and whether it's an insult to refuse coffee," says Mr. Carter, who is now a military analyst. The military "was slow off the dime, but now is a good time to catch up."

Proficiency - but at what cost?

Others, however, worry that the Pentagon might go too far. Language and cultural training makes sense at the DLI, because students are here for that purpose. But spreading even a watered-down version to the wider officer corps - much less to enlisted soldiers - risks undermining their primary goal: preparing for battle.

Army Capt. Adam Sellers can see both sides. As a member of the Foreign Area Officer program here at the DLI, he understands the need for good language skills - he's committed to spending a year in China to become conversant with its language and culture.

But he also thinks back to his time as a commanding officer, and wonders when he would have had a spare moment for language instruction amid all the drilling and training.

"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said, 'I don't have time for that,' " he says. "It's a huge culture shift for the Army."

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