« War Without Meaning: … | Home | On V in Other Places:… »

My Biggest Failure Down Range: Language Training and the Military

Our long time readers at On Violence have probably come away with two impressions about me: first, I criticize the Army a lot; second, that I think highly of myself. So do I make the same mistakes as the Army?

Well, I do, and I like to think that I confront them when I see them. Recently I read the fantastic novel, The Ugly American, and it led me to some deep introspection (trust me, I'll have more posts about this book in the future). The book indicts America’s foreign policy system for it’s lack of American foreign language expertise (among other things). Written in 1958, its criticisms of American foreign policy still apply today.

As The Ugly American describes, the American foreign policy apparatus--from the Defense Department to the State Department to our intelligence agencies--lacks the critical language skills necessary to succeed. So obviously I must take language skills seriously, and I must study them on my own.

Actions speak louder than words, and my actions don’t tell the same story. I have never succeeded in mastering a critical foreign language. I tried to learn Tagalog, (the language of the Philippines) to help my study of insurgencies. Later, I started to learn Arabic in case I deployed to Iraq, but that never happened. In each case, I quit because the need no longer seemed important or relevant, and mastery seemed too difficult.

(I did learn Spanish. I took five years in high school, and I believe with a little bit of study, and total immersion, I could gain close to fluency. I have learned some of one language, it is just a language half of America knows tambien.)

Even worse than the times I started studying languages but quit, is the tremendous opportunities I have been given, but did not embrace. I lived overseas in Italy, and only learned restaurant Italian. ("Un litre de vino de casa rossa, per favore.") When I deployed to Afghanistan I only learned how to introduce myself. And I spoke to Afghans on a daily basis.

It is my major criticism of myself. Depending on my next assignment, hopefully I can change. I need to embrace learning a foreign language in a critical skill so that I can practice what I preach and improve myself. But I run a blog, work for the Army, work out daily, and am planning a wedding, I don't know if it will happen.

seventeen comments

I think the last point is crucial. the Army and Soldiers are busy, but busy with unimportant stuff. In the future, the army needs to prioritize language courses and training.


I read the “The Ugly American” years ago and thought it was much better than the overrated book “The Quiet American,” which really isn’t about insurgencies or COIN. TUA, on the other hand, actually is, and it has a lot of good parallels to our current (mis)adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They made a movie out of TUA with Marlon Brando that was only okay.

Having joined the State Department two years ago, I can tell you not much has changed from the life depicted in the 1950s in regards to the supreme arrogance of your average FSO, only your current incarnations are less capable and more feminized (DOS mandates that all male foreign service officers be chemically castrated prior to shipping them out to their first post).

Accomplishing tasks don’t matter. Feeling good about yourself and everyone leaving a meeting with a smile on their face, is the metric for success in State.


Thanks for mentioning the book. I’ve really gotta read it!

And your post also reminds me a lot of a certain Colonel I used to know. No language skills whatsoever – while holding an important position abroad! But you know what? He had lots of other ways of communicating and the locals just loved him!

It’s been almost 3 decades ago that I moved to Denmark. And in this small brotherhood of Scandinavian nations it becomes very normal to speak or at least to understand different languages. I worked as a language teacher as well… however I don’t know
if I really believe in LEARNING a language. But I tell you this: it’s nice and pleasant to pick it up as you go along! It works out rather well, if you see it as a cultural pleasure, rather than a tough duty…


@ Eric- Michael’s last point said he was blogging, getting ready for a marriage and working out… I hope these aren’t the unimportant things you are talking about.

This problem goes way beyond the military. It’s a failure of our education system to teach kids to learn how to learn languages early on in their development.

Personally, I’m going to spend five months learning nothing but Farsi or Urdu…I know that won’t be enough- but that is a very rare opportunity in the military.


Great post, the ugly American is a phrase I´ve heard often enough, particularly with Americans coming to foreign countries and thinking “I come from the greatest country on Earth, I matter more than these people”. I had no idea there was a book and a film on the subject.

It takes quite a bit of time or determination to learn another language, it can´t be something you do on the side, it has to be something you really concentrate on for a time. Of course even after you´ve got the textbook version of a language down, that doesn´t mean you´ll be able to understand regional dialects and colloquialisms (I can´t understand the Swiss most of the time, they sound like the Swedish chef from the muppets speaking German to me).

Languages need to start early, when language education starts early in school children don´t translate the language they´re learning into their native language in their head the way adults do, they learn the language more purely.

I never learned more than a couple of words of Arabic, but even all the soldiers I knew here in Germany who had lived here for years didn´t speak more than a few words of German. That was primarily because it wasn´t needed on base, and because they were working with the Army and weren´t completely immersed in the language enough.

The US Military drastically needs to increase the size of its Pashtun, Dari, and Arabic schools, I´ve heard the number of graduates per year is not more than a few handfuls and their target strength as far as I understand is only 700. They need about 5 to 10 times that many atleast, or find reliable handpicked people from the local national militaries.


I think the problem also stems from the way in which we teach languages. I taught French at State for a little while. The quality of teachers was greatly affected by the fact that teachers at State aren’t permanent employees, in fact they’re hourly contractors (this is true across language departments). You can imagine the impact this has: there’s a lot of turnover, lack of motivation/dedication on the part of instructors (because you never know whether you’ll still have a job a month from now), and you simply don’t get the kinds of professionals that you would if these people at least had more than hourly jobs (as in annual contracts at the very least). I include myself in this category of course.

If you want serious language training, you need professional instructors, not hourly contractors.


-RJS Thank you for the insight on the current state department situation. I haven’t worked with state too much, but from the grapevine what you say doesn’t surprise me. Also, the excellent USAID people I did work with struck me as the exceptions not the rule (the TUAs not the squared away people).

-SSG Yeah you should definitely read The Ugly American. Scandanavian countries, and European ones in general are much better than the US when it comes to language. But other diverse countries, like China and Russia focus hard on learning the languages of countries their FSOs will go to. The US needs to adopt this policy.

-Jon I am jealous, but you will have to stay in the Army so it is a tradeoff.

-Chris Yeah Americans live in glorious isolation inside the super FOBs we call bases in Europe. Part of the reason I think we should bring troops back is because they don’t even get exposed to a foreign culture really.

AB- I wasn’t aware that that is how state runs things, but if the Army ever expands their teaching of languages that is probably how it will turn out. Let’s hope we find a better way.


Great post. I think we’ve discussed this before. I’m all for language education in the military, my only trepidation is that learning a single foreign language might pin down a soldier to a specific area of operations. While beneficial for military operations, I doubt many soldiers would learn a Persian language if it would limit them to a combat area when they could choose to learn Japanese or Korean making themselves more servicible in East Asia.


Good point, Matty! The solution to that would be: learn several languages! And even better: make friends with the locals! You’ll be surprised what they will do for you in return!

On education:
You know when you guys talk about GWOT, this is the ultimate terror for me: what happens with our educational system and in the medical sector.
Complete manipulation, complete indoctrination and no room for sanity, freedom, genuine and authentic intellectual development.
There are methods that work fast and well. There are people who apply them. But you will see one school like that, one activity like that after another getting closed down by the government. And it doesn’t matter what methods they use – whether it just happens covertly or in bright daylight – the result is always the same:
the places where children get treated well, where the environment is safe, where everybody prospers do get shut down. The public places of education get the money instead, kids get put on psych-drugs, teaching sucks and both teachers and pupils are indoctrinated a psychological and political “correct” point of view. If you don’t go along with that, you’re out of the job and as a pupil you won’t pass your exams.
Result: one basic point of view and attitude is accepted, whoever doesn’t fit in will be medicated until he/she shuts up. Welcome to George Orwell’s world!


should probably also leave you that link in connection with my comment on education, so you know what I mean and won’t just be completely shocked by such a strong point of view:
http://aboutmybooks.blogspot.com/2009/01..


Q: what do you call someone who speaks three languages?
A: trilingual

Q: what do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A: bilingual

Q: what do you call someone who speaks just one language?
A: American


After reading the article, I think you are after a deep thought before writting. First of all, I have not read this book, but looking at the name of this book, I do not like it, why? Because it used the word “UGLY”, and I do not speak on behalf of the Americans, nor intercede on behalf of the U.S. soldiers, if someone is a soldier, they have their beliefs, partful soldiers did something, we can not deny their the overall image, any soldiers of any country, they have great soul. The book is called “the ugly American”, I would like to ask, if a person, as an American, as an American soldier, how he would do, how people think, I am afraid to do no matter good or bad will be done by people with malicious intent behind pointing, right? There is no absolute right and wrong, can not partially erase all, the above is my view, if there are any extreme, you are welcome to correct it.THANKS.


@ RIB – That cracked me up.


How about the self proclaimed “revolutionary” language learning software system called “Rosetta Stone”. The blurb on the packaging (my wife is using it to learn Russian) proudly states that it is “used by the US Military”.

I am wondering whether this is testament to what a fantastic piece of software this is or alternatively whether it is a an alarming damnation of the US military’s techniques on language instruction.


Yeah allegedly Rosetta Stone is free for Army Soldiers, but not if you have a Mac like me. So that is my main puzzlement with the system.


for Michael:

ISAF: NATO forces in Afghanistan Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) has opened a new language portal to support troops deploying to Afghanistan, or already located in country.

Afghan Languages Portal – Home
http://www.dliflc.edu
This page provides quick access to downloadable DLIFLC language and culture materials in support of the mission in Afghanistan.
Yesterday at 12:56pm


Sarah thanks for the link and update!