## Interpreter troubles in Afghanistan?

According to Matthew Mosk, Brian Ross, and Joseph Rhee, "Whistleblower Claims Many U.S. Interpreters Can't Speak Afghan Languages", ABC Nightline 9/8/2010:

More than one quarter of the translators working alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan failed language proficiency exams but were sent onto the battlefield anyway, according to a former employee of the company that holds contracts worth up to $1.4 billion to supply interpreters to the U.S. Army. "I determined that someone — and I didn't know [who] at that time — was changing the grades from blanks or zeros to passing grades," said Paul Funk, who used to oversee the screening of Afghan linguists for the Columbus, Ohio-based contractor, Mission Essential Personnel. "Many who failed were marked as being passed." Here's the video version of the report: After nine years of U.S. involvement in war in Afghanistan, and with billions of dollars in specific costs for interpreters (leaving aside the costs incurring as a consequence of interpreters who can't interpret), you'd think we could do better than this. For a sketch of what happened in a different war, in the context of a different society, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. [Update 9/10/2010 — R.L.G. at The Economist's Johnson blog writes ("How do you say "we have no idea what we're doing" in Pushtu?"): Yes, training competent linguists is hard. So is building nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and training F-18 pilots. But the American military does these latter things in superlative fashion. The only conclusion is that after nine years of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and seven in Iraq, the brass still does not see being able to speak the languages of the countries America occupies as a "core competency", as they say in the business world. It's a nice extra, perhaps, but not mission-critical. How many Americans, Afghans and Iraqis have died as a result? Again, I think it's important to recognize that "the brass" is not an undifferentiated mass, but includes many people with a good understanding of the problems and a commitment to solving them, as well as plenty of people lacking one or the other or both. And a large portion of the responsibility, in any case, belongs to the country's civilian leadership. But the conclusion seems unavoidable: the current solutions are not nearly good enough. And it's also important to keep in mind that a version of this problem would remain even if all U.S. troops were withdrawn from both Iraq and Afghanistan.] ## 36 Comments 1. ### Dan T. said, September 9, 2010 @ 10:58 am Didn't they used to have better translators, but kicked them out because they were gay? [(myl) As I understand it, this story deals with embedded civilian contract employees, not with members of the armed forces, so that the vagaries of DADT don't apply here.] 2. ### rpsms said, September 9, 2010 @ 11:03 am Yes that happened, but I strongly suspect it was not ALL of them. 3. ### Coby Lubliner said, September 9, 2010 @ 11:04 am This would be an interesting story if it were not by the very unreliable Brian Ross (see here, for example). [(myl) A useful warning, and one of the reasons that I put a question mark at the end of the headline. The fact that there's a non-anonymous whistle blower who is quoted at some length somewhat increases my confidence that there's something to this story, however. And whatever the truth of the allegations about Mission Essential Personnel, it's clearly true that after nine years of intensive and expensive involvement in Afghanistan, the U.S. military still has significant problems dealing with the country's languages; and the level of societal involvement in trying to do something about that situation seems to be relatively minor, compared to the situation in (say) 1940 or so, before the U.S. even became involved in WWII.] 4. ### Lang Martin said, September 9, 2010 @ 11:30 am I know a translator from Iraq (now a refugee in the States) who failed his language proficiency exam. It might be worthwhile to check the contents of the exam; he's very fluent in English. I can't comment on his fluency in Arabic or Assyrian (his term, Wikipedia has it as neo-Aramaic), but they're his first languages and he learned English when quite a bit older. It might be that administrators in the field were making up a shortage by gaming a test that tests badly for fluency. 5. ### Ed said, September 9, 2010 @ 11:49 am In Afghanistan they speak a bunch of different languages, none of them ones that you would expect Americans or in fact anyone outside Central Asia to know. But this also calls into question the wisdom of the whole "nation-building" attempt there. Usually in a nation people will speak only one or two languages, and often when you cross the border you will find people speaking a completely separate language. Neither is the case with Afghanistan. [(myl) The same thing was true of the areas in the Pacific where WWII was fought. But if you read the links in the post, you'll see that the national response to this fact was quite different in 1939-1946 than the response has been over the past nine years.] That said, the last point about the tests is good. Often when the system is bad, people will do irregular things to compensate for the system being bad, instead of trying to fix the system. 6. ### Chris said, September 9, 2010 @ 12:19 pm There is something deeply and systemically flawed about how the US government assesses translator skills. My first foray into the bidness world while I was still a grad student in linguistics was with a private consulting firm in DC that had a small contract with the FBI's Language Training and Assessment Unit to help them design language specific guidelines for choosing passages to give on language assessment tests (because they had none). I got to know and understand the government's approach to translator testing very well. Point is, the whole US Government's translator assessments are based on ILR Language Skill Level Descriptions which are, imho, completely worthless. They are nothing more than vaguely worded paragraphs describing abstract skills rife with incoherence and contradictions. But they are taken as gospel within the US Government (this includes military, intelligence community, and private contractors). Until someone can break the addiction to ILR descriptions (gawd knows I tried…and failed), this will be a recurring story for decades to come. 7. ### Theodore said, September 9, 2010 @ 1:21 pm I'd be interested to hear from someone knowledgeable about the dialectical diversity of the languages involved. The video shows MEP's TV ad for speakers of Pashto, Dari and Balochi. I wonder if the organization's management just saw the dollar signs and didn't perceive those languages in terms more complex than those three names. Maybe the translators had proficiency in one particular dialectical variant, but were sent into a geographic region where the local variant was not really mutually intelligible. 8. ### exackerly said, September 9, 2010 @ 1:22 pm This story was already covered in Doonesbury a while back, I forget exactly when… 9. ### Jim said, September 9, 2010 @ 1:22 pm The example of the Arabic/Assyrian terp above is apposite. DLI and the DLPT have been problematic from the beginning. The first problem has been that DLI has had its head up its ass since its founding and the second problem has been that no one with any juice in DOD has ever given a shit about the situation. Ralph Peters inveighs about DOD's bone-headed fetishization of graduate degrees in social sciences intended to facilitate nation building (which instead have the effect of crippling it), when the emphasis should be on getting officers directly competent in the relvant languages and cultures. He is dead on the money. DLI was founded with instructional staffs made up of decayed emigre MREs (Morally Repugnant Elites) that had been hounded out of their home countries. They were thus more fit for a State Department school, but DOD had the money and the school so that's where they took their opportunist little asses. They of course insisted on elite registers of languages, because that's all they knew and that's all "our kind of people" spoke anyway, that had only a narrow utility to field soldiers. As late as the 90's it took pleading, cajoling, careful and sensitive explanation of the value of peasant dialects of their languages to get them include "military terminology" in coursework. Hey assholes, what part of DEFENSE Language Institute do you not understand? This may have changed by now, but I don't know why it would short of mass executions. The problems with the DLPT flow from this. The Spanish test used to be proverbial for needless and misdirected difficulty. Most native speakers had basically no hope of getting above a 1/1. The form tested of course was the lithpiest form of Cathtilian pothible. That's wonderful if NATO ever has to suppress an insurgency in Mhadhrhidh, I guess. Pretty useless if you're going to Hondo, though. The inadequacy of this type of instruction for a language situation such as Pashto presents should be obvious. It seems to be that a fundametally necessary skill would be the linguistic flexibility to handle dialectal variations. Who wants to bet that is nowhere in the curriculum? Only unwashed peasants talk like that – eeewwwww – you know, the klind of people you will actually need to communicate with. The damned course is probably all taught by Tajiks, for all we know. All this has been happening off-screen for the real decision-makers because with their Toys-R-Us mentality, they have preferred to pour God knows how much money into their own defense contractor firms for various attempts at translation software and hardware – come on guys, why not break down and call them Tricorders; we all know where you got the idea – rather than spend some money on actual field-ready interpreters, and some officer language training. 10. ### Spell Me Jeff said, September 9, 2010 @ 1:46 pm Perhaps much of the military's "Linguistic Corps" has been deployed to Arabic-speaking contexts? 11. ### Nijma said, September 9, 2010 @ 3:14 pm I know a translator from Iraq (now a refugee in the States) who failed his language proficiency exam. It might be worthwhile to check the contents of the exam; I understand the Arabic exam is in foos-ha (Modern Standard Arabic), not any of the colloquial languages that anybody actually speaks. I have heard that "cheating" and "bribery" are common when it comes to academic credentials in the Middle East, since the locals think of it more as "helping". At least so my students told me. Language Skill Level Descriptions which are, imho, completely worthless. They are nothing more than vaguely worded paragraphs ESL seems to be going this direction too. We have eight-page rubrics of student outcomes for each level, huge chunks of which end up in our official syllabus and lesson plan materials. I remember some bru-ha-ha around election time when it was said the personnel, including translators, left over from closing down the war in Iraq would merely be moved to the war in Afghanistan. Then it was discovered they do not speak the same language in Iraq as in Afghanistan, but after a brief interlude it was determined that there were al-Qaeda type Arabic speakers in Afghanistan and the Arabic translators would indeed be needed. Wonder how that worked out for them. 12. ### Jim said, September 9, 2010 @ 4:52 pm "Perhaps much of the military's "Linguistic Corps" has been deployed to Arabic-speaking contexts?" If only it were or could be that flexible. Think of the lead time in devloping competent linguists (DOD usage of the term). I wonder how many Korean intercept operators they are still trying to produce. Thus the reliance on local contractors, of unknowable competence and reliablity. This became a very big deal in Somalia, as one can imagine. That was 15 years ago and more. No improvement shown. I mean, you can tell how good their English is or isn't, but how well can you tell they are doing in the specific variety of the langauge they are using, two valleys over from where they are from, or worse yet, out in the boondocks when they are from Kabul? And here as in Somalia and in Iraq, the terp is not necesarily some local man of the people. He by his very identity may very well be more of an irrtant than an aid. That's what you get with local hires. Nijma, "I understand the Arabic exam is in foos-ha (Modern Standard Arabic), not any of the colloquial languages that anybody actually speaks." Absolutely true, and it gets worse. Again, it's the instructors. Here you run into cultural norms. There are reports of instructors balking at teaching these varieties – they simply cannot believe anyone is interested in that kind of bad language. It's like asking to be taught all and only the obscenities in the langauge, apparently. "…Then it was discovered they do not speak the same language in Iraq as in Afghanistan,…' This goes under the "We'd Be Dangerous If We Had A Brain" heading. This is precisely what happend in Gulf I also, when they took VII Corps linguists out of Europe – Russian, German and some Czech – and told them they had basically two months to get up to speed. "Cause it's all Furriner, right – how hard can that be? That was bad enough. Repeating that mistake iwas inexcusable. "it was determined that there were al-Qaeda type Arabic speakers in Afghanistan …" Yes there were. See, this is the one area where a program of bribes might have worked, on the order of the old vermin bounties various states used to have. Again, we can be just criminally stupid. 13. ### Karen said, September 9, 2010 @ 4:58 pm ILR is not as bad as made out above. Here for instance is ILR L4 (advanced professional) interpreter: "Able to interpret in the mode (simultaneous, consecutive, and sight) required by the setting and provide almost completely accurate renditions of complex, colloquial, and idiomatic speech as well as formal and some highly formal discourse. Conveys the meaning of the speaker faithfully, including most if not all details and nuances, reflecting the style, register, and cultural context of the source language, without omissions, additions or embellishments. Demonstrates mastery of the skills required for interpretation, including command of both working languages and their cultural context, expertise in some specialized fields, and ability to prepare new specialized topics rapidly and routinely. Very good delivery, with pleasant voice quality and only occasional hesitations, repetitions or corrections. Performance reflects the highest standards of professional conduct and ethics." It's a description, not a measurement. Finding some way to evaluate performance – that's the problem. Though the DLPT is supposed to produce measurements that match, I've certainly seen it fail. The DLPT is where problems lie, not the ILR. Since the DLPT is administered in English, native speakers of the language being tested will often have problems, but then if they can't produce workable English (and I have met them) they aren't interpreting, anyway. Doesn't matter how good their Dari is if they can't make the US soldier understand them. Still, the DLPT isn't perfect – but people have a tendency to overestimate their proficiency as well. I have many a student who never reads at L3 in ENGLISH, so how do we expect him to get there in some foreign language? Different rant, that, though. 14. ### Karen said, September 9, 2010 @ 5:02 pm I would add that there is a culture in place in the US military which makes it very difficult for a linguist (their term, and they had it first) to get proficient. First, they don't believe in leaving people in a job for very long. Second, they don't believe you can forget a language you don't work in (I knew a warrant officer who worked Russian for three years, then was cross-trained into Arabic, worked that for eight years, and then was tossed back into Russian with no refresher training at all. I mean, he hadn't forgotten his English, had he?). Third, they don't believe in refresher training *except* just before the DLPT – and then they teach the test. It's insanity. 15. ### Mark Liberman said, September 9, 2010 @ 7:39 pm Karen: …a linguist (their term, and they had it first) … This might mean various things, depending on who "they" are — the U.S. Army, perhaps, or people who take linguist to mean "interpreter". But all of the variant meanings are false, as far as I can tell. According to the OED, the first attested use of linguist in the sense "A student of language; a philologist" was in 1641: 1641 WILKINS Mercury iii. (1707) 12 Many of the other [words]..are of such secret Sense, as I think no Linguist can discover. 1695 J. EDWARDS Perfect. Script. 3 Here linguists and philologists may find that which is to be found no where else. This was certainly well before the U.S. Army was founded or even thought of. But it was also before the OED's first citations for linguist in the sense of "interpreter" (which the OED qualifies, curiously, as Obs., citing Yule: "Formerly much used in the East. It long survived in China, and is there perhaps not yet obsolete"). 1711 C. LOCKYER Trade India 104 Get it translated without your Linguists Knowledge. 1742 C. MIDDLETON in A. Dobbs Hudson's Bay (1744) 192 The Southern Indian, who was Linguist for the Northern ones, returned with the Boat. 1745 P. THOMAS Jrnl. Anson's Voy. 300 This Evening came..a Chinese Interpreter or Linguist. 1780 Ann. Reg. 204 The persons who acted as linguist, surgeon, and surgeon's mate. 16. ### Michael said, September 9, 2010 @ 8:47 pm It should come as no surprise that this all comes down to money. As amazing as it is that DLI can get an 18-year-old to a working level of proficiency in a language like Korean or Arabic or Mandarin (even if only in a standard dialect) in just a year and a half, it's a losing battle for the rest of their careers to maintain that level. It's true that the DOD doesn't really spring for refresher training unless you've failed a test (not even to prepare for the test). It's even less likely that you'll get real experience through a cultural immersion — though such programs do exist. DLI trains students (to a lesser or greater degree) to pass the test. Though speaking proficiency is an exit requirement, the emphasis is on passive skills, such as listening and reading. Like it or not, the majority of military linguists have NO interaction with native speakers for their day-to-day work. So what's the answer? Should we just hire native speakers? Well, if only it were that easy. There aren't very many native speakers of Pashtu anyway, and it's even harder to find ones that are well-enough educated to pass an English proficiency exam. I should note that a friend who studied Pashtu at DLI told me one of his instructors was a goat herder before. They can certainly speak their own language, but are they qualified to develop a second-language curriculum from scratch? I guess I don't really have an answer to this problem, but I would like to point out that even though the vast bureaucracy of the DOD complicates this matter, it's a remarkably difficult predicament for ANYONE to solve. [(myl) I'd like to echo the sentiment of this comment. In particular, this part: {i]t is [amazing] that DLI can get an 18-year-old to a working level of proficiency in a language like Korean or Arabic or Mandarin (even if only in a standard dialect) in just a year and a half … This is not an easy thing to do, and it would not be an easy at all (from what I've seen of classes there and of the results of their training) to do better. The people who run the organization would like to simultaneously increase the proficiency of their graduates and decrease the rate at which students fail the final proficiency tests, though they recognize that to do both at the same time is nearly impossible. There's a lot more to say about the successes and failures of DLI, and the complex reasons for both. However, I was not intending to focus on DLI at all, but rather on the fact that after nine years of war, the U.S. is apparently still struggling with inadequate capability in interpretation and translation for the languages of Afghanistan. And perhaps the Pentagon and the State Department have failed to meet this challenge, but the rest of U.S. society — especially the academy — has not done very much to try to help. The difference with the reaction in the early 1940s, described in the posts linked above, is very striking. ] 17. ### The Ridger said, September 9, 2010 @ 9:08 pm Actually "they" was meant to be "people who say 'linguist' means someone who knows more than one language." But I see I'm wrong about that. 18. ### The Ridger said, September 9, 2010 @ 9:08 pm Er, The Ridger = Karen. Dang these differing browsers! 19. ### Chris said, September 9, 2010 @ 10:14 pm So the question is, if I understand the comments so far, is this: what is the critical difference between the way translators were hired during WW2 and now? The answer seems to involve a perfect storm of systemic changes, incompetence, and cultural bias. What strategies are there to fix this? Sign me up for the cause regardless. This is a non-trivial issue. 20. ### Nijma said, September 10, 2010 @ 12:16 am The difference with the reaction in the early 1940s, described in the posts linked above, is very striking. ] The Peace Corps still does a similar type of language training: 3-month intensive in-country courses with native speakers. 21. ### Ted McClure said, September 10, 2010 @ 12:35 am Lessons not learned from an earlier time. In the 1990s I found myself tasked as the Army Staff officer responsible for Army National Guard and Army Reserve linguists. [BTW, "linguists" were simply soldiers qualified and filling unit positions that required a foreign language skill. "Qualified" was a complicated collection of criteria.] From the beginning there were three fundamental problems with Army linguists. I'm speaking from personal knowledge here, and include the Regular Army structure as well as the Guard and Reserve. The first big problem was that language, although the most difficult skill to recruit and maintain, was never more than a secondary or even tertiary qualification. A linguist's primary qualification was interrogator, counterintelligence specialist, psychological operations specialist, voice intercept operator, etc. This had multiple negative effects. The personnel people often filled positions based only on the soldier's primary specialty – because that is how unit readiness was measured. Training was available at every level for these primary specialties – because that is how unit readiness was measured and how soldiers got promoted. Commanders and soldiers focused their attention, quite reasonably, on that for which they were evaluated and rewarded. The second big problem was that most Army linguist positions are enlisted, with a few warrant officer positions and even fewer commissioned officer positions. Anyone smart enough to learn Chinese, Arabic, or Korean is smart enough to get a scholarship to college. Offering an enlisted position to young people who with little effort could go to college and become commissioned officers was uncompetitive in the marketplace. It was not the money – by the 1990s junior enlisted soldiers were paid better than most high school graduates – it was how they were treated. Particularly in the active Army, menial tasks and lack of respect drove these intelligent, educated soldiers out of the force as soon as their enlistments were up. Andthey were wasted. They wanted to use their hard-won language skills, and rarely were asked to do so. So they bailed, went back to college, and we lost them. An exception to this were the Guard and Reserve linguist units. These special units were structured around their languages, with the primary skill treated as secondary for readiness purposes. We were able to recruit people who already knew the target languages. Many were born in the target countries, or (in the case of most of those in the Utah National Guard linguist units) had served overseas as missionaries with language training provided by their denomination. Recruiting people with existing language skills is challenging, even for the Guard and Reserve. They join for patriotism, for the part-time pay and school benefits, and for social reasons. The primary difficulty is finding interested people in the languages we actually need – more on this below. I met an Afghan cab driver in northern Virginia who spoke excellent English and secondary-school level Pashto. He did not see the Army as better than driving a cab for his goal of economic success in America. And he probably could not have gotten the security clearance required for most of the linguist specialties. Related, there are very, very few LDS missionaries in Muslim countries (none?). Most of our former missionaries speak Spanish, various European languages, and some African languages. It's hard, especially when we stick them on the bottom of the military totem pole and largely waste their talents. The third big problem is much larger than linguists. We have never prepared effectively for the wars we have actually fought. This goes back to the early 1600s, when our militias drilled to fight open European style battles and found themselves facing Indians in the forests. We are usually victorious, in spite of – not because of – our preparation. Six months before we intervened in Bosnia, the Army's last Balkan Foreign Area Specialist (a commissioned specialty) retired. When we intervened, the active Army had no Serbian-Croatian speakers serving in linguist positions. None. In fact, the entire Army – all three Components – could only identify two dozen Serbian-Croatian speakers in any specialty. The brilliant and dedicated Army civilian who managed the Army language program and active Army linguist readiness and I began making telephone calls. If you were in the Army, any Component, any rank, any specialty, and your name ended in "ic" or "ik", you probably got a phone call. We found some soldiers who knew basic Serbian-Croatian from childhood there or from immigrant parents, and most of them volunteered to serve in Bosnia. Army Reserve linguist units heavy with Russian, Czech, and Polish speakers from the Cold War figured out how to cross-train these Slavic speakers into Serbian-Croatian in just a couple of months (the problem is not the big words, but the little words that are different). We borrowed airmen, sailors, and Marines. They served, often in positions well below their rank, with dedication and good humor. We pulled it off, but it was clumsy and expensive and slow. The operations staff response to the shortage of Serbian-Croatian linguists was to hire contractors. Most were local hires. Some were hired in the States. Both sources led to problems that we saw again in Iraq and Afghanistan. A local hire was either a Serb, a Croat, or a Bosnian Muslim. That meant that two of the warring sides saw him as an enemy, and the third saw him as a traitor for working with the Americans. You could get their attention pointing an Abrams tank's 120mm gun at them, but you couldn't get their trust. Only the American uniform could build trust. The Stateside contractors – and their weren't very many – were either scholars without military experience (not very useful in the field where we needed them), or they were DLI graduates who had left the Army for various reasons. They were paid much more than the uniformed linguists and had better living conditions. They were often not trusted by either the locals or our own soldiers. In Bosnia, we were fortunate that many of the locals on all sides spoke enough English or German that they could understand us. And, frankly, when somebody in a huge tank points that 120mm bore at you, you become much less obviously hostile, and you listen. There were other headaches and systematic issues, but those were the three big ones. To the best of my knowledge (I retired in 1998), little has changed. Language is still a secondary qualification, even though it is frighteningly expensive to acquire or recruit and so very perishable. Linguists, with up to two years invested in their language skills, watch them wither as they are assigned based on primary specialties and worse yet their language skills are not used (except when deployed). Compare helicopter pilots: With less training, they become warrant officers. And nobody would think of using a warrant officer pilot for anything other than flying. And they get plenty of flying hours, no matter where they are stationed. (BTW, in the West German army of the 1970s university graduates in "Ostsprachen" were given direct commissions as reserve second lieutenants, even if they had no military experience.) Finally, we seem to be congenitally incapable of recognizing that the next war will likely be someplace different than the last war. We should consider ourselves lucky that the First Gulf War triggered a wave of changes in language requirements from Cold War enemies to Arabic and Farsi. We were so lucky that the next big war was in the same place. But they don't speak Arabic in Afghanistan, so we enter unprepared again. And the next big war after Afghanistan? Or the next time we have to be the world's policeman, like in Bosnia? 22. ### Chaon said, September 10, 2010 @ 3:01 am {i]t is [amazing] that DLI can get an 18-year-old to a working level of proficiency in a language like Korean or Arabic or Mandarin (even if only in a standard dialect) in just a year and a half … Straying off topic a bit, it is my (possibly wrong) understanding that the Mormon missionaries that serve here in Taiwan have one month of language training in the U.S. before they come here. If this is true, then I am amazed at the efficiency of that language program. These earnest young kids right off the boat speak with a proficiency that takes most student of Chinese several semesters of dedicated study at one of the local language institutes or universities. 23. ### George said, September 10, 2010 @ 6:37 am myl: ". . . after nine years of war, the U.S. is apparently still struggling with inadequate capability in interpretation and translation for the languages of Afghanistan." Not unlike Vietnam, we first go busting in with all our expensive toys to easily defeat a low-tech adversary. Then, after a period of time we discover that these toys aren't appropriate for the situation. Then, we go to a hearts-'n-mind thing which involves regular interaction with real people, and we discover we need interpreters and try to do it on the quick and cheap. "When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?" (Seger, 1961) [(myl) From the beginning of all of these conflicts, and even before the U.S. became involved, there have been people in the U.S. military, the State Department and elsewhere who have seen the potential and actual needs for interpreters and translators, and have invested time, energy and money in trying to solve the problems. And the amounts of money involved perhaps should be larger, but the attempted solutions have not by any means been cheap — DLI alone is an operation the size of a small university, and the cited story claims that one company has "contracts worth up to$1.4 billion" to provide interpreters.

The response, both long-term and short-term, clearly has some flaws of design and of execution. The thoughtful and well-informed comment by Ted McClure points out some of them. But looking at it from another angle, how many linguistics graduate students over the past decade have responded the way that Mary Haas and others of her generation did? (Some have, I know — but despite all the GWOT rhetoric, there's a big difference in the degree of societal involvement, and this is no exception).]

24. ### Chris Brew said,

September 10, 2010 @ 9:11 am

In the second world war, the British also ran into the need to work around existing language teaching institutions. Alan Stripp's obituary in the Telegraph includes a little precis of what his training was like:

The course was devised and run by Oswald Tuck, a retired naval captain who had taught himself Japanese while serving on the China station before the First World War. When the Japanese invaded Burma in January 1942 the School of Oriental and African Studies, then the only British institution teaching the language, insisted that it would be impossible to master in less than two to three years. Tuck claimed he could teach it in six months. After only five months he was able, in the summer of 1942, to send some of his students to the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park.

Part of my feels bad mentioning this, since SOAS is a wonderful place and deserves every bit of love and respect it can get. But it is just hard for institutions to adapt.

The obituary

25. ### George said,

September 10, 2010 @ 10:00 am

myl:
You make some good points. But, I don't think that our military leadership went into Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq with serious concerns about language and cultural issues. According to Rumsfeld, the Iraq war would be over in "weeks not months.'

Our military leadership's lack of concern for cultural and language issues was painfully obvious in Afghanistan and Iraq from the outset.

It seems to me that 'heart-'n-minds is a last resort strategy with our military leadership and employed only after all else has failed.

26. ### marie-lucie said,

September 10, 2010 @ 10:02 am

how many linguistics graduate students over the past decade have responded the way that Mary Haas and others of her generation did? (Some have, I know — but despite all the GWOT rhetoric, there's a big difference in the degree of societal involvement, and this is no exception).]

Apart from the "social involvement", linguistics students of Mary Haas's generation were actually involved in learning languages, while linguistics students today have to spend a large part of their time on the subtleties and ramifications of theory.

[(myl) Perhaps. But consider this passage from the recent obituary of Alan Stripp, cited in comment above:

Stripp's career in Signals Intelligence began in 1943 when, as a first-year Classics scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, he received a note from his tutor saying that an Army officer was coming to interview people about "something to do with languages". To Stripp's surprise his interviewer seemed more interested in his proficiency in crosswords and his ability to read an orchestral score than "grit, gristle and leadership", so that at one point he wondered whether he was being conscripted for a military band. Things became only slightly clearer two months later when he was dispatched to Bedford with around 35 other recruits, mostly Oxbridge classicists, to take a crash course in written Japanese.

The course was devised and run by Oswald Tuck, a retired naval captain who had taught himself Japanese while serving on the China station before the First World War. When the Japanese invaded Burma in January 1942 the School of Oriental and African Studies, then the only British institution teaching the language, insisted that it would be impossible to master in less than two to three years. Tuck claimed he could teach it in six months. After only five months he was able, in the summer of 1942, to send some of his students to the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park.

It's possible that something like this happened somewhere in the U.S. in (say) 2002, but I tend to doubt it.]

27. ### stephen said,

September 10, 2010 @ 10:39 am

I wonder if any of the native bilingual translators are inclined to work against US interests by giving inaccurate translations? Has that been a problem in any war? I don't know how likely that is.

28. ### Jim said,

September 10, 2010 @ 11:40 am

"Six months before we intervened in Bosnia, the Army's last Balkan Foreign Area Specialist (a commissioned specialty) retired. When we intervened, the active Army had no Serbian-Croatian speakers serving in linguist positions. None. In fact, the entire Army – all three Components – could only identify two dozen Serbian-Croatian speakers in any specialty."

The days of "Turbo-Serbo"! We were going to retread all the now useless Russian linguists. How hard could it be?

"I wonder if any of the native bilingual translators are inclined to work against US interests by giving inaccurate translations? Has that been a problem in any war? I don't know how likely that is."

It's very likely. Can you think of a better place in an organization to infiltrate your people?

This is also a recurring problem for Law Enforcment. True story: In 1999 four scows full of Fujianese smuggled aliens showed up off the coast of Vancouver Island. Canada Immigration and Citizenship and the RCMP both were unprepared to handle the 500 people to be intereviewed. They hired lots of local interpreters, including one woman who very proudly pointed to everyone over and over that she was the only court certified Mandarin and Cantonese interpreter in the province. She also turned out to have an, ummmm….business relationship with the snakeheads. this kind of thing is not uncommon.

29. ### ignoramus said,

September 10, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

Qu. How did Alexandria of Macedonia solve the problem, did he not have to deal with even more languages, or did he just rely on eyeball contact and body language, one wrong look and the local yokel be recycled..

30. ### groki said,

September 10, 2010 @ 1:56 pm

myl: but despite all the GWOT rhetoric, there's a big difference in the degree of societal involvement

from one of your see-also posts about WWII-era societal involvement [my bold]:

Graves reasoned simply and directly that if those linguists he'd been giving grants to could analyze unwritten American Indian languages, they could certainly do other languages and why not some likely to be of strategic importance in the world-wide conflict he was convinced was inevitable?

my sense is that Graves' conviction about the conflict was rather widely shared back then. in the 2000s, in contrast, quite a few in this society–presumably including many linguistics graduate students–interpreted "the GWOT rhetoric" as false and dangerous bullshit, expressly designed and cynically deployed to cow the masses, to cement the authority of a crooked executive, and to lock in the MIC's bloody wet-dream of a permanent war footing.

this difference in societal perspective makes the difference in involvement, for me at least, significantly less surprising.

31. ### Remmick said,

September 10, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

The company's responded pretty well to these accusations.

http://missionep.com/news/press-release?id=25

The dude criticizing them is also suing them for a lot of money. Conflict of interest much?

32. ### dirk alan said,

September 10, 2010 @ 9:38 pm

i picture miss hathaway talking to uncle jed and granny clampet.

33. ### Mike Maxwell said,

September 11, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

Wow, a lot of commenters with strong opinions and few if any facts (Ted McClure being an exception).

Mark: You say that the language problem was handled better in WWII. I looked at the links towards the end of your post, but I still have some questions. In WWII, were the Japanese students learning written or spoken, or both? Given that the encrypted intercepts were (according to the Wikipedia article on Purple) "in Latin letters", the linguists working on encrypted messages didn't even have to deal with the Japanese writing systems. Learning to read Japanese written in a Latin alphabet to some level of expertise would seem to me to be a lot easier than trying to understand spoken Iraqi Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, etc., and speak it. (Yes, there are many dialects of Pashto; some are much easier to find speakers of in the US than others.)

[(myl) I don't know whether the language problem was handled *better* during WWII — but it was handled *differently*, in particular in a way that mobilized relevant sectors of civilian society. This was of course part of a broader difference in levels of social mobilization, and associated differences in social disruptions and casualty levels and many other things.]

Also, how many Americans in WWII learned any of the Philippine languages, or other Pacific Island languages?

34. ### Chris Brew said,

September 13, 2010 @ 2:14 am

Mike Maxwell has good questions: from memory of Stripp's book, I am sure that Oswald Tuck taught spoken Japanese, with very heavy exposure to difficult stuff on gramophone records, since the expectation was that his trainees would be radio intercept operators working with speech. Not sure about the writing system.

I read the British war effort and the abilities of LDS missionaries to learn languages as examples of what can be done when talented individuals are well aligned with societal goals. But I also agree with Mike's implicit suggestion that even that level of alignment might not cut it for today's situations.

35. ### Anon said,

September 15, 2010 @ 6:12 am

I am a US soldier in Afghanistan and a DLI graduate with a 3/3/2 proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic. I also went through a 2-month Pashto course in garrison and don't speak it very well (I only scored 1/1+ on the Pashto DLPT). I would like to address a couple of comments.

DLI trains mostly enlisted personnel who serve in the military intelligence corps of the four major branches in service. (There are also some officers, mostly Foreign Area Officers or FAOs who end up on US embassy staffs and military missions in foreign nations.) DLI does NOT usually train soldiers who are boots on the ground acting as interpreters for commanders or combat units. Here in Afghanistan each infantry platoon requires its own interpreter, most of whom are local nationals employed by a contractor. Higher-level commanders and intelligence operations usually require an interpreter who is a native speaker but a US person with a security clearance. The Army and DLI have difficulty graduating enough people to fill the MI positions they cater to let alone providing an interpreter for every single platoon, which demand can only be met by native speakers.

Also keep in mind the the community of first-language Pashto speakers is a relatively small one, perhaps around 40 million. However, the US needs interpreters who speak both Pashto and Dari (or Afghan Persian or Farsi, as some call it). Most of the interpreters I have met and worked with are first-language Dari speakers and second-language Pashto speakers. Dari is a sort of lingua franca in Afghanistan and is the primary language of the government and military, so interpreters need to know Dari so that we can communicate with our Afghan partners and need to know Pashto to know the language of the enemy (the Taliban is almost entirely Pashtun) and of the locals if serving in a Pashtun area. Every first-language Dari interpreter I have worked with has answered "I don't know" or failed to understand Pashto words and phrases while conducting operations. Pashto has never benefited (?) from the dissemination and application of a literary standard as have some of the major world languages. Mass media in Pashto has not had enough influence to spread a standard form of the language, either. Add to this the tremendous variation among the dialects of Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar, Quetta and everything in-between I think it's important to note that the difficulties in hiring, training and keeping qualified interpreters are legion and any failure to meet the needs of the force is not a strictly institutional failure because this is an abnormally difficult task. Every unit is short of interpreters, especially now during the "surge." The job of interpreter can also be very dangerous and demanding and I have met some truly courageous men and women who have been serving as interpreters. Some particularly dangerous or isolated areas are notorious for losing interpreters who quit. Several interpreters have lost their lives.

Anyway, in the end I think the military can do more to train and retain linguists. I think as a nation generally America compares unfavorably to other industrialized nations in second and third language competency. However, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, maintaining a corps of qualified linguists is a complicated and difficult goal.

36. ### Anon said,

September 15, 2010 @ 6:18 am

Also, Ted McCLure, I'm LDS. And what you wrote about linguists being misused in the Army is still and will continue to be true for a long time.