How much language capability does a Green Beret need to have?

« previous post | next post »

In War on the Rocks (5/26/21), Tim Ball has an informative, thought-provoking article:  "Talking the Talk: Language Capabilities for U.S. Army Special Forces".  It begins:

In the mid-2000s, a series of U.S. Army Special Forces recruiting posters began appearing on Army installations across the country. One particular poster prompted more than a few eye rolls and laughs from the Special Forces community (commonly known as the Green Berets). The poster showed a Special Forces soldier conducting a military free-fall parachute jump. The caption stated, “The HALO [high altitude, low opening] jump wasn’t the hard part. Knowing which Arabic dialect to use when I landed was.”

From a recruiting standpoint, the poster hit all the marks. It took the excitement of a commando-style free-fall jump, combined it with the lesser-known expectation for a Green Beret to be a culturally adept warrior, and pushed it over the edge by portraying the jumper as a suave polyglot, capable of switching in and out of complex dialects at will.

In reality, most Green Berets aren’t fluent in the language assigned to them as they progress through the Special Forces Qualification Course. While they all achieve a basic standard in order to graduate from the course, most find it hard to become fluent in a second language, like most adults. For a command that describes itself as “the Nation’s Premier Partnership Force,” this raises an important question: How much language training and proficiency are enough for Army Special Forces?

If it's virtually impossible for members of the Special Forces to acquire the level of fluency that would be necessary for them to function freely in the areas where they operate, what policy should be adopted to cope with the problem?

The article is long and detailed; it could stand as a history of second language instruction in the Special Forces, which goes back nearly 70 years.  The question of second language competence has been a concern since the the very beginning.  Members of the Special Forces are required to maintain proficiency in the various languages which are assigned to them, and there are sophisticated training and testing policies to help ensure that they do.  The administration of the Special Forces also establishes incentives to encourage its members in the enhancement of their language skills.

Here's a key paragraph for gaining a realistic perspective on what is actually expected of a Green Beret in terms of second language competence:

Special Forces leadership also has to contend with other requirements besides language training. In order to link up with and train a partner force, Green Berets have to master basic combat skills while also perfecting advanced infiltration techniques. With a finite amount of time and resources to train before a deployment, Special Forces commanders have to carefully plan what tasks to train on and accept risk in certain areas. This applies to language training, where commanders have to decide how much is enough. This is exactly why higher special operations commands have set the standards currently in place. By doing so, they establish a baseline expectation for what a Green Beret needs to accomplish the mission, and this is deliberately short of fluency. The amount of time required to produce true fluency in a language would essentially eliminate most other training opportunities, leaving only a linguist with no way of getting to the battlefield and few skills to offer the partner force outside of a pleasant conversation.

In the course of his lengthy article, the author outlines numerous precise procedures for meeting the language needs of the Special Forces, one of which is the recruitment of native speakers who are fluent in the requisite languages and dialects.  The situation and its solution are summed up in his conclusion:

While the language capabilities of a Green Beret have varied over the years, proficiency in a foreign language is a skill that has received consistent attention from special operations leadership and remains a critical capability. It’s also one of the central elements to what differentiates U.S. Army Special Forces from other special operations units, due to the unique and varied mission sets required of Special Forces. Select Navy SEALs and Army Rangers receive language training as well but — unlike Green Berets — they aren’t spending 120 hours a year in the language lab on top of their other training.

Special Forces leadership has provided the resources, time, and funding to ensure language skills are sufficient for the majority of the mission sets facing today’s Green Berets. Given the current standards, every qualified Green Beret has the capability to engage with a partner force in their target language and build rapport. To expand this capability, Special Forces leadership should continue to seek out qualified native speakers from both within and outside the Army and aggressively recruit them for the Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course. If it does, then choosing the proper Arabic dialect after a military freefall jump could really be the hardest part about being a Green Beret.

Choosing the right Sinitic topolect would be even harder.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Barbara Phillips Long]


  1. Arthur Baker said,

    May 28, 2021 @ 5:06 pm

    If the Green Berets are ever deployed to China, perhaps it might suggest that we all have a lot more to worry about than their capability of selecting the appropriate Sinitic topolect.

  2. AntC said,

    May 28, 2021 @ 5:31 pm

    Choosing the right Sinitic topolect would be even harder.

    I'm not convinced: the CCP seems to be pushing Putonghua and disfavouring other topolects across the whole country. Cantonese is falling out of use in H.K.

    The only part of the sinosphere where other topolects are tolerated/encouraged is Taiwan. But even there, everybody needs Putonghua — another consequence of overbearing nationalistic policy (40 years of martial law by the KMT in that case).

  3. Laura Morland said,

    May 28, 2021 @ 7:14 pm

    My sentiments exactly!

    (Very interesting piece; thanks for the excerpts.)

  4. Laura Morland said,

    May 28, 2021 @ 7:15 pm

    P.S. I was referencing Arthur Baker's comment above; I hadn't seen the intervening one.

  5. Jerry Packard said,

    May 28, 2021 @ 7:28 pm

    The fact that they wear green hats would probably be the least of their worries.

  6. David Morris said,

    May 29, 2021 @ 1:28 am

    On the main screen, I read 'Arable dialects'. Clicking through, I read 'Arabic dialects'. Then I noticed two strategically placed splotches on my screen. Arable is obviously spoken in countries with a lot of good agricultural land.

  7. KevinM said,

    May 29, 2021 @ 9:08 am

    @David Morris Unless it's just a new synonym for "rhotic."

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    May 30, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    I would be interested to know how "120 hours a year [spent] in the language lab[oratory]" compares with the time that a typical ambassador is expected to devote to becoming proficient in the language(s) of the region to which he/she is to be sent …

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    May 30, 2021 @ 8:48 am

    … which I now see to be anything up to 2000 hours, with a lower bound of some 600 hours, at least for American diplomatic staff.

  10. Neil Kubler said,

    May 31, 2021 @ 3:03 am

    How far 120 hours "in the language lab" or classroom or in self-study will get you all depends on your native language and the language you are studying (as well as other factors such as motivation, aptitude, age, quality of the training, etc.). For example, it takes 4 times as long for an English speaker to attain a comparable level of proficiency in Chinese or Japanese as it does in Spanish. But 120 hours in any language is not going to get your further than a couple hundred useful phrases. This is not ideal, of course, but something is better than nothing. Ambassadors sometimes don't know much of the local language but the Deputy Chief of Mission, section chiefs, and other mid and senior-level officers almost always do and usually at a professional level. For Chinese and Japanese, that takes 2 years of full-time training (2,200 class hours plus at least another 1,000 hours of self-study and review).

RSS feed for comments on this post