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Published: 1 March 2009
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2009
|Editorís Note: PIREP is aviation shorthand for pilot report. Itís a means for one pilot to pass on current, potentially useful information to other pilots. In the same fashion, we use this department to let readers know about items of interest.|
Lt Col Jay J. Warwick, USAF, Retired*
If anyone were to objectively compare the Air Force’s program for having its Airmen learn a foreign language with that of the other US military services, the Air Force would not fare very well. Learning a foreign language simply hasn’t been a part of Airmen’s genetic makeup. The Air Force has never had a comprehensive language program for all Airmen, despite cries in the wilderness for decades to do better. As more and more personnel find themselves in complex cultural environments as part of everyday duty, having Airmen learn a foreign language becomes increasingly important. The fact remains, however, that beyond the limited number of positions identified for professional linguists (primarily in the fields of intelligence and regional/political-military affairs), the Air Force has never specifically identified institutional expectations or requirements for language. In fact, 14 years have passed since the Air Force formally addressed the issue at the institutional level. Air Education and Training Command and the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, Headquarters Air Force, chartered the latest assessment—conducted in the mid-1990s by the Officer Foreign Language Skills Process Action Team—with a stated goal to “examine enhanced language skills as improvements to USAF global operations.”1 The team made over 30 specific recommendations to improve the Air Force’s foreign language capability.2 To date, only a few of these recommendations have seen implementation.
An obvious question comes immediately to mind: why has this been so hard? What issues caused Air Force leadership to ignore such a critical enabler to operate effectively within the expeditionary environment? This article briefly explores these causes, provides a snapshot of how Air University (AU) is addressing the issue of language instruction within the context of the Air Force’s professional military education (PME), and offers some prescriptions for a language program that would include every Airman.
Learning a foreign language is an extremely complex activity. Developing a program for language learning that applies to a broad section of Airmen is an equally complicated endeavor. Although this difficulty probably lies at the root of inaction, additional challenges, outlined below, make it uniquely hard for the Air Force.
Traditionally, the Air Force has had a peculiar way of looking at the world—from 30,000 feet. The line of thinking goes something like this: Air operations launch from a secured airfield resembling a self-sustaining island fortress in the middle of some foreign land or safely from the US homeland. The Air Force conducts those operations in the air, far removed from societies on the ground below, and controls them from within a standardized air and space operations center not dependent on its location within the foreign land. Hundreds of support and operations people fly aircraft, maintain and repair them, provide personnel services, perform logistics operations, and do a hundred other functions—all without direct contact with anyone from this foreign country. Col Gunther A. Mueller, a recent chairman of the Department of Foreign Languages at the Air Force Academy, perhaps defined this mind-set perfectly: “Air Force people raining down fire and steel [from far above] had few motives for cross-cultural understanding.”3 With such an institutional attitude, is it any wonder that the Air Force has struggled to define language requirements for the force at large?
Who can argue with success? Air Force history makes a fantastic case study of how a military service has leveraged technology and superior equipment to achieve stunning success unimaginable to the most radical, visionary proponents of airpower early in its development. We revel in the ability to place a guided bomb in the second-story window of an enemy’s headquarters building. We have gleefully witnessed the progressive evolution of “precision strike,” which now boasts a 90 percent probability of kill with a single bomb from a single B-2 bomber. In remarks to AU students and faculty, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was quick to recognize these achievements, noting also that the last Air Force jet lost to aerial combat went down in the Vietnam War.4 Furthermore, he connected that success, at least in part, to the way Airmen have pushed technology to its realizable limits. On a cautionary note, however, the secretary suggested that changes—however necessary—would prove difficult for an organization that has enjoyed so much success for six decades.5 Past obsession with technological accomplishment has inhibited the Air Force’s capacity to consider other roles appropriate to airpower in the twenty-first century, particularly those less technical in nature and relying on “softer” skills such as language. The stereotypical Air Force community is quick to commend pilots for perfectly launching a weapon into that second-story window but seems oblivious to the potential for much greater operational success from an air delivery of humanitarian-relief supplies handed off to an impressionable local tribal leader by an aircrew member able to muster a few words in that leader’s native tongue.
Airmen are organized for deployment differently than American soldiers, sailors, or marines. This presents some unique challenges with respect to the management of an Air Force language program, particularly given the long lead time necessary to acquire and maintain proficiency in a foreign language. Substantial portions of the Army, Navy, and Marines take the form of units that train, deploy, and operate together in combat, recurrently returning to the same geographical area. For example, the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit deploys to the Mediterranean as a self-contained force of 2,200 marines on a rotating basis with other such units to serve as a landing force for the Sixth Fleet. Because these marines tend to spend a good part of their careers assigned to units like the 22nd, which deploy and operate within the same geographical area, it is possible to develop regional and linguistic expertise over the span of several years. This situation simplifies the process of selecting a language (in this example, Arabic) they will need to master in order to engage with the local population. Despite many exceptions, the same generally holds true for US Army brigades and US Navy carrier battle groups: with fair reliability, one can forecast the geographical area in which these units will operate, making language training easily focused. This is not the case with Airmen. By and large, those who participate in the cyclical air and space expeditionary force deploy as individuals from a home base to the operational area, assigned to a provisional unit comprised of personnel and equipment that originated from other disparate, home-based units. In such a structure, Airmen may deploy to Iraq in one cycle, Turkey in the next, and Latin America in the next, essentially preventing them from receiving anything other than just-in-time survival phrases as they board the deployment-bound aircraft. Since there is no way to guarantee that Airmen will return to the same geographic area on successive deployments, no practical means exist for selecting a specific language in which to seek proficiency. Because they cannot possibly become proficient in four or five different languages to cover the range of possible deployments, the Air Force as an institution has simply shrugged its shoulders and taken the attitude that the problem remains too difficult to address. Air mobility operations present an even more complex issue since an aircrew will likely make multiple stops in diverse geographic areas on a single deployment. How could we effectively cover all the possible contingency needs for language proficiency? Currently, the Air Force has no answer to this unique problem.
This is no longer our grandfathers’ Air Force. In the past, the service could fulfill its modest language requirements within the small community that offered this unique expertise, primarily within the specialties of intelligence and regional/political-military affairs. We could rectify shortfalls through contract linguists or native “heritage” speakers who also happened to be Airmen. Everyone else in the Air Force was content to focus on the core missions of flying, fighting, and winning. This traditional Air Force world, as we once knew it, has since been turned on its head and simply does not exist anymore. The radical change began in the 1990s with Operations Southern and Northern Watch and exploded after 11 September 2001. For the first time, the Air Force frequently began to remotely station its personnel en masse. Gone were the single, one-year remote tours that could carry an Airman through a 20-year career. The service is and will remain an expeditionary Air Force for the foreseeable future. It must also deal with the cold, hard realities of drawdowns in personnel and equipment. These factors have combined to form a perfect storm of unforeseen consequences, one of which is that ordinary Airmen now find themselves performing very untraditional roles and missions they never could have anticipated a few years ago. Increasingly, Airmen have regular contact with foreign cultures on myriad different levels, driving the need for some basic level of foreign language skill, if not proficiency. Air Force officers lead provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq. Air Force personnel have been working closely with Iraqi counterparts to create a post-Saddam Iraqi Air Force. Approximately 14,200 Airmen perform Joint Expeditionary Tasking on the ground in Iraq or Afghanistan, where, for example, an Air Force civil engineer might replace an Army heavy-construction engineer, or an enlisted member could become a truck driver on Iraqi roads for the Army.6 As Secretary Gates observed in his remarks at AU, Airmen more frequently engage with cultures foreign to their own and find themselves in complex situations requiring immediate interaction, from securing air-basing rights to contracting negotiations. Coalition partnerships have become the norm in all military operations. Finally, the nation increasingly calls upon the Air Force to conduct civil-military or humanitarian operations with interagency partners and nongovernmental organizations that must deal directly with local populations, putting a premium on foreign language and cultural expertise.7
By 2008 traditional mind-sets and attitudes within the Air Force may have turned a corner. Although movement towards serious engagement on an Air Force–wide language program had moved slowly, in fits and starts, the change became noticeable. In January 2005, the Department of Defense outlined general goals in its Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, whose objectives, however, focus too closely on requirements for the language specialist rather than form a coherent program for all Airmen.8 In 2007 the Air Force chief of staff shared the service’s vision, titled “Global Cultural, Regional and Linguistic Competency Framework.”9 Although this document highlights the importance that senior Air Force leadership now places on culture and language issues, it does not provide enough specificity to serve as a framework for a comprehensive language program designed to meet the needs of all Airmen. Until late 2007, the Air Staff, seemingly ready to follow the same path as the US Army, contemplated an enterprise-wide purchase of a language software tool for all Airmen. The Army had recently spent $4.2 million to renew its own two-year-old language software contract, making this tool available to all soldiers.10 By mid-2008, the Air Staff had backed away from that stance. However, the Air Force undertook another initiative to address its language issues, creating in December 2007 the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC) at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Part of Air University, this Air Force–level organization now has responsibility for defining, coordinating, and implementing cultural, regional, and foreign language education and training programs to satisfy the service’s requirements.11 At the heart of the center’s work is the development of a scientifically sound and institutionally sustainable course of action to develop cross culturally competent (3C) Airmen through the PME system.12 The AFCLC aims to infuse cross-cultural knowledge (focusing on concepts, theories, and methods), skills (particularly communication, negotiation, and interpersonal relations), attitudes, and learning approaches.13 Its concept, now adopted by the Air Force, relies on learning foreign languages as an integral part of the larger approach to developing 3C Airmen. As the center further refines its implementation of the 3C concept throughout the service, it will assist the Air Force Senior Language Authority, part of the Air Staff, in thinking through a language program for all Airmen.
The Senior Language Authority has also formed standing advisory and executive-level steering groups consisting of experts from around the Air Force to brainstorm policy options with respect to cultural, regional, and foreign language requirements for Airmen. The work of the AFCLC, as well as that of the advisory and steering groups, was just beginning in mid-2008. In the absence of an Air Force–wide language program, the service has seen an increasing number of smaller local initiatives. Some command libraries in US Air Forces in Europe and Air Education and Training Command have purchased language software licenses for use by their Airmen.14 Additionally, a very small percentage of those Airmen destined for deployment have received language-familiarization training through mobile training teams provided by the Defense Language Institute (DLI). Those endeavors, however, are mostly targeted for special niche efforts, such as air mobility operations.
At the Air Force chief of staff’s direction, AU has been at the forefront of executing the Air Force’s fledgling efforts in language learning for the force at large. In February 2006, the chief directed that AU begin language instruction at Air War College (AWC), Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), and the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy in four “strategic” languages: Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, and Arabic. By 2008 it was evident that the AU senior leadership had taken the task seriously. However, AU has struggled to define its program in terms of specific proficiency objectives, reflecting the rudderless direction of the Air Force–wide language program. Such issues as method of instructional delivery, quantity, content, and learning assessments have been central to the debate. Early into implementation of the chief’s language directive, AU determined that producing proficient linguists lay beyond the scope of PME resources, given the already robust curriculum workload for students. The de facto goal soon became language familiarization/exposure, with the further expectation that students would be motivated to continue learning on their own.
The language program at AU faces the critical challenge of teaching language from a cold start to Americans who have not been lifelong language learners and to busy military students who already have a full complement of academic subjects on their schedule. Between 2006 and 2008, AU tackled this challenge by experimenting with three kinds of language learning. Squadron Officer College (SOC), which teaches lieutenants and captains, instituted a voluntary program involving the issuance of language software licenses to students who wanted to learn a language on their own. ACSC, which teaches majors, used a mandatory program whereby in-residence students had to complete an assigned number of language software modules in one of the four strategic languages as a graduation requirement. These students took the Defense Language Aptitude Battery Test at the beginning of the academic year to determine which language each one would study. In addition to the mandatory completion of modules, students had the option of using DLI instructors, made available through mobile training teams. The AWC language program, which instructs lieutenant colonels and colonels, had two requirements for in-resident students: use of DLI software in conjunction with computer video players, and face-to-face mediated instruction by DLI teachers. In its distance learning program, AWC has recently experimented with offering completion of a small number of language software modules as an elective course.
Now that AU has experienced two full academic cycles with language instruction, we can make some definitive statements about what has succeeded and what has not.
Face-to-face mediated instruction was by far the best-received method used by AU schools. It also succeeded in motivating students to continue language study on their own. Although the effectiveness of language learning depended largely on the specific DLI instructor, AWC students had an overwhelmingly favorable experience with these teachers. During the fall 2007 term, over 58 percent of the students rated this type of instruction excellent or outstanding in effecting language familiarization; almost 70 percent indicated that they were either likely or very likely to continue language study on their own.15 DLI findings, supported by AU experience over two years, suggest that 30 hours of face-to-face mediated instruction is the minimum required for a credible familiarization program in any of the four strategic languages taught at AU. This level of effort seemed to strike a good balance between providing meaningful language familiarization for students on the one hand, and not becoming too invasive with regard to the core AWC curriculum on the other.
For language learning during resident PME, students did not have high regard for the language software and video player options, which failed to produce significant language capability and did not appear to motivate students to continue language learning beyond mandatory requirements.16 Among ACSC students, the software’s instructional methods, which involved inductive learning (a series of action pictures associated with an accompanying phrase in the target language), particularly frustrated them. After a short period of use, many students lost their motivation to learn and concentrated more on “beating” the software.17
SOC students in the distance learning program encountered a different problem with the software. Although this voluntary program initially generated enthusiasm, as evidenced by a rather lengthy waiting list for license use, completion rates for software modules were abysmal. Over a 15-month period, a total of 2,667 SOC students signed up for licenses, but only 67 of them (2.5 percent) completed 50 or more hours.18 Completion rates for more difficult languages (such as Chinese) were particularly low, the majority of students completing only two of 19 units. Without program incentives (either carrots or sticks) to encourage completion, students quickly found that the program became difficult to fit into their everyday priorities and that the software tool wasn’t a “magic pill” that allowed them to bypass the very hard work required to learn a language.
AWC students in the distance learning program also had the option of using language software voluntarily. Unlike SOC, however, AWC offered it as an elective, replacing a preexisting graduation requirement. This provided “teeth” to a distance-learning language program necessary to motivate students to complete it. The pilot program in AWC has proven extremely popular among students and has enjoyed very high completion rates. AU may have found a “way ahead” for future distance-learning language programs.
In November 2007, AU held a “language summit” in an effort to shape a coherent future approach out of the disparate avenues attempted by its colleges. The summit included representatives from each of the AU schools, as well as experienced language professionals from around the Air Force and Department of Defense. Although AU had acknowledged the feasibility of a “cold start” language program for midgrade and senior officers, given realistic expectations, the summit determined that the long-range nature of Air Force PME demanded a broader and more comprehensive scope than the current program. PME, as well as any larger Air Force–wide program, should emphasize language learning early in a career—the earlier the better. Therefore, the Air Force approach to language acquisition for general-purpose forces should stress language learning in officer accession programs, including the Air Force Academy and Reserve Officer Training Corps. Over time, this will produce a core of Airmen with significantly greater language skills than exists today. At that point, PME will play an important role in enhancing, sustaining, and maintaining existing language skills, while retaining a small capability to handle those mid- and senior-level officers who wish to begin learning a language later in their careers.19
As AU moves towards this long-range goal, it will continue to refine its program, capitalizing on the successes experienced since beginning language instruction in 2006. Since DLI-mediated face-to-face instruction proved such a great motivational tool for language learners at AWC, the ACSC resident program will join the one at AWC in moving to mandatory teacher-mediated instruction for all US students by 2010. This, however, does not mean that AU will completely discard language software tools as an avenue for language learning—some such tool will be offered to willing and able students for self-study. Additionally, distance learning programs almost inherently require some kind of software learning option. The question regarding the best tool remains unanswered, however, given the mixed reviews of the existing software. AU is in the process of evaluating other software options for distance language learning.
Despite some success with a language program created from scratch, AU still wrestles with a number of difficult questions. The primary issue involves implementing language programs in schools whose course length is too short to permit adding language instruction to an already full curriculum. This is particularly true of enlisted PME since none of those courses lasts longer than about a month. Even if foreign language instruction were offered, its short duration likely would have negligible impact. One possible solution for the enlisted force would entail offering increased opportunities for language learning through the Community College of the Air Force. Or AU might offer a two-hour class on language-learning strategies, focusing on the “best fit” learning styles of individuals interested in language. Course length also hampers language instruction at SOC. AWC’s distance learning experience may prove a valuable guidepost in offering an alternative curriculum choice for students interested in language learning.
Attendees of the AU language summit agreed that it was impractical and undesirable for all Airmen to be language specialists.20 Depending upon the language, an individual could take longer than a year in an immersion-style course to become minimally functional. The Air Force simply cannot afford to have all Airmen out of their operational specialty for that amount of time. Additionally, experience has identified motivation and capability as the key factors in language learning. Not all Airmen possess the motivation to learn a foreign language or maintain proficiency; neither are all of them predisposed to language learning. However, the attendees agreed that all Airmen capable of learning a language should have the opportunity to do so if they wish—and if their duties and/or career fields dictate the need. These basic principles have immense implications, not only for determining the nature and character of the AU language program, but also for the formation of a comprehensive program for all Airmen.
The process of examining AU’s experiences in creating a language program and applying the broad principles agreed upon at the AU summit yields a number of recommendations for a comprehensive Air Force program, including the following:
• Designate (as the chief of staff did for PME in 2006) the top five or six languages that have strategic importance for the Air Force as a whole over the long term; this list should account for 75–80 percent of the total Air Force need for the next 20 years.
• Through an accessions vetting program, earmark Airmen willing and able to become career-long language learners in one of these strategically important languages. These Airmen will arrive on active duty with a baseline language capability. For those needs requiring low-density or rarer languages, the Air Force can continue to rely on the existing programs of hiring contract linguists and recruiting native heritage speakers.
• Have each Air Force career field designate a portion of its total force for a language capability. This initiative would go far beyond the current language-specialty career fields (intelligence and regional/political-military affairs). After conducting a comprehensive survey of language needs, senior leaders in each career field should make a forward-looking estimate of how much contact in an increasingly coalition- and partnership-oriented environment their Airmen would have and adjust their target goals accordingly.
• Direct assignment specialists to marry the group of willing and able language-capable Airmen to the appropriate career field and track their careers through the personnel system. Since the Air Force may consider these language-trained individuals low-density/high-demand assets, it should set and enforce limits on how often they nonvoluntarily deploy out of cycle. Overburdening these personnel with excessive deployments may keep their language skills current but at the same time may diminish their technical skills and discourage them from making a career of the service.
• Assure that Air Force PME focuses the language program to maintain, sustain, and enhance the core language capability initiated during the accessions vetting process. PME will use face-to-face teacher-mediated language instruction as an effective “booster shot” during a career-long, progressive language-learning journey, assisted by the appropriate software tools to enhance self-study.
Can we do this? Yes, but only if senior leadership makes a commitment to follow through on bringing all the working parts together—education and training, policy, and the personnel system. Only then will it be sustainable. Is this a monumental effort? Yes, but the dividends likewise would prove enormous. For the first time in its history, the Air Force would have a comprehensive language program available to the entire force at large—and that would be a worthy effort indeed.
*The author is deputy director for education and training at the Air Force Culture and Language Center, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.
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1.“Executive Summary,” Officer Foreign Language Skills Process Action Team Report and Recommendations (Colorado Springs, CO: US Air Force Academy, December 1995), 1.
2. Col Gunther A. Mueller and Lt Col Carl Daubach, “Global Skills: Vital Components of Global Engagement,” Airpower Journal 12, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 68, http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj98/sum98/mueller.pdf.
3. Ibid., 67.
4. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, “Secretary Gates [sic] Remarks at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, Montgomery Alabama, [21 April 2008]” (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs, 2008), http://www.defense
link.mil/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=4214 (accessed 29 October 2008).
8. Defense Language Transformation Roadmap (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, January 2005), http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/policy/dod/d20050330roadmap.pdf.
9. Gen T. Michael Moseley, chief of staff, US Air Force, to Headquarters Air Force/A1, memorandum, subject: Global Cultural, Regional and Linguistic Competency Framework, 29 January 2007.
10. Kristin Atwater, “U.S. Army Extends Language-Learning Partnership,” 2 November 2007, http://www
11. Headquarters USAF/A1 and Headquarters AU, Air Force Culture and Language Center Charter, 26 December 2007.
12. Dr. Brian Selmeski, “Air University’s 2008 Quality Enhancement Plan: Cross-Culturally Competent Airmen,” 15 February 2008. Cross-cultural competence is defined as the ability to quickly and accurately comprehend—and then appropriately and effectively act—in a culturally complex environment to achieve the desired effect, without necessarily having prior exposure to a particular group, region, or language.
14. John C. K. Daly, “UPI Intelligence Watch,” United Press International, 5 December 2006.
15. Briefing, Lt Col Jay Warwick, USAF, retired, Air Force Culture and Language Center, subject: Air University Language Update, 5 May 2008.
16. Ibid. Oral proficiency interviews from ACSC students who graduated in 2007 indicated that 41 percent of 51 personnel scored a “0+” (defined as memorized proficiency—the ability to satisfy immediate needs using rehearsed utterances) or better on the Interagency Language Roundtable scale. This compares to 81 percent of AWC’s oral-proficiency interviewees who scored the same. A majority of ACSC students who graduated in 2007 (64 percent) rated the language software tool as either marginal or unsatisfactory for language familiarization in Arabic, and 31 percent rated it as either marginal or unsatisfactory for Mandarin Chinese. Fifty-nine percent of AWC students rated the video player’s effectiveness as marginal or unsatisfactory.
17. Ibid. A small sampling of ACSC students (nine total) participating in a student survey stated that the language software tool didn’t meet their expectations. Eighty-eight percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed that the tool motivated them to continue language learning.
18. Ibid. SOC students’ usage rates included in this report covered the 15-month period between September 2006 and November 2007.
19. Lt Col Jay Warwick, USAF, retired, “Language Summit Proceedings” (Maxwell AFB, AL: AFCLC, 10 December 2007).
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University