by Major Darrell W. Bott

Maintain Proficiency. Establish consistent approaches to collective and individual training. Collective training should be conducted at a baseline proficiency level consistent with unit readiness standards. Individual training, particularly language training, should be creative and challenge soldiers to go beyond Army standards.
--FM 34-1, Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Operations
Jenny just joined a National Guard military intelligence (MI) linguist unit. She is excited to get orders to enter basic combat training and attend the Basic Arabic Course at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in California. After over a year of study at DLI, Jenny attains level 2 in listening, reading, and speaking on her Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) in Arabic. (Figure 1 illustrates the speaking skills associated with each DLPT level.) Now a qualified Army linguist, she goes immediately to advanced individual training (AIT) at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca. During her four months at AIT, her language skills deteriorate as much as 25 percent. She no longer meets the Army language proficiency standards.
After AIT, Jenny returns to her National Guard unit, she gets a job, and enrolls in college. She takes Arabic courses in college and brings her language proficiency back up to the Army's minimum qualification standard of level 2. Jenny is a good soldier and is promoted to the rank of sergeant about the same time she graduates from college.
As she continues her military career, Jenny attends Noncommissioned Officer Education System (NCOES) courses, assumes additional administrative and leadership duties, and participates in several major exercises. Her language proficiency begins to deteriorate. As Jenny continues to assume more military and civilian responsibilities, her language proficiency continues to diminish. Her language proficiency again falls below the Army minimum standard.

Maintaining Language Proficiency

This fictional story illustrates the Army's problem of maintaining a pool of qualified linguists. Jenny represents a typical Reserve Component (RC) linguist. Many linguists throughout the RC and the entire Department of Defense do not meet minimum proficiency standards. A December 1994 report by the National Security and International Affairs Division of the General Accounting Office states that about one third of DLI graduates have not attained the minimum language proficiency of level 2. Following DLI, students routinely proceed to technical schools where they commonly experience a decline in proficiency by as much as 25 percent.
Unlike Jenny, many linguists never regain their language proficiency after AIT. Like Jenny, many linguists continue to decline in proficiency throughout their careers. In a 1986 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, Kurt Miller stated that the most neglected area in language training is that of skill maintenance. He said that the expectation for a soldier with minimal proficiency in a language to improve his skill in independent study or voluntary off-duty classes is unrealistic.
The average military linguist cannot maintain language skills using only training available while on duty. Individuals who spend the time and energy to learn a foreign language are usually highly motivated and have the desire to maintain that skill, but other priorities in life make it very difficult. Maintaining language skills requires a great deal of dedication.
Much of the work, time, and effort used to maintain a language comes from personal means. Time and energy devoted to language study is often taken from family and social activities. This is especially true in the RC where only 39 training days are available each year to accomplish the Army's training and administrative requirements. Compounding this lack of training time is the fact that many RC linguists are located great distances from language training facilities.
The FM 34-1 intelligence training principle "Maintain Proficiency" addresses this problem. This training principle identifies several keys to maintaining language proficiency:

Consistent Approaches

Consistency is one of the most important items in learning and maintaining a foreign language. Language skills are highly perishable and must be used frequently or proficiency will deteriorate. Good language maintenance programs have linguists doing some language activity on a daily basis. The activities could include listening to a language tape in the car, reading for 15 to 20 minutes a day, or reviewing vocabulary cards while waiting for a bus.
A prerequisite for establishing consistency is knowing the capabilities and motivation of each soldier. The target for language difficulty in training is just beyond the soldier' s current capabilities.
A key to consistent language study is motivation. A few soldiers are self-motivated enough to maintain language skills at almost any cost, others need incentives. Positive incentives for soldiers include proficiency pay and missions or assignments to countries using the target language. Competition in language olympics motivates many linguists. If language training is challenging and exciting, the training itself becomes a positive incentive. Positive incentives usually do more to encourage language study than negative ones like taking away privileges when the skill level is lower than desired.
Consistency does not mean using the same method for every training period. Adult learning theory suggests that while variety is needed to retain the learner's interest, effective learning occurs when there is a consistent application of standards. Here are some additional ideas to establish a consistent training approach:

Baseline Proficiency

When talking about a baseline proficiency of level 2, it is important to understand that the length of time and knowledge necessary to progress from one proficiency level to the next increases with every level. See Figures 1 and 2. For example, if it takes six months to reach level 2, it may take several years of constant exposure to reach level 3. The time required to attain and maintain a level 2 proficiency varies because the difficulty levels of languages differ. Basic courses for many Romance languages take 26 weeks while more difficult languages like Arabic take up to 63 weeks.
The Japanese language is a good example of how the degree of difficulty increases with each level of proficiency. Japanese uses over 1500 Chinese characters, each having multiple meanings. Knowledge of all of the characters is not required to reach level 2, but combinations of characters and meanings will total several thousand facts that a linguist must remember to maintain the minimum standard.
Baseline proficiency aligns with another training principle "Use Appropriate Doctrine" outlined in FM 25-100, Training the Force. Using appropriate doctrine goes beyond training language at a minimum proficiency level. Training to standard provides a basis for common vocabulary and military literacy across the force. When a RC linguist is called up to support another unit, there is no time to learn nonstandard vocabulary, doctrines, or procedures. All of the soldiers training must be done to Army standards, including common soldier tasks, survival skills, and military occupational speciality (MOS) skills. Linguists must know and understand Army doctrine and how it applies to the linguist's target area.

Techniques and Ideas

Creative techniques add interest and keep enthusiasm high. A good language trainer will find ways to make training come alive. For example, Captain Leland K. Jensen created a board game to support unit language training while attached to the 300th MI Brigade (Linguist), Utah National Guard. The game included cultural and historical background information unique to people who speak the target language. Through the game, soldiers studied the unique historical and cultural aspects of the target language country. They also learned military tactics and vocabulary in a fun and interesting way. The following are other examples of how to make training interesting:
These creative training approaches provide a fun and effective way to practice language skills. When training is fun and challenging, the training itself is highly motivating. Soldiers will often spend time at home studying and improving language skills so they can do better at the next training session.

Challenge the Soldier

"Train To Challenge"is another FM 25-100 principle that is a key to maintaining language proficiency. Intellectually and physically challenging training excites and motivates both soldiers and leaders. Successful completion of demanding training breeds success in the next training effort. It leads to competent and confident soldiers by building new skills. Training that tests and stretches the soldier's ability can be a key to retaining good soldiers and linguists by instilling loyalty, dedication, and excellence. Integrating language training into other training activities can challenge a linguist's abilities. It takes more time and effort to plan and conduct the training in the target language, but the benefits are worth the extra time and effort. Consider a section of five Chinese linguists training on a common soldier skill such as using a signal operating instruction. The first challenge is to translate the material into Chinese, which provides opportunities for the trainer to learn or review essential military vocabulary. The next challenge is presenting the material to the section, especially if some linguists are below the Army's minimum fluency standard. One approach is to have a member of the team interpret the information back into English as the trainer presents it. This provides practice for the interpreter and keeps the other linguists interested. The student translates it to themselves, to see if they would say it the same way. If the interpreter stumbles on a word or phrase, other members of the section can help. The soldiers can ask questions and answer them in either Chinese or English but need to be translated to the other language as well.
Training a common soldier task in the target language provides many challenges for the linguist soldier. The following are some of the potential benefits:

Readiness Training

The REDTRAIN program provides training opportunities to improve and maintain intelligence and language skills of soldiers and units. This program is quite flexible and allows the commander to be innovative and creative in getting the most bang for the buck. A few examples illustrate how the REDTRAIN program provides excellent training opportunities:
  • Another program, developed by the 141st MI Battalion and funded through REDTRAIN, is the Language Enhancement Course (LEC). The battalion designed the LEC from the ground up as a language maintenance and enhancement program for linguists to use at home during the interval between drill assembles. The best linguists in each language developed a LEC program for the target language. Most LECs use existing commercial materials but have unique approaches to using the material. Each soldier completes the lessons at home and corrects them at the next drill. Each lesson builds on concepts presented in the previous lesson. For example, if the first lesson has ten concepts then the second lesson will have most of the first ten plus new ones.

    Live Environment Training

    When many of us think of LET for linguists, we think of an overseas assignment or mission. These assignments are great and provide a wonderful opportunity to practice and maintain language skills if we make the most of them. When a linguist supports an exercise in a foreign country, the supported unit needs to provide as many opportunities as possible for the linguist to interact with native speakers.
    On a mission to support an exercise in Japan, several Japanese linguists learned that they could visit a nearby town only once or twice during their three weeks in Japan. According to the exercise schedule, the linguists were supporting the exercise on four evenings. The supported unit commander had instituted a very strict pass policy to prevent problems with the local populace. The officer in charge of the linguist section explained that the linguists had a secondary mission of maintaining fluency in Japanese. The best way to do this was to visit the nearby town and talk to the Japanese people. Once the commander understood the importance of visiting the Japanese town, he allowed the linguists to go on pass whenever they were free from exercise duties.
    Other opportunities for LET include festivals showcasing the cultures associated with the target language. Many communities have large numbers of people who speak the target language. When festivals or celebrations take place, linguists can meet native speakers. The military linguists can get involved in community activities and maintain language proficiency. An example of getting involved in the community is a Spanish linguist section translating information pamphlets for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. Soldiers often get so excited helping a good cause that much of the work is done at home on the soldier's free time. Another Spanish section provided language support for a symposium put on by the Utah Governor's Office for Hispanic Affairs.
    Sometimes LET just seems to happen. The language trainer must be ready to take advantage of any situation. A Russian section in the National Guard was training on drill weekend. One member of the section learned of a Russian patient at a local hospital receiving a unique medical procedure. The section leader obtained permission from the commander and the hospital to take several members of the section to meet with this patient. The hospital appreciated the linguists' help because the patient spoke very little English. Because the treatment took several months, there were many opportunities for members of the section to provide a service and improve their language skills.

    Opportunities and Courses

    Many language training materials and courses are available from colleges, universities, and DLI. By using some ingenuity, the commander and language program manager can have courses customized for specific requirements. Both military and civilian agencies can provide these type courses. For example, the U.S. Army Forces Command contracts with Brigham Young University in Utah for three language refresher courses each year. The Language Lab at Fort Lewis, Washington, offers courses throughout the year that can be a valuable tool for soldiers trying to increase language proficiency.
    The Satellite Communications for Learning (SCOLA) system is another source of language training. SCOLA offers newscasts and other information in a variety of languages. The material is always current and usually very interesting. SCOLA allows linguists to keep up with foreign news, cultural events, and special changes in their target language countries. The language trainer or linguist can also videotape the programs for use at a more convenient time.

    Keys to Proficiency

    The keys to maintaining and enhancing language proficiency are to be consistent and to know the linguist's capabilities. Set goals which challenge the student and aim at the level 2 proficiency. Enforce Army standards in all training. Use creative techniques to motivate, excite, and reward soldiers. Remember, linguists want to have very high language proficiency, but it takes a great deal of time and effort. If we are diligent in helping linguists maintain those hard-earned language skills, Jenny's story can be more like this.
    Jenny just graduated from DLI with a level 2 proficiency in Arabic. She goes on to AIT where, in addition to learning a new MOS, she spends several hours a week in a language lab maintaining her language skills. As part of her AIT she spends several days in a field training exercise where she performs her new MOS skills in her target language.
    When she completes AIT she returns to her National Guard unit and enrolls in college. Through a combination of training provided by the Army and her college language courses, she improves her language proficiency to a level 3. Because of the motivation and training opportunities provided by her unit, she completes her career while maintaining high language proficiency.
    Major Darrell W. Bott is a liaison officer with the 141st MI Battalion (Linguist), 300th MI Brigade (Linguist), Utah Army National Guard. He has an extensive background in training including 14 years assigned to MI linguist units and seven years as a training specialist for Thiokol Corporation, a major defense contractor. He earned a bachelor's degree from Weber State University and a master's in Instructional Technology from Utah State University. You can reach him at his civilian workplace at commercial (801) 863-5715.