Deployed American soldier's language training

Watching Hurt Locker and Black Hawk Down this evening and a reoccurring plot point is grunts yelling commands at civilians in English. Of course they don’t understand and then there’s dramatic tension. So I began wondering how much official training your average soldier of low rank gets in the languages common in areas he’s deployed. I get independent units will have an interpreter, and Arabic is one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn, but still, innocents and/or the soldier’s life could easily be at risk for lack of the ability to say simple things like “get down!”, or “hands up!”.

Is an E-1 required to show some basic foreign language proficiency? If so, how much are they taught?

No. None. That goes all the way up to E-9 actually. While it might be encouraged to learn something, there is no requirement to demonstrate even the very basic level of foreign language proficiency.

Most training for E-4 and below consists of bored soldiers bugging the shit out of the terps. “How do you say, ‘Fuck’?” “What about ‘shit’?”. “How do I say ‘asshole’?”
That’s the extent of the average soldier’s Arabic training.

The Air Force does require some tourist-level language training depending on where you deploy to, but nothing that I would say is likely to be retained long enough to arrive in country.

I don’t know about combat deployments, but when I was stationed in Germany, in the Army, we had to pass a basic tourist level German class as part of in-processing. Very basic asking directions, ordering food in restaurants, etc. Then they took us on a field trip downtown so we could practice eating out. We were never taught anything like “hands up!” No military related language.

I would think that a soldier pointing a M16 or a SAW at someone needs no verbal explanation. I any language I would think that means hands up, don’t move.

And see, assumptions like that are what cause misunderstandings between cultures. :smiley:

In FY 2011 the Army created a mandatory pre-deployment training program called “Rapport.” It looks like technically it’s still a requirements in AR 350-1 as of 19SEP2014. I’m not digging through all the potential places where it could have been rescinded without the Reg being updated since. My retirement motivation meter isn’t that high. :stuck_out_tongue: From AR 350-1

At the time I it was created (FY11) I was mobilized CONUS with responsibility for trainers who conducted post mobilization training for reserve component troops, well mostly RC. All of our trainers were required to complete the 6-8 hour Rapport course (along with all the deploying troops we trained.) In my duties I didn’t have the requirement but from my troops’ comments it was pretty basic. There’s a test at the end but most who’ve lived in the modern Army can complete an online class, knock out 70% to pass the post-test, and barely engage their brain let alone long term memory. After initially meeting the requirement, our Brigade didn’t really track our numbers as trainers rotated in and out. ISTR it fading from attention after that first big push. My unit lost responsibility for tracking deploying units meeting requirements in 2011 so I’m not sure when or if it faded for deployers through our mobilization station. We just trained them on what they needed in person; DL wasn’t our lane. Even though there’s still a regulatory requirement, it quickly disappearing from our trainers’ plates makes me wonder if it’s still being tracked. It wouldn’t be the only requirement that I saw become moot by not making a high level tracking slide for long enough that people forgot or ignored it.

During a deployment to the Balkans, long before Rapport, the only phrase I learned in mandatory training was “Stop or I’ll shoot,” That was during Rules of Engagement training. It was on our ROE card so they covered it. That was the sum total of my mandatory training on language. They had an optional classroom Headstart program available once we deployed to our base. I spent quite a bit of my post-mob training around two individuals with some language skills (one had deployed to the Balkans before and one was pretty fluent because of family history) We did a fair amount of optional self training with our teams. It was mandatory for those who worked for us :D. Big Army didn’t care if we did it or not though.

I went most of the way through the post-mobilization training cycle several years before Rapport for what we’ll just colloquially call a combat advisor deployment …before the Army changed my plans. In that period all RC troops deploying on that mission had to go through Fort Riley and a mission specific training set. Given the nature of the mission, small elements working closely with local security forces, they added a language training requirement to the DA deployment requirements. We all had to complete something like 30-40 hours of classroom language training. They’d hired PhDs with experience teaching the language. it was directed at General Officer, but not DA, level. There was no testing though. Show up for the hours and you were good to deploy. ISTR something (maybe just Rapport???) made the requirements for an similar mission I volunteered for ~2012. I didn’t get selected so it’s a pretty vague memory. That speaks to the possibilities of it being added as a mission specific requirement on a similar mission. If we’ve got a member who’s been part of advise and train deployments to Iraq post ISIS it might be interesting to see if they have had a requirement - either Rapport or something more demanding.

I’ve seen a couple phrases come up in mandatory cultural awareness or other classes. Those weren’t part of stock “download the slides and go” classes though. It’s important to note that my duties meant I saw a lot more pre-deployment training than even AC members on the frequent deployers club. Even I only saw limited language additions in rare cases.

The language survival kit referenced in AR350-1 is at least providing the tools to units. It’s better than just dumping you off without tools. There was no requirement to do anything with the tools once they were issued, though. I occasionally saw some leaders pushing it and some individuals choosing to take advantage of the tools. That use was definitely the exception not the rule. DA enabled but didn’t require.

Mostly Bear_Nenno nailed it aside from missing Rapport which is pretty understandable. That was a pretty late addition when deployments were already slowed significantly. If my sense of it losing attention quickly applies, it’s quite possible he never had to do the training for a deployment even if he has deployed afer FY11.

In a rare positive comment from me about realism in Hurt Locker, for general lack of language skills they were accurate.

In a case where a little training could make what seems clear when a weapon is pointed at you worse. The Dari phrase I learned at Riley that roughly translated as “Stop or I’ll shoot” was more literally “Stand or I’ll shoot.” That verb for stand had interpretations both as “stand up” and “stand still.” See the potential confusion if the person you are pointing the weapon at is seated when you yell it? It’s not nice to shoot someone for doing exactly what they think you want. :smack: Our instructor made sure to point that out to us at least.

WW2 grunts in Germany were given a little phrase booklet, my Dad actually had one [I remember seeing it in his ruck once, but the ruck and contents went up in flames when his house burnt in 1984] He found it amusing, he already spoke a bit of German [he grew up with a German nanny my Grandmother imported in 1923 - she was her ladies maid on a visit to some spa in Germany when she found out she was pregnant with her first kid, she decided she liked Marie enough to ask her to come back to the US with her as a combination maid and nanny.]

My dad used to grab a jeep with trailer and another guy and head out to trade for food, as he joked he got further with chatting up the farmers in their own language and trade goods than the other guys did with guns and attitude. He usually managed to get the locals to bring out the hidden hams and fresh veggies to trade for coffee and chocolate :smiley: Of course it was startling the first time he had a pile of weapons and 20 assorted scared German soldiers following along instead of a trailer of hams, potatoes and cabbage :stuck_out_tongue:

Same experience here, except we didn’t go to a restaurant in town; we went to a museum. As I already spoke a bit of German, that was a breeze. Passing my driver’s license test the first time was another matter, though. Jeesh, that was very difficult.

They gave us all a little booklet with useful phrases like “Where are the bombs?” and “Stop or I’ll shoot.” I got a medal once for thinking to use it during a training exercise 20 minutes later. I was the only one to think of it. True story. Whatevs, I’ll take the tin.

Demonstrates something about how eager soldiers are to learn another language, no?

Sure. Though the phrase “Hey American, there are mines in the field up ahead covered by snipers” might not be in a handy grunt guide, ‘mine’ and ‘sniper’ in Arabic would be something I’d certainly put some effort into learning.

get face down on the ground now!! Now!!

Years back, when I was training to be a Chinese linguist (Chinese is hard, so I ended up not becoming a linguist), one of our instructors told us that anyone who was going to be an Airborne Linguist should make a point of learning the words “Spy” “Plane” “Enemy” “Intercept” etc. because the guys flying the plane will be very interested to know if the folks you’re listening to start using those words when you’re nearby. :smiley:

Yeah we got a little booklet the only phrase I remember is Shukran which means thank you a lot.

Though what use that would be in a Dari, Pashto or Uzbek area or Afghanistan generally is open to question.:dubious:

Both times I was stationed overseas, I was required to attend a program called Head Start, which is a language and culture course. There was no requirement to pass a test as there was no test.

As others have mentioned, there is no requirement whatsoever for language skills for every soldier. I’ve seen a variety of materials offered to us in the form of language tapes, phrase books, and little cards with common commands and pleasantries.

That said, there are only a tiny number of MOS’s that actually do require language skills. Army linguists and SIGINT collectors are pretty much the only MOS’s that require language proficiency as a factor for qualifying for that MOS. A handful of other MOS’s get language training optionally. PSYOPS, Embassy Attaches, Special Forces, and HUMINT Collectors all the option of learning a language.

How this plays out varies by what program you are in. Special Forces, from what I have heard, are not required to qualify on the DLPT (language proficiency test) but only need a basic understanding of the target language. HUMINT Collectors were required to be proficient in speaking a language (with a higher “speaking” grade than SIGINT collectors, who do little speaking themselves) but this requirement was dropped in 2005 when DLI just couldn’t produce collectors fast enough. Now the Army wants to re-institute the language requirement for HUMINT, but they are running into problems with getting the Reserve and National Guard components language-qualified (making a blanket policy across Active, Reserve, and NG is always problematic).

My career as a linguist was unexceptional. I was in one of the “optional MOS’s” and I went to DLI for Korean. After graduating, I spent a year in South Korea, which included a month of language immersion study at Kyunghee Dehak. It was a cool experience. After that, of course, I went to places like Iraq and Afghanistan where my Korean was of no use at all, and I have since forgotten much of it.

But, as the OP points out, language proficiency is and always will be a HUGE problem. The 09L linguists will never be adequate for our needs, so we have to spend huge sums of money hiring native speakers on a contract basis. This, of course, represents tremendous challenges on it’s own, not only in terms of money but also in terms of the fitness, competence, and trustworthiness of the contract linguist. Every Army has been forced to rely on native-speaker auxillaries for translation, all the way back to the Romans.

I know languages in which it means “kiss the floor and do not move otherwise”. There’s also the “hug that fuckin’ wall like you’re trying to hump your way through” variation.

Surely counter-insurgency operations need a larger vocabulary than this?

That’s what interpreters are for. The interactions between the lowest ranking soldiers and foreign civilians may have gotten somewhat more civilized over the centuries, but it’s as simple as it’s ever been: smile and hand out candy, or threaten to kill.