Intelligence: Students Speaking In Tongues


January 1, 2009: The U.S. Army has come up with yet another way to obtain more military personnel who can speak foreign languages. ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) students will receive an additional $100-250 a month if they study and learn a foreign language the military needs (mostly Arabic, Chinese and those spoken in Afghanistan). ROTC students attend hundreds of colleges in the United States, and have most of their college expenses paid for (including up to $500 a month for living expenses) if they graduate and successfully complete their ROTC studies (and then serve for up to four years on active duty.) The army gets about 55 percent of its officers via ROTC programs. Many students are eager to learn Arabic or Chinese, as these languages can enhance ones civilian career. More money is paid for students learning Dari and Pushtun (the languages spoken in Afghanistan, the poorest country in Asia.)

Although the U.S. military has about 17,000 troops who speak languages like Arabic, Chinese, Farsi (Iran), Urdu (Pakistan), Hindi, and Korean, there simply aren't enough for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to the new ROTC program, the Department of Defense has established the Civilian Linguist Reserve. Those who qualify (in terms of skills, and ability to get a security clearance) are paid a monthly fee to be available, in an emergency, to come work for the military. The Pentagon found a lot of American Arabic speakers during the Iraq war, because these civilians went to work for contractors, or directly for the government, to provide translation services in the United States and Iraq. Many of these interpreters are already qualified for the Civilian Linguist Reserve.

Even though it's easy enough to hire locals as translators, there are shortcomings to that approach. It didn't take U.S. troops long to realize that the most dangerous intelligence job in Iraq was that of interpreter. Another way to get Arabic interpreters is to hire them from other Arab nations. The money is attractive, and many linguists in nearby Arab nations have learned the Iraqi dialect in order to get these jobs. There is also a feeling that Iraq will soon present many economic opportunities, providing less dangerous work for non-Iraqis who understand the Iraqi dialect. Some Arabic speaking Americans, after one tour in Iraq, have comes back to help with screening English speaking Arabs applying for interpreters. To attract the needed number of interpreters, many of the supervisory and screening personnel are hired via contractors. That way, these people, who are in short supply, can be offered enough money to induce them to take on this work.

The Department of Defense can get enough interpreters for Iraq and Afghanistan operations, but only by hiring a lot of foreigners. This is risky from a security point of view. Terrorist groups, and hostile governments, can get to these foreign interpreters eventually, and find out a lot about American intelligence techniques. This is a long term price to pay, in order to deal with the short term interpreter shortage. Thus having more American officers who speak these languages is a major advantage on the battlefield.


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