Military emphasizing —and rewarding — language proficiency
By Mark Abramson, Stars and Stripes
European edition, Monday, March 16, 2009

The U.S. military is going to greater lengths to encourage servicemembers to become proficient in languages — including ones that would be handy where the country is at war.

Every branch is authorized to give bonus pay of up to $12,000 a year to servicemembers who demonstrate proficiency in certain languages. The Department of Defense does not release a list of those languages, but officials who were interviewed recently said the department is putting a premium on the languages that are valuable for combatting terrorists.

"The standard stuff is Chinese, Farsi and other key languages," said Air Force Lt. Col. Jesse Johnson, chief of the Air Force Language and Culture Office.

Although each branch is on equal footing when it comes to the maximum incentive pay it can offer, the services either have their own plans, are considering ideas or have already taken steps to encourage more sailors, airmen and Marines to learn a language. Army officials did not respond to several requests for more information.

The Navy has seen the number of sailors who are considered proficient — scoring at least a 2 on a scale of 5 on both the listening and reading proficiency tests used by DOD — rise from 1,500 after Sept. 11, 2001, to 3,500 today. A 2 is considered high, and even a fluent speaker most likely wouldn’t be able to score a 4 or 5, said Lee Johnson, the director of the Navy’s foreign language program.

"Look at what is going on in the world. Look at where we are engaged. These (languages where the U.S. is engaged) are the needs of the services," Johnson said. "To me this type of skill is important because of what we want the Navy mission to be."

A new Navy ROTC program is being rolled out this fall at seven universities to encourage midshipmen there to learn a language and study the area where that language is spoken, Johnson said. The universities where the program will be tried include Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown, the University of Utah and the University of Southern California. It is intended to encourage midshipmen to major or minor in a language and study the region where that language is used, Johnson said.

"Utah is a great source of linguists because of the Latter-day Saints and their missions. We have a wonderful reserve detachment in Provo that has Chinese linguists," Johnson said.

The Navy’s goal in the pilot program is to get at least 20 midshipmen to sign up initially, Johnson said.

The Navy has also recently created what it calls its Foreign Area Officer Program where officers focus on studying an area of the globe and those officers are sent to language school to learn a language that is spoken in that region, Johnson said.

"We want 400 foreign area officers by 2015 and we got 196 now," he said.

The Air Force believes that even some of the most prevalent languages —Spanish, German and French — shouldn’t fly under the radar when it comes to giving airmen incentives, Lt. Col. Johnson said.

"We believe that the ability to build capacity in all foreign languages is important," Lt. Col. Johnson said. "A lot of these languages are spoken by coalition partners in NATO."

The Air Force is considering a policy that could be approved in the next few months giving airmen incentive money for being proficient in languages such as Spanish, German, French and Tagalog, which is spoken in the Philippines, Lt. Col. Johnson said.

Air Force officials did not have information about how many airmen qualify for the language proficiency incentive money.

The Marines have taken steps to make it easier for its servicemembers to learn a language by logging onto a computer.

The Corps now offers the popular language-learning program Rosetta Stone online and has a video-game like program called the Tactical Language Training System for Marines to learn languages via computer, said Capt. Carrie Kauffman, the Marine Corps Foreign Language Program manager.

The number of Marines who have qualified for incentive pay, which ranges from $100 to $1,000 a month, has jumped from 1,000 in 2004 to 2,700, Kauffman said.

"We have small numbers so we are able to do some things that other services aren’t able to do," she said.

The Corps offers incentive pay to anyone in its ranks who scores a 1 on the proficiency tests.