Monday, March 22, 2010

Look out, Afghanistan! Here come the Campaign Continuity Language Training Detachments!

In response to GEN McChrystal's November 2009 directive that each platoon-sized element in Afghanistan have "at least one leader that speaks Dari at least [sic] 0+ level, with a goal of level 1 in oral communications," the Defense Language Institute and the Army have collaborated to develop specialized language-training detachments to offer pre-deployment classes to troops at three major Army installations.

Soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Carson, Colo., are now taking language courses that will better prepare them to meet the demands of operations in Afghanistan.

Since Feb.1, more than 70 Soldiers at Fort Campbell have studied either Dari or Pashto in advance of their upcoming deployments to Afghanistan. At Fort Carson, 270 Soldiers began learning Dari, March 8. It's expected some 70 Soldiers will begin Dari instruction in early April at Fort Drum, N.Y.

The three installations now host "Campaign Continuity Language Training Detachments." The detachments are the result of a partnership between the operational Army and the Defense Language Institute. The pilot program is a direct response to requirements put forth by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, to put more "language-enabled" Soldiers on the ground there.

"His goal is to have one leader in every platoon or platoon-sized element that will
interact with the Afghan population who is familiar enough with the Dari language to go beyond the 'hellos' and 'thank yous' and platitudes -- but to instead have rudimentary conversations," said Lt. Col. Stephen J. Maranian, executive officer for the Army training directorate, G-3/5/7.

The three detachments were built with funding from the Joint Staff from the overseas contingency operations budget. Maranian said money is allocated already for fiscal years 2011-2015 to expand the program to more installations.

The first class at Fort Carson is only seven weeks as a result of time constraints, but future courses will last 16 weeks. Here's what the article has to say about the relationship between course duration and desired end states:

Most students in the past who have taken a 16-week language course ended up with a "0+/0+" level of language capability -- a rating that refers both to speaking and listening capability -- but many have achieved the higher 1/1 goal.

Clare Bugary, the director of operations at DLI, said the 16-week course will meet the 0+ requirement set by McChrystal, but for Soldiers to exceed that and achieve the goal of a level 1 skill, they will need to push themselves."The key is motivation," she said. "If they want it, they can get there. And what we are seeing at Carson and Campbell now is a motivated group of Soldiers who are applying themselves."

Bugary said to guarantee higher levels of language proficiency, students will need to spend more time in class. The DLI's normal Pashto-basic course is 64 weeks long, for instance. "There's no way the Army can send everybody through that.""It's an issue of time really," she said. But she added that the 16 weeks the Army is committing "says a lot" about their willingness to have Soldiers learn both the language and the culture of Afghanistan. "It's a big commitment for the Army to do that, and it's very
encouraging that the Army takes the steps to incorporate language and cultural training. It's going to have a positive effect."

Bugary said the language skill levels, "0+", or "1", for instance, are defined by the Interagency Language Roundtable. On the scale, a level 0 learner has "no ability whatsoever," while a level 0+ learner is "able to satisfy immediate needs with learned utterances." A level 1 student is "able to satisfy basic survival needs and minimum courtesy requirements."

(Here's some more information about skill level descriptions from the Interagency Language Roundtable's website. And here's some related video from DLI.)

It may be that I'm not reading closely enough, but I don't see any mention of how many classroom hours this training entails. Courses on-site at DLI are intensive and take up the bulk of the day, so I'd assume that's the model they're transporting to these other installations. But if this is a one-hour-a-day deal, then that's an entirely different story. You can't really expect people to learn a complicated and very foreign language without a serious commitment to the process, commitment that involves not only time but also centrality of focus. This really can't be something that you're doing alongside your other duties and training modules.

That being said...
Sam G. Garzaniti, director of the Campaign Continuity Language Program at Fort Campbell, said the classes focus first on basic listening and speaking skills before moving on to more practical applications for Soldiers in theater. Maranian added that counterinsurgency doctrine makes it absolutely essential to be able to communicate with village elders about such things as governance, economics and security."After a month, they know alphabet and basic phrases," he said. "In the coming weeks, they will learn social, economic, and military vocabulary to assist them when partnering with and operating amongst the Afghan people."
...are you effin' kidding me? A month to learn the alphabet and basic phrases? That's about how long it took the language retards in my Persian class to learn the alphabet and basic phrases... except we had class one night a week for two hours, and all other study was self-directed (and not really expected)!

I'm not an expert in philology or anything, or in memory, or in syllabus design or human cognition or pretty much anything relevant to this subject (or in pretty much anything at all, now that we're right down to it), but this strikes me as a shockingly un-ambitious learning plan. If you're doing five hours a day, then the first month involves 100 hours of exposure to the language. The entire sixteen week course of study makes 400 hours! As far as I know, Pashto and Dari are both State Department Category II languages, which are meant to require 1100 classroom hours for "minimal proficiency." I see that designation as being considerably more advanced than "basic survival needs and minimum courtesy requirements," mastery of which is what's necessary to demonstrate Level 1 speaking ability.

Does anybody else know anything about this program (particularly the length of the class day)? Has anyone learned a Cat II or Cat III language at DLI or the Foreign Service Institute? How long do you think it should take to be 0+ or 1 in Dari or Pashto? I'd love it if Lil would chime in here, as she's actually taught a language to USG personnel. Maybe I'm being a bit over-ambitious here.

15 comments:

  1. I wonder if this is the right standard. Does 0+ involve conversational Dari, like "what is your favorite television show?" or is it just basics like, "how do I get to the village where the Taliban hang out?" So long as all Soldiers know the basics of hello, thank you, et cetera. That seems adequate. If one Soldier per platoon knows enough to connect with the populace in terms of "do you know those guys who are shooting at us? Are there any civilians over there?" then that too seems adequate. Is 0+ proficiency necessary for that?

    For sitting down and drinking tea types of scenarios, I'm guessing you're going to need an interpreter even if you get to the 0+ level.

    I guess that I, too, should disclose my credentials. I'm even less of an expert than Gulliver. On just about everything.

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  2. Schmedlap -- 0+ =

    Able to satisfy immediate needs using rehearsed utterances. Shows little real autonomy of expression, flexibility or spontaneity. Can ask questions or make statements with reasonable accuracy only with memorized utterances or formulae. Attempts at creating speech are usually unsuccessful.

    Examples: The individual's vocabulary is usually limited to areas of immediate survival needs. Most utterances are telegraphic; that is, functors (linking words, markers and the like) are omitted, confused or distorted. An individual can usually differentiate most significant sounds when produced in isolation but, when combined in words or groups of words, errors may be frequent. Even with repetition, communication is severely limited even with people used to dealing with foreigners. Stress, intonation, tone, etc. are usually quite faulty.


    So basically, a guy can memorize something like "where are the Taliban?" or "hello howaredoing whois elderperson at town of Afghanistan people?" Or something like that.

    I think there's a debate to be had, also, about exactly how much you're requiring guys to learn. I know these dudes aren't going to do human terrain mapping or anything, but the whole point of giving guys language instead of just sending terps out is that you're hoping they'll be able to engage in at least a moderately meaningful way with important local nationals. That doesn't necessarily mean communicating big thoughts fluently in the local language, but it DOES involve using language as a means to demonstrate an other-than-instrumental relationship with people; that is, that you're engaging with them on something broader or deeper than "where are the guys who are shooting at us?"

    I think the point is to prove to local nationals that you find the geography and culture and welfare of the people important enough that at least ONE guy in the small unit leadership can carry on a three minute conversation about how the crops are doing, or the weather, or how many sons the guy has.

    (But I could be wrong. Maybe this is just the drinking tea nonsense that Miklaucic is talking about.)

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  3. FWIW, we had a pretty good talk about this sort of stuff here (that involved me getting deservedly made fun of): http://www.registan.net/index.php/2010/01/07/i-want-you-to-mumble-a-few-words-of-pashto/

    I find it fascinating that it took 8-9 years for an effort to get platoons at a 1/1 level. Yes, languages take a while. And there aren't a whole lot of enlisted folks with foreign language backgrounds, unless they spoke a different language at home than school. These are not new problems.

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  4. AJK -- I remember your post on this subject, and I wrote about AfPak Hands back in January, too.

    This is sort of a different deal, though, really. For one thing, the AfPak Hands guys are mostly going to go man a desk, so language familiarity is just a start. They have a whole dedicated five-year period in which to get hot on language and culture.

    These guys going downrange have specific, functional requirements that they need to satisfy (something that's not true for the AfPak Hands dudes).

    Now having said all that, we're talking around the real issue, which is this: if your whole job for four months is to learn how to rudimentarily communicate in some crazy-ass foreign language, even one that you've never, ever been exposed to, and even if you've never, ever been exposed to ANY foreign languages, you should be able to do better than 0+ by the end of that four months. I know the DLI folks have a ton of experience that informs their judgment and expectations on this sort of thing, but it just strikes me as crazy to set the bar so low. Even if they get to 0+ at the end of all that, WTF have you accomplished? Wouldn't you be better off tapping one guy per company or battalion (instead of one per platoon) and sending him to train for a year, hoping he can maybe get to 2/2+? There are problems with that approach, too (skills too concentrated, not dispersed enough, exception from the normal ARFORGEN prep/training process pre-deployment, tagging a guy as a quasi-linguist instead of a mere force multiplier, etc etc.), but I don't see what good it does to train a bunch of guys to talk like a three-year old to a bunch of dudes in rural country, where they probably haven't encountered a whole lot of non-native Pashto speakers and won't be able to make sense of but one word out of ten that the guy tries to say (in his perhaps 100-word vocabulary).

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  5. "I'm not an expert in philology or anything, or in memory, or in syllabus design or human cognition or pretty much anything relevant to this subject (or in pretty much anything at all, now that we're right down to it)"

    Perfect qualifications for blogging, young Gulliver.

    Eh, I can't even muster up my usual teasing self today - I'm too depressed for obvious reasons. Excuse me while I take a break from the internet for a few days... .

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  6. Gulliver--fascinating. When I taught at FSI, I had classes of no more than 6 students for about 4-5 hours a day (depending on whether I sent them to the lab, where they could do self-guided things like listen to things, watch videos). I taught French and that's considered an "easy language." (I think that's Category II) You can get to a 3/3 in just under 6 months--may students got to a 3+. This means you get to 2/2 in 16 weeks and a 1/1 in about 8-10. If it's a hard language (that is Cat. III, I may have swapped them, if so sorry but they include Arabic, Chinese, etc), I think the scale basically slides but a reasonable expectation would be that you could get to a 1/1 in 16 weeks. At that point, you should be able to have a basic conversation, starting with pleasantries, remarking upon the weather, inquiring about the children and the health of cattle. There will be mistakes and the like but you should know enough phrases and basic grammar etc that you should be able to do that much. You won't understand everything, but you'll get big chunks and you'll know how to say "I don't understand this part".

    If you're still at 0 to 0+, that means you've not absorbed much grammar at all and are still relying on rote phrases and you're having trouble substituting things in sentences like son/daughter etc. This gets to your questions Schmedlap. Questions about TV shows are 2/2 questions. Questions like are there civilians there are 1/1 questions. If you're a 0+, your understanding at this phase depends upon the interlocutor using phrases that you're familiar with, they deviate and you're lost and you're so lost and you have no way of getting help from a 10 year old.

    Does that help and make sense? AJK, point taken on the difficulty of learning languages. I have to say though, I encountered MANY students who had simply decided it was impossible and they were setting themselves up for failure. Others decided that they could do it, they worked hard, and got far fast. It sounds cliche but it's true.

    Finally, a lot depends on the quality of the teachers but that's a rant for later.

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  7. I taught French and that's considered an "easy language." (I think that's Category II)

    French is actually Cat I.

    If it's a hard language (that is Cat. III, I may have swapped them, if so sorry but they include Arabic, Chinese, etc)

    Yes, that's Cat III. Cat II includes Persian, though, so I assume Dari and Pashto are also in there.

    AJK, point taken on the difficulty of learning languages. I have to say though, I encountered MANY students who had simply decided it was impossible and they were setting themselves up for failure. Others decided that they could do it, they worked hard, and got far fast. It sounds cliche but it's true.

    I would also hope that the guys being sent to this were high scorers on the DLAB; that is, that they've demonstrated the cognitive ability to learn difficult languages.

    Thanks for your input on this, Lil -- it's very welcome.

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  8. On high-scoring on the DLAB, yes that's a good initial measure. Sometimes I think that test should include a musical pitch-matching exercise. I say that because I'm a singer and I noticed teaching that my students who were singers always developed way better accents because they could hear me better and imitate me pretty well. In short, they had good relative pitch and more control over their vocal cord muscles so you could train them to make sounds they weren't initially familiar with.

    Thanks for the corrections on categories, Gulliver, it's been years.

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  9. Sometimes I think that test should include a musical pitch-matching exercise. I say that because I'm a singer and I noticed teaching that my students who were singers always developed way better accents because they could hear me better and imitate me pretty well. In short, they had good relative pitch and more control over their vocal cord muscles so you could train them to make sounds they weren't initially familiar with.

    I've always considered it a huge limitation that we so infrequently think about what it is that makes some people good at replicating foreign sounds and other people so poor at it. Something I've noticed from studying a number of foreign languages alongside other Americans is that many of us are generally piss-poor at reproducing sounds that don't exist in English, trying instead to substitute the closest-sounding phoneme from our experience. However natural that may be, it's really, really wrong. I suppose it's hard to recognize this until you study a VERY foreign language.

    (I'll also say that part of the problem is that many American children are first introduced to language by elementary- or middle-school teachers who may have majored in the language 20 years ago but are DECIDEDLY non-native in their diction and pronunciation.)

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  10. "... the whole point of giving guys language instead of just sending terps out is that you're hoping they'll be able to engage in at least a moderately meaningful way with important local nationals... a means to demonstrate an other-than-instrumental relationship with people... I think the point is to prove to local nationals that you find the geography and culture and welfare of the people important enough that at least ONE guy in the small unit leadership can carry on a three minute conversation about how the crops are doing, or the weather, or how many sons the guy has."

    That's basically what I figured, but I still wonder if the 0+ standard makes sense. My understanding is that the 0+ standard is a step toward achieving 1, 2, and 3. Our Soldiers are not likely expected to progress beyond 0+. They are just shooting for a basic level of proficiency, with a specific mission in mind. Again, just my initial impression. Saying "we're going to use the 0+ standard" sounds, to me, kind of like saying, "we're going to enforce the standards of the US Army interrogation FM on the CIA." It seems like not a horrible standard, but somewhat arbitrary.

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  11. Well for one thing, this is only for selected soldiers -- one per platoon -- not everybody. And the only reason we're even talking about 0+, 1, 2, etc., is because that's an interagency standard, used across the government, and so that's what curriculum is built to. I'm not even sure they're saying exactly "we're going to teach to a 0+ or a 1," but rather that that's the rough level of proficiency that could be expected from a guy after these 16 weeks. Remember, these classifications are broad and all-encompassing: any speaker of any language could be rated on this scale, whether they learned through a USG course or not. It's just a means of evaluation with certain critical focus-points that make rating possible.

    So what would be a less arbitrary standard?

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  12. Less arbitrary would be to make an assessment of what type of interaction we have in mind and to craft a limited curriculum for that purpose, rather than taking the instruction that leads to 0+ proficiency and assuming it is appropriate. And just to be clear, maybe that has been done and 0+ just happens to be appropriate. I'm just wondering if that is the case.

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  13. Pashto is a Cat 4 language.

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  14. Anon @ 9:23 -- Pashto is a Cat 4 language.

    You're right -- I was thinking of the old system where there was only I, II, and III; they've since added IV and bumped everything up from II to III and III to IV, making what used to be considered "I+" languages into Cat II.

    That said, I still figured Pashto was an old II/new III, and I was wrong about that. Thanks for the catch.

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  15. Speaking about foreingers, if anybody is interested in what the Germans have been doing in Kunduz in 2009:

    http://www.strategypage.com/militaryforums/68-4528.aspx

    More (in German):
    http://www.freundeskreis-panzergrenadiere.de/pzgrenadier/artikel_heft_26_2.pdf

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