Six ways the American military has taught languages

Photo by Mary Vogt,

What is the maximum motivation for learning a language? How about if your life depended on it? Since its arrival on the scene as a superpower the American military has had quite an interest in teaching other languages. How successful its servicemen and women have been in learning them is another issue, but for those of you wondering “how they do it in the Army” here are six ways I’ve unearthed.

1. The Army Specialised Training Program. Started in 1943, it involved more than 15,000 servicemen to be trained in a variety of languages (including French, Russian and German for obvious reasons at the time). The basic methodology was to “practise everything until it becomes second nature” and was eventually known as the mim-mem method (mimicry and memorization). Basically involved lots and lots of drilling. For those who know something about language teaching methods, this was one of the main precursors to audiolingualism.

2. Simulated Total sensory immersion – The American military have a thing about the word sensory. Unfortunately most recently it’s been in the context of sensory deprivation (to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay). At the Defense Language Institute total sensory immersion is listed as their current teaching methodology. Here’s what they say:

Our total language immersion technique offers knowledge and understanding of foreign cultures unparalleled by any other language training facility. The concept provides comprehensive, intensive language instruction in auditory skills, reading, writing, and authentic conversation dialogues. Most importantly, the program employs the simultaneous teaching of language fluency with the history and culture of the respective countries.

So, to me this says four skills teaching along with cultural element. Not quite sure how communicative the classes are, but the teacher-student ratio seems good (2 instructors per 10 students). 

3. Dynamic Immersion. With the continuing privatization of services in the American military it was a pretty sure bet that language training would be outsourced. Now, what language academy wouldn’t kill for a juicy Defense contract? Sorry folks, but it looks like The Rosetta Stone has gobbled up quite a bit of the money. They call their method dynamic immersion (sounds good and jargon-y). It seems to use a system of mental association and imagery in a series of online self-study modules. I couldn’t tell if there was a teacher/tutor involved or not but I don’t think so. Of course the website hails the method as a triumph. Well, if I had a language school with a $4.2 million dollar contract I’d be saying “why certainly it works”, wouldn’t you? 

4. Phraselators. This is where things start getting pretty funky. The Phraselator is a translation tool designed by a company called VoxTec. The phraselator hears a phrase in English and says the translation into another language. Problem is, it can’t decipher the answer. Which makes it great for yelling orders at people but not so good at real communication. However, it’s been tested in Afghanistan and Iraq and the developers told me that soldiers are learning Arabic by hearing the same phrases again and again (like a real-life language lab on the battlefield!). See more about this tool here.

5. Video Games and Virtual Worlds. For those of you into Second Life for language learning, hey the U.S. Military has been there, done that already. They’ve got a mini virtual world set up for language training. Well, not a whole world but a whole interactive village. The programme is called Tactical Iraqi. It’s a fully interactive 3D game, complete with (get this) “socially intelligent virtual humans that recognize trainees’ speech, gestures and behavior.” The most interesting aspect is the approach to error correction. I quote from the website:

If trainees speak and behave correctly, the virtual humans become trustful and cooperative, and provide information that trainees need to advance. Otherwise, the virtual humans are uncooperative and prevent trainees from “winning” the game.

Umm, I wonder what “uncooperative” means in the context of Tactical Iraqi. No mention is made either of the trainees’ response to this uncooperativeness. Presumably action speaks louder than words after that point and any Iraqi, tactical or otherwise, becomes superfluous. Does the game morph into Call of Duty after that point, one wonders. The Tactical Language Company does other languages, and you can see their website and a demo here.

6. Real immersion from childhood. Everyone agrees that the best time to become completely fluent in a language is when you’re a child. Now, I couldn’t find any proof for this online, but I’ve read enough spy novels and seen enough war B movies to imagine that some people in the American military were taught language via immersion in the target country from birth – perhaps in some top secret covert operation to recruit spies.

Maybe I’m being too much of a conspiracy theorist, but I did find out that if you want to be a language teacher for the CIA, the pay isn’t bad at all. Here’s the info from their website

Salaries are based on the individual applicant’s qualifications. In addition to base salary of $52,979 – $90,698, Language Instructors earn annual “bonus” pay ranging from $4,875 to $9,750, with the amount based on the language and their language proficiency. Language Instructors who speak multiple foreign languages may also qualify for additional bonuses in varying amounts. Furthermore, new employees can qualify for a lump-sum hiring bonus for languages, up to a maximum amount of $35,000.

Thing is, you gotta be a US citizen, AND to have been drug-free for the past 12 months. The combination of those two conditions disqualifies many of the English teachers I’ve met but oh well.

Published in: on January 8, 2009 at 10:41 am  Comments (3)  
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