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WASHINGTON — Troops could see pre-deployment language lessons and more native Chinese and Arabic speakers under a new national language initiative announced Thursday.

The program is designed to heighten cultural awareness and foreign language skills for regions traditionally outside most Americans’ knowledge: The Middle East, China, and other Southeast Asian countries.

Details of the pre-deployment language classes still need to be finalized, but David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said he envisions a two-to-four-week course emphasizing basics of reading and conversation.

Already some troops undergo similar programs before their overseas tours, but Chu said the new program likely would be mandatory for all unit commanders and could be a training requirement for all troops.

Chu said the department will spend $750 million over five years, starting in October, on advanced foreign language training, recruitment of native speakers for foreign missions, improved fluency testing and the development of “crash courses” for troops headed overseas.

“The secretary of defense has emphasized his concern that, in dealing with the world, the United States needs a stronger capacity to understand and work with the cultures and peoples of other nations,” he said. “The central part of that capacity is linguistic [ability].”

Chu said having fluent speakers with units in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided “instant intelligence” for commanders, but he admitted that too few capable translators are available for the military’s needs.

Fred Kagan, resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said any additional language training for troops would be “an enormous benefit” for U.S. forces.

“Actually, our abysmal performance with languages has been a major problem every time we deploy overseas,” he said.

“You end up entirely dependent on local translators … and frequently find yourself serving the interest of whatever tribe or clan he comes from. Then it’s difficult to seem like a neutral force.”

He said even rudimentary familiarity with a foreign language could give troops a sense if those local translators are reliable or suspect.

Plans also include creating a Civilian Language Reserve Corps, a workforce of about 1,000 linguists who could be deployed around the world with military forces to give them instant language capability for security missions.

The defense initiatives are part of a broader effort involving education and state department programs, including more funding for language skills development in primary schools and at U.S. colleges.


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