Sailors take advantage of extra language pay
While sailing through the Suez Canal in 2002, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington turned to now-Chief Petty Officer Younes Zhari to speak Arabic with the Egyptian canal authority.
"I’d be up there at the bridge to make sure the flow of communication was as smooth as possible," said Zhari, of Kissimmee, Fla., and Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron 14 at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan.
Zhari didn’t get paid any more for his additional duty at the time.
Now, Zhari receives an extra $300 each month for his language skills under the Navy’s language proficiency pay program, established in its current form in 2006.
He recently took an annual Arabic requalification test at Atsugi.
The base — home to about 3,000 sailors — averages about 25 sailors a month coming in for language testing, said Atsugi Navy College director Mark Phelan.
The Navy pays up to $500 for language proficiency, depending on the particular language and the sailor’s test scores.
The list of languages the Navy pays bonuses for changes, Phelan said.
"There’s no set standard, because we’re dealing with supply and demand … it’s the needs of the Navy," he said.
Spanish is unlikely to earn extra pay for nonlinguists, because the Navy has so many Spanish speakers, Phelan said. However, because global circumstances change, he encourages sailors who speak a second language to take the test. More than 30 languages can earn sailors proficiency pay. Recently, sailors at Atsugi have tested for Arabic, Cantonese, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Swahili and Vietnamese.
Most sailors who take the tests are native foreign-language speakers, Phelan said. He sometimes gets non-native speakers, but doesn’t make recommendations to sailors looking to learn a language to participate in the pay program.
"I’d be very reluctant to say to anyone: ‘Study this, and you’re guaranteed to get paid,’ " Phelan said.
However, Arabic would be a pretty safe bet for someone looking to learn a language from scratch, Phelan said.
The Arabic test wasn’t as easy as Zhari thought it would be, he said. The computerized test includes both written and listening comprehension portions.
"You actually have to read through and think about each question to make sure you’re doing things right," he said.
Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean are also in demand, Phelan said. So are some languages some might not consider at first though, like Swahili.
An Atsugi petty officer recently was accepted to officer candidate school, not long after qualifying for proficiency pay in Swedish, Phelan said.
While there are many deciding factors in officer candidate selection, foreign-language ability can be considered.
"I firmly believe the fact that he had the language helped him get picked up," Phelan said.