HEIDELBERG, Germany — Since May, more than 70,000 soldiers have complied with an Army request to disclose whether they can speak a language other than English.

More than half — 39,000 — said that they could, most often reporting some proficiency in Spanish, German or French, the old high-school standbys.

But if that seems like a high percentage of any group of Americans able to speak a foreign language, that’s because it probably is.

Many soldiers who speak only English, it appears, aren’t bothering to do the online survey that the Army hopes will help it to broadly assess the foreign-language skills of the fighting force and also tease out the few soldiers who might speak an obscure but pertinent tongue.

“I don’t think a lot of people are taking [the survey],” said Jane Khair, a Defense Department human resources specialist who is overseeing the project.

Six months after the project started, Khair said the expectation was that more of the roughly 515,000 soldiers on active duty would have taken the self-assessment, which takes about a minute if you speak only English, and five minutes if you claim to speak another language.

But she said, “It’s voluntary. It’s highly encouraged. It’s still not mandatory.”

That’s Army-wide. Within U.S. Army Europe, however, where English is actually sort of a foreign language, “soldiers are required” to take the survey, according to a press release sent out last month.

“That’s great,” Khair said.

The survey is part of a broader, Defense Department initiative called the “Defense Language Transformation Roadmap.”

The reason is, according to the “roadmap” introduction, which is written in military bureaucratese: “Post 9/11 military operations reinforce the reality that the Department of Defense needs a significantly improved organic capability in emerging languages and dialects, a greater competence and regional area skills in those languages and dialects, and a surge capability to rapidly expand its language capabilities on short notice.”

Other parts of the plan have increased foreign language pay for soldiers who can speak one of several languages the military has deemed especially valuable to its operations.

Spanish and German are not among them, but Chinese, Pashto, Arabic, Farsi and Tagalog are. But to get the extra pay, soldiers have to pass a test measuring skills in reading, writing and speaking — not just fill out a self-assessment.

“A lot of our soldiers — OK they can speak the language, but can they pass the test?” Khair said.

Another part of the plan is to require officers to be proficient in another language, which hasn’t been implemented yet.

What will be done with the survey results has not yet been decided, Khair said. “We’re trying to assess,” she said. “Maybe down the road a year from now, they might use the data for other things.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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