MAINTAINING LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY
by Major Darrell W. Bott
Maintain Proficiency. Establish consistent approaches
to collective and individual training. Collective training should
be conducted at a baseline proficiency level consistent with unit
readiness standards. Individual training, particularly language
training, should be creative and challenge soldiers to go beyond
Jenny just joined a National Guard military intelligence (MI) linguist unit. She is excited to get orders to enter basic combat training and attend the Basic Arabic Course at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in California. After over a year of study at DLI, Jenny attains level 2 in listening, reading, and speaking on her Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) in Arabic. (Figure 1 illustrates the speaking skills associated with each DLPT level.) Now a qualified Army linguist, she goes
immediately to advanced individual training (AIT) at the U.S. Army
Intelligence Center and Fort Huachuca. During her four months at
AIT, her language skills deteriorate as much as 25 percent. She no
longer meets the Army language proficiency standards.
--FM 34-1, Intelligence and Electronic Warfare Operations
After AIT, Jenny returns to her National Guard unit, she gets a
job, and enrolls in college. She takes Arabic courses in college
and brings her language proficiency back up to the Army's minimum
qualification standard of level 2. Jenny is a good soldier and is
promoted to the rank of sergeant about the same time she graduates
As she continues her military career, Jenny attends Noncommissioned
Officer Education System (NCOES) courses, assumes additional
administrative and leadership duties, and participates in several
major exercises. Her language proficiency begins to deteriorate. As
Jenny continues to assume more military and civilian
responsibilities, her language proficiency continues to diminish.
Her language proficiency again falls below the Army minimum
Maintaining Language Proficiency
This fictional story illustrates the Army's problem of maintaining
a pool of qualified linguists. Jenny represents a typical Reserve
Component (RC) linguist. Many linguists throughout the RC and the
entire Department of Defense do not meet minimum proficiency
standards. A December 1994 report by the National Security and
International Affairs Division of the General Accounting Office
states that about one third of DLI graduates have not attained the
minimum language proficiency of level 2. Following DLI, students
routinely proceed to technical schools where they commonly
experience a decline in proficiency by as much as 25 percent.
Unlike Jenny, many linguists never regain their language
proficiency after AIT. Like Jenny, many linguists continue to
decline in proficiency throughout their careers. In a 1986 study by
the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown
University, Kurt Miller stated that the most neglected area in
language training is that of skill maintenance. He said that the
expectation for a soldier with minimal proficiency in a language to
improve his skill in independent study or voluntary off-duty
classes is unrealistic.
The average military linguist cannot maintain language skills using
only training available while on duty. Individuals who spend the
time and energy to learn a foreign language are usually highly
motivated and have the desire to maintain that skill, but other
priorities in life make it very difficult. Maintaining language
skills requires a great deal of dedication.
Much of the work, time, and effort used to maintain a language
comes from personal means. Time and energy devoted to language
study is often taken from family and social activities. This is
especially true in the RC where only 39 training days are available
each year to accomplish the Army's training and administrative
requirements. Compounding this lack of training time is the fact
that many RC linguists are located great distances from language
The FM 34-1 intelligence training principle "Maintain Proficiency" addresses this problem. This training principle identifies several keys to maintaining language proficiency:
- Establish consistent approaches to collective and individual training.
- Conduct training at a baseline proficiency level
consistent with unit readiness standards.
- Use creative techniques and ideas to keep the soldier
- Challenge the soldier to go beyond the Army standard.
- Use the Readiness Training (REDTRAIN) program.
- Provide live environment training (LET).
- Use available learning opportunities and language
Consistency is one of the most important items in learning and
maintaining a foreign language. Language skills are highly
perishable and must be used frequently or proficiency will
deteriorate. Good language maintenance programs have linguists
doing some language activity on a daily basis. The activities could
include listening to a language tape in the car, reading for 15 to
20 minutes a day, or reviewing vocabulary cards while waiting for
A prerequisite for establishing consistency is knowing the
capabilities and motivation of each soldier. The target for
language difficulty in training is just beyond the soldier' s
A key to consistent language study is motivation. A few soldiers
are self-motivated enough to maintain language skills at almost any
cost, others need incentives. Positive incentives for soldiers
include proficiency pay and missions or assignments to countries
using the target language. Competition in language olympics
motivates many linguists. If language training is challenging and
exciting, the training itself becomes a positive incentive.
Positive incentives usually do more to encourage language study
than negative ones like taking away privileges when the skill level
is lower than desired.
Consistency does not mean using the same method for every training
period. Adult learning theory suggests that while variety is needed
to retain the learner's interest, effective learning occurs when
there is a consistent application of standards. Here are some
additional ideas to establish a consistent training approach:
- Write concrete objectives for each training period based
on the individual's or section's abilities.
- Demand high standards for the final objective. Initially,
this may require establishing intermediate objectives that
gradually increase the difficulty of the task until the final
training objective is met.
- Always insist on mastery of one objective before going on
to the next.
- Make the training as realistic as possible. Do not
conduct all language training in a classroom or language lab. Take
the soldiers to the field or try something like performing
preventive maintenance on a vehicle using only the target language.
- Ensure the soldier understands how to apply the cultural
or linguistic lesson in a real situation.
- Insist that linguists use only the target language during
- Take advantage of opportunities to perform hip-pocket
When talking about a baseline proficiency of level 2, it is
important to understand that the length of time and knowledge
necessary to progress from one proficiency level to the next
increases with every level. See Figures 1 and 2. For example, if it
takes six months to reach level 2, it may take several years of
constant exposure to reach level 3. The time required to attain and
maintain a level 2 proficiency varies because the difficulty levels
of languages differ. Basic courses for many Romance languages take
26 weeks while more difficult languages like Arabic take up to 63
The Japanese language is a good example of how the degree of
difficulty increases with each level of proficiency. Japanese uses
over 1500 Chinese characters, each having multiple meanings.
Knowledge of all of the characters is not required to reach level
2, but combinations of characters and meanings will total several
thousand facts that a linguist must remember to maintain the
Baseline proficiency aligns with another training principle "Use
Appropriate Doctrine" outlined in FM 25-100, Training the Force. Using appropriate doctrine goes beyond training language at a
minimum proficiency level. Training to standard provides a basis
for common vocabulary and military literacy across the force. When
a RC linguist is called up to support another unit, there is no
time to learn nonstandard vocabulary, doctrines, or procedures. All
of the soldiers training must be done to Army standards, including
common soldier tasks, survival skills, and military occupational
speciality (MOS) skills. Linguists must know and understand Army
doctrine and how it applies to the linguist's target area.
Techniques and Ideas
Creative techniques add interest and keep enthusiasm high. A good
language trainer will find ways to make training come alive. For
example, Captain Leland K. Jensen created a board game to support
unit language training while attached to the 300th MI Brigade
(Linguist), Utah National Guard. The game included cultural and
historical background information unique to people who speak the
target language. Through the game, soldiers studied the unique
historical and cultural aspects of the target language country.
They also learned military tactics and vocabulary in a fun and
interesting way. The following are other examples of how to make
These creative training approaches provide a fun and effective way
to practice language skills. When training is fun and challenging,
the training itself is highly motivating. Soldiers will often spend
time at home studying and improving language skills so they can do
better at the next training session.
- Use a scenario-based approach to language training.
Company language trainers can develop simple human, signals, and
counterintelligence scenarios. By using scenarios and role-playing,
soldiers are able to practice MI skills while learning and honing
- Conduct common tasks training and other routine military
training in the target language. This type of training works well
when all members of the section are at least the Army minimum
language proficiency level.
Challenge the Soldier
"Train To Challenge"is another FM 25-100 principle that is a key to maintaining language proficiency. Intellectually and physically
challenging training excites and motivates both soldiers and
leaders. Successful completion of demanding training breeds success
in the next training effort. It leads to competent and confident
soldiers by building new skills. Training that tests and stretches
the soldier's ability can be a key to retaining good soldiers and
linguists by instilling loyalty, dedication, and excellence.
Integrating language training into other training activities can
challenge a linguist's abilities. It takes more time and effort to
plan and conduct the training in the target language, but the
benefits are worth the extra time and effort. Consider a section of
five Chinese linguists training on a common soldier skill such as
using a signal operating instruction. The first challenge is to
translate the material into Chinese, which provides opportunities
for the trainer to learn or review essential military vocabulary.
The next challenge is presenting the material to the section,
especially if some linguists are below the Army's minimum fluency
standard. One approach is to have a member of the team interpret
the information back into English as the trainer presents it. This
provides practice for the interpreter and keeps the other linguists
interested. The student translates it to themselves, to see if they
would say it the same way. If the interpreter stumbles on a word or
phrase, other members of the section can help. The soldiers can ask
questions and answer them in either Chinese or English but need to
be translated to the other language as well.
Training a common soldier task in the target language provides many
challenges for the linguist soldier. The following are some of the
- Common task training becomes challenging, even if the
subject is dull.
- Language training is more meaningful and has higher
- Every individual practices language skills during the
- Linguists learn and use military technical vocabulary in
a realistic setting.
- Soldiers often retain the common task skill better
because there is more interaction and effort used.
- Linguists typically consider this type of training fun
The REDTRAIN program provides training opportunities to improve and
maintain intelligence and language skills of soldiers and units.
This program is quite flexible and allows the commander to be
innovative and creative in getting the most bang for the buck. A
few examples illustrate how the REDTRAIN program provides excellent
Another program, developed by the 141st MI Battalion and funded
through REDTRAIN, is the Language Enhancement Course (LEC). The
battalion designed the LEC from the ground up as a language
maintenance and enhancement program for linguists to use at home
during the interval between drill assembles. The best linguists in
each language developed a LEC program for the target language. Most
LECs use existing commercial materials but have unique approaches
to using the material. Each soldier completes the lessons at home
and corrects them at the next drill. Each lesson builds on concepts
presented in the previous lesson. For example, if the first lesson
has ten concepts then the second lesson will have most of the first
ten plus new ones.
- Members of the 141st MI Battalion (Linguist), Utah
National Guard, recently used the REDTRAIN program to attend the
Worldwide Language Olympics. The soldiers attending the olympics
were excited and enthusiastic to compete. In addition, they
improved their language proficiency as they prepared to go to the
event. Probably the greatest benefit was from the language training
ideas and contagious enthusiasm they brought back to the unit.
- The program funds language instructors during weekend
drills of National Guard linguists. The instructors customize the
classes to address specific weaknesses that the language program
managers and commanders identified. The REDTRAIN program can also
supplement the customized instruction by providing dictionaries and
other commercial language materials.
Live Environment Training
When many of us think of LET for linguists, we think of an overseas
assignment or mission. These assignments are great and provide a
wonderful opportunity to practice and maintain language skills if
we make the most of them. When a linguist supports an exercise in
a foreign country, the supported unit needs to provide as many
opportunities as possible for the linguist to interact with native
On a mission to support an exercise in Japan, several Japanese
linguists learned that they could visit a nearby town only once or
twice during their three weeks in Japan. According to the exercise
schedule, the linguists were supporting the exercise on four
evenings. The supported unit commander had instituted a very strict
pass policy to prevent problems with the local populace. The
officer in charge of the linguist section explained that the
linguists had a secondary mission of maintaining fluency in
Japanese. The best way to do this was to visit the nearby town and
talk to the Japanese people. Once the commander understood the
importance of visiting the Japanese town, he allowed the linguists
to go on pass whenever they were free from exercise duties.
Other opportunities for LET include festivals showcasing the
cultures associated with the target language. Many communities have
large numbers of people who speak the target language. When
festivals or celebrations take place, linguists can meet native
speakers. The military linguists can get involved in community
activities and maintain language proficiency. An example of getting
involved in the community is a Spanish linguist section translating
information pamphlets for the National Committee for Prevention of
Child Abuse. Soldiers often get so excited helping a good cause
that much of the work is done at home on the soldier's free time.
Another Spanish section provided language support for a symposium
put on by the Utah Governor's Office for Hispanic Affairs.
Sometimes LET just seems to happen. The language trainer must be
ready to take advantage of any situation. A Russian section in the
National Guard was training on drill weekend. One member of the
section learned of a Russian patient at a local hospital receiving
a unique medical procedure. The section leader obtained permission
from the commander and the hospital to take several members of the
section to meet with this patient. The hospital appreciated the
linguists' help because the patient spoke very little English.
Because the treatment took several months, there were many
opportunities for members of the section to provide a service and
improve their language skills.
Opportunities and Courses
Many language training materials and courses are available from
colleges, universities, and DLI. By using some ingenuity, the
commander and language program manager can have courses customized
for specific requirements. Both military and civilian agencies can
provide these type courses. For example, the U.S. Army Forces
Command contracts with Brigham Young University in Utah for three
language refresher courses each year. The Language Lab at Fort
Lewis, Washington, offers courses throughout the year that can be
a valuable tool for soldiers trying to increase language
The Satellite Communications for Learning (SCOLA) system is another
source of language training. SCOLA offers newscasts and other
information in a variety of languages. The material is always
current and usually very interesting. SCOLA allows linguists to
keep up with foreign news, cultural events, and special changes in
their target language countries. The language trainer or linguist
can also videotape the programs for use at a more convenient time.
Keys to Proficiency
The keys to maintaining and enhancing language proficiency are to
be consistent and to know the linguist's capabilities. Set goals
which challenge the student and aim at the level 2 proficiency.
Enforce Army standards in all training. Use creative techniques to
motivate, excite, and reward soldiers. Remember, linguists want to
have very high language proficiency, but it takes a great deal of
time and effort. If we are diligent in helping linguists maintain
those hard-earned language skills, Jenny's story can be more like
Jenny just graduated from DLI with a level 2 proficiency in
Arabic. She goes on to AIT where, in addition to learning a new
MOS, she spends several hours a week in a language lab maintaining
her language skills. As part of her AIT she spends several days in
a field training exercise where she performs her new MOS skills in
her target language.
When she completes AIT she returns to her National Guard unit and
enrolls in college. Through a combination of training provided by
the Army and her college language courses, she improves her
language proficiency to a level 3. Because of the motivation and
training opportunities provided by her unit, she completes her
career while maintaining high language proficiency.
Major Darrell W. Bott is a liaison officer with the
141st MI Battalion (Linguist), 300th MI Brigade (Linguist), Utah
Army National Guard. He has an extensive background in training
including 14 years assigned to MI linguist units and seven years as
a training specialist for Thiokol Corporation, a major defense
contractor. He earned a bachelor's degree from Weber State
University and a master's in Instructional Technology from Utah
State University. You can reach him at his civilian workplace at
commercial (801) 863-5715.