Army Special Forces is the only combat arms element in the US military that requires every member to have some mastery of a foreign languge. Once common in the USA, as it was a requirement for most college admissions and degrees to have taken several years of language study, the rise of the post-academic academy has shrunk the pool of linguistically-qualified candidates.
The only language the average college graduate today has mastery is social-justice cant, and many of them cannot express themselves clearly in English.
What collegiate language study remains is highly concentrated in those originally European languages with a large cultural body of linguistic art: Spanish, German, French, Italian, Russian. There’s a secondary concentration in Oriental languages of similar cultural value: Chinese, Korean, and the most important languages of the Indian subcontinent. But wars are often fought in cultural backwaters and sometimes among peoples whose language, say Farsi or Arabic, contains little literature of cultural value.
The Army would rather you learn the language of potential enemies than of potential allies, but in any case, in Special Forces, the Army prefers you know a language (better, languages) known and used in the area where you will be operating. Makes sense, right? You’re a guerrilla, an advisor to guerrillas, or a counterguerrilla, and you need to navigate the human terrain.
Why learn a language at all. Why not just use interpreters?
Well, can you trust an interpreter the way you can a team member? Maybe. In time. With a certain subset of interpreters. But right from the beginning? No.
You also need to have linguists on the team as a safety check on those interpreters. If they think they can get away with it, they’re going to put their own spin on what you’re saying — at the very least. It’s human nature.
Who Picks the Language?
A second-term soldier can often pick his own language, if he gets a high enough aptitude score (of which more below). For an 18X, the language will probably be chosen for him.
Nowadays, language training is part of the Q Course, followed by refresher training and “survival language” training in the Group. For example, if your Group is oriented to Latin America and you catch a mission to a non-Spanish-speaking country like Suriname, French Guiana or Brazil, your tea,m would likely have a few weeks of intense language basics pre-mission. Sometimes (depending on the mission) you can borrow a linguist from elsewhere in the unit, but an MI guy (for example) won’t be SF qualified and will be an attachment to your team that you’re going to be responsible for.
What if a Guy Can’t Learn?
Most people can learn a language well into their fifties or sixties, long past service age, although it’s easiest for young people — the younger the better. An SF candidate, almost always in his 20s, will still have the neuroplasticity to learn a new language very well. His high IQ will help; language-learning is only very loosely correlated to IQ, but IQ does make it easier to memorize vocabulary, to grasp complex grammar or to keep track of Asian-language tones and ideograms, for example.
But some people find language learning inordinately hard. We don’t know the neuropsychiatric explanation for this, but some bright people struggle to learn a language, just like some people are (at least in their youth) natural language sponges. It seems to be correlated with verbal reasoning in one’s native language, but not perfectly (or it would track IQ, most measures of which are half dependent on verbal reasoning). So there is a Language Aptitude or “L” factor which is only weakly correlated with Spearman’s “G” factor of general intelligence.
The Army (and now DOD) has a test that purports to measure one’s language aptitude. It’s recently been subject to a little drama, as the test scores tend to have a correlation with race, which is anathema to all right-thinking people, but so far they have not race-normed the scores (i.e., provided some affirmative action points to popular ancestries). Your performance on the DLAB, Defense Language Aptitude Battery is a usable indicator, albeit an imperfect one, of your general “L” factor, and the military will often assign languages based on DLAB performance. (The military assesses languages in Categories. Cat I is an easy language, for an English speaker, like Spanish or French. Cat IV is a tough one, like Chinese Mandarin or Arabic). For an 18X starting out in Special Forces, your language may also determine what Group you go to, although all bets are off in time of war. A trainee may get an opportunity to pick the language from within the category, depending on the needs of the Army. So if you’re a Category III, picking Russian might get you assigned to Europe-oriented 10th Group (although some Russian speakers are needed in other groups). Pick Chinese or Korean, and you will be wearing the yellow flash of the 1st Group; select Farsi, and you’ll be wearing the freshly-restored Vietnam-era flash of the 5th. Or a trainee may just be told “You start language school Monday. Roster Number 107, to French. Roster 116…”
People who scored high on the DLAB often find language learning easier than people who scored low. There’s a mountain of data on this after decades of DLABs. While the cut-off score for Cat I languages in 95, cut-off scores are a bit rubbery… if they don’t have enough students to fill a class, they may bend on admissions requirements. This bending often does the candidate no favors. Few people with scores below 100 complete a long-term language school like DLI, although with good study habits, hard work, and self-discipline, someone with limited aptitude can bull through the shorter SF language school. And the higher the score, the better. While you can get into a Cat IV language school with a 110, the cluster of people down around the minimum score are often not there on graduation day.
Of course, SF and other linguist positions in the military sometimes luck into a native speaker. This is a good thing, subject to CI investigation of the student and his or her family. (If the CI work is botched, you get situations like the Naval flight officer now sitting in the brig, charged with spying for China).
Not Everyone in SF Thinks Language is Worthwhile
This idea tends to be concentrated in the officer corps, especially in those who have spent much of their career in Direct Action units (like the Rangers, for one example). One such officer was Colonel (later Brigadier General) Frank J. Toney, who had been a protegé of James Guest, in an environment where only door-kicking counted. When Toney took over SF Command, he brought his attitude with him: “My men don’t need any language training. They can speak 5.56 and 7.62!”
We leave as an exercise for the reader, why his nickname was Blank Frank.
But that was then. Looking at SF missions and capabilities, Toney came around in a way he never had as an ODB, Battalion, or Group commander. The never-ending UW insurgency inside Special Forces harangued him, persuaded him, and ultimately converted him. He became, by 2001, a full-throated convert to the UW mission and a man who wanted to see “his” teams demonstrating UW prowess on exercises. Some of the door-kickers went down to Ranger Regiment or vanished from the overt Army roster so they could keep kickin’ doors, and SF’s UW guys were ready when the requirement for UW came in late 2001.
Even the “Wrong” Language Can Open Doors
One of the first SF teams on the ground in Afghanistan had Arabic speakers. But while Afghans are Islamic, and the Koran is written in Arabic, none of them knew Arabic, and most of them were illiterate in any language — even the mullahs were limited to memorized prayers.
The lifesaver? A team member was trained as a Russian linguist. A couple of Northern Alliance officers (Abdurrashid Dostum, for one) had done courses in the former Soviet Union, and the guy who thought his language would definitely be unnecessary found himself the linchpin of Afghan-American cooperation.
It isn’t Just Language, it’s Culture
Language school doesn’t just teach you language, it also teaches, or tries to, and understanding for and appreciation of the culture from which the language comes. This cultural knowledge is often more important than the ability to translate your thoughts into your counterpart’s language or his into yours. It’s one thing to talk with an Afghan elder, it’s another to respond to some ridiculous proposition on something by showing him the grey in your own beard, and if you’d learned language isolated from culture, you might not know that.
By “culture” we don’t necessarily mean high culture: the Russians you talk to may or may not appreciate ballet, and we only ran into the occasional Afghan who’d heard of the poetry of Rumi.
Does the language you acquire (or improve) in the military, benefit you down the road? It can, sometimes in unexpected ways. For many people, it doesn’t; they never use their Army target language again in their lives. For others, it provides a leg up in academia or government service, and a few find a niche in international business.
And some just get a kick out of being able to read the news from their former target nation, thanks to the Internet.