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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Language Training in US Military

From Languagelog.com

April 25, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

Following up on earlier LL posts about language training in the U.S. military (e.g. "The interpreter shortage", 10/17/2005; "Linguistics in 1940", 3/11/2007) Jim Gordon sent a pointer to Roger Dingman's Deciphering the Rising Sun: Navy and Marine Corps Codebreakers, Translators and Interpreters in the Pacific War, Naval Institute Press, 2009. From a review by Ian Nish at the Japan Society:

Professor Dingman has based this enlightening study on extended interviews with former officers in the US Navy and Marine Corps who are now in their upper 80s. But he has also made much use of the unpublished memoirs to be found in the Navy Language School Collection in the Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder where they were trained. It is a tribute to the US government – and the British for that matter – that they appreciated the importance of training linguists during the Asia-Pacific war and had the foresight to recruit and train personnel not of Japanese ancestry to study the Japanese language with a view to serving as language officers. Dingman concludes that it was a successful experiment and draws a painful parallel with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq:

“In June 2002 America teetered on the cusp of a war in Iraq that has lasted longer than the titanic struggle which the World War II language officers fought… It led to swift military victory, but true peace has proven elusive in the disastrously mismanaged, occupation that followed… those in our armed forces charged with carrying out their orders lacked knowledge of Iraq’s history and culture and of the language of its people. (pp. 249-50)”

While there's no question that more interpreters would have been better, I wonder whether deficiencies in military language training bear any significant responsibility for the well-documented problems in managing the American occupation of Iraq. And I also wonder whether the good qualities of the Navy Language School in the 1940s were critical to the success of the American occupation of Japan.

In the first place, I'm fairly certain that the Defense Language Institute graduated many more people from its Arabic programs during (say) 2001-2003 than the Navy Language School graduated from its Japanese program between July 1943 (when the first class finished) to August 1945 (when the U.S. occupation of Japan began). And on the second place, I believe that the U.S. occupation of Japan ended up being mainly managed by the Army rather than the Navy. Certainly Douglas MacArthur was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.

For a picture of what the American occupation was like from a linguistic point of view, I can recommend J. Marshall Ungar's Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines, OUP 1966, and (if you can find it) Robert King Hall Jr.'sEducation for a New Japan, Yale University Press, 1949. In particular, it's interesting to follow their description of the argument over whether to force a switch away from kanji ("Chinese chararcters") to the exclusive use of kana (syllabary) or romanization. Although the intellectual and political arguments were complex ones, my impression is that overall, Americans in the military who were better trained in Japanese language and culture (like Hall, who was one of the Navy's Japanese experts) tended to be on the anti-kanji side of the debate. The (pro-kanji) winners of the argument were, I think, basically following MacArthur's general policy of leaving the Japanese governmental bureaucracy largely in place, and letting it decide most things not seen as central to American interests.

The most relevant criticism of the U.S. military's Arabic language training would not, I think, be the quantity or quality of Arabic-language students, but rather a decision made a long before the first Gulf War about what language to teach them. Rather than learning one of the various regional colloquial versions of Arabic, students were only taught Modern Standard Arabic. From a linguistic point of view, that's roughly like teaching people Latin and then sending them to duty stations in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

I was once told by someone at DLI that they used to teach several different "colloquials", but found that the various military branches were not able to keep the differences straight, and would assign someone who had learned Moroccan Arabic to the gulf, or vice versa, so that DLI gave up and went with MSA alone, since that's the standard written form which students need to learn anyhow. According to the website of the DLI's Middle Eastern Schools, they now once again teach Levantine, Egyptian, and Iraqi "dialects", "in the third semester of instruction, after students have gained a solid foundation in MSA".

Anyhow, none of this detracts from the interest of Dingman's history, which I've ordered and look forward to reading.

[Update — there is some interesting and useful discussion at The Volokh Conspiracy.]

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