“It would have saved lives” : The Importance of Language Training in International Strategic Missions (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second of two parts of an interview with Lt Colonel Justin Holt of the Royal Marines. For part I, please click here.

Do you feel in your own experience overseas that language training could have made your role easier and enabled things to run more smoothly?

It would have saved lives, saved money, saved on everything. If I use the example of Libya again, we were in an absolute race against time before it collapsed, and in the end, it did collapse. Had we been able to be more effective out there in stabilizing the country after the revolution, I don’t think we would be in the situation we are in today. To have been more effective, we would have needed to communicate, but we just had that barrier and for two years we struggled and the situation deteriorated to the point of collapse. I just wish we could have made a greater impact sooner and met the expectations of the population and helped the Libyan government, ministries and bureaucracies stand on their own two feet. There was also a capacity issue of how much advice they could absorb but it was the language barrier that stymied everything.

What is your vision for the spread of language training in both the UK and foreign militaries and security forces?

There are two parts to this answer and the first is that we have simply got to get better at learning foreign languages, compressing the time it takes and being much more efficient about it. What I have seen from [Linguisticator’s] Core Course on how to learn a language is that it enables people to acquire a language far more efficiently. So that’s one side of it, it’s us meeting people half way in terms of breaking the language barrier down.

The other side of it is investing in the training: train the trainer. Train those individuals who can then go back to their own country and teach English to a standard that we think brings them to a point where they have all the basics and only when we think they have got to that level, we can invest in them and bring them to this country. In this way we de-risk them going feral or AWOL as we have seen that they have shown the right attitude, the attendance and the application to get to a basic level, so by demonstrating that level of commitment, to us means we will return the investment and bring them here for the much needed technical training that they require. So it’s very much two-pronged.

In terms of scale, teaching and exporting the English language in a systematic, methodical way where we can maintain the standard and quality is how we will do more defence engagement in the future. We are looking ahead to the elections in 2015 and then there will be another Security and Defence review of overseas defence engagement, which will be one of the key tenants of that and within that tenant, will be exporting English language.

Regarding questions of how languages are currently taught in the military, do you believe the problems are mainly associated with scalability or do specific syllabi also come into it? For example, the use of programmes lacking specialist military vocabulary and dialect training, for example, teaching standard Arabic instead of the local Libyan dialect of Arabic that is so very different?

I have a lot of scar tissue from my experience of delving into this subject because I’m not a linguist, nor am I an academic, and when I started putting my nose into this area I got a lot of resistance, particularly on the issue of efficiency. When I challenged one university on how efficient their course was, the response I got was that they were not trying to train their students to speak English, but rather to give them a cultural experience, which was certainly not what we were paying them for. Again, speaking to the British Council, I thought they were rather elitist and were only accessible to a privileged elite in the societies and countries that they operated in, which was not the mass of the population that we were trying to assist, so I’ve been utterly, thoroughly underwhelmed with the service providers – whether they are public or private – of English language training. In terms of efficiency, quality, sincerity and integrity I think they have all failed by any measure that we would wish to use within the UK Defence training arena, so I am hugely optimistic that with ELT Tiger we have now come up with a better product that can be operationalized and scaled, and that we can absolutely obtain that kite mark of quality that we would wish to put our name to.

I see it slightly like an onion in that at the core of [ELT Tiger’s programme] there is the irreducible distillation of a language that you’ve just got to learn and when you can see it laid out in front of you and conceptualized – to see exactly how big this task is – it makes it easier. Through the silk language maps, every pattern and construct of a language is laid out in front of anyone who is going to embark on this, so they just have to learn it and repeat it and review it and absorb it to the point where they have mastered the key elements of that language and then beyond that it’s just building vocabulary. In some cases we only need, say, a Libyan sergeant to understand a Scottish sergeant when he says ‘switch fire left’ , so he wouldn’t particularly need to read or write, rather just to understand when he is given an order or instruction when we’re training them. If we’re training a young officer to be an Air Force or maybe even an Army Officer, clearly he needs written, listening, reading and speaking skills. Within the army there’s always another layer of technical proficiency, right up to surgeon or air traffic controller, ship’s captain or aircraft pilot, but it all starts with each individual absolutely getting the basics, and the essence of the language, which is, I think, where [ELT Tiger’s] advantage is over everything I’ve seen. There’s no silver bullet; it’s just understanding those concepts in your own native tongue, which I think makes it unique but it also gives learners the best chance of succeeding.

It’s incredibly important to be training foreign forces in English language, but is it just as important that UK and US militaries learn Arabic, now maybe more than ever, as we are faced with the spreading threat of ISIS?

I think when we’re working in a coalition which involves a number of Arab countries, having those language skills would undoubtedly improve and make that coalition more efficient, but also bind it more closely in terms of those important personal relationships. Could it prevent entities like ISIS and their concept? I’m sure we could understand their methods much better but I still don’t think we could agree with them or share those values, but in terms of what we’re trying to do to counter those threats, then absolutely: learning Arabic when you’re working with a coalition of Arab states will be important and if we ever get involved with re-training the Iraqi army or the Kurdistan militias, then yes, it’s building relationships, rapport and understanding which make the whole thing more efficient and so it hopefully could be resolved sooner.

Every crisis has got to have a political solution. Unless ISIS can be beaten militarily, which doesn’t really happen anymore, we have to work on some political resolution – whether it’s with the Assad regime, the Iranians or any other regional partner – mediation and resolution will be via the spoken or written word in whichever language is chosen.

What is your personal understanding of what it is to be ‘fluent’ in a language and do you believe there is a different definition of this depending on whether it’s applied to a civilian or military context?

I’d be delighted if I could order a couple of beers in a bar and travel through a country, meeting and exchanging pleasantries with people to get some sort of a sense of their lives, so I don’t think my own ambitions are particularly high. It goes beyond survival to having culturally interesting interactions, which would be my personal goal. In a military sense it depends on the skillset we’re working to, and there are lots of different levels of that, as I described before – whether it’s a sergeant or a young officer, or a pilot or a ship’s captain. That exchange of information and technical know-how will depend on your language fluency and will be scaled according to requirement. Fluency for me, then, depends on requirement; if you define the level that you need and get to that level, that is ‘fluency’ for the task required, and anything above that is a bonus. I think we must be realistic about efficiency: there’s no point in over-training somebody, and there’s clearly no point in under-training them; we need to find out what the requirement is, then it becomes a transactional relationship with that person, in that we want them to get to a certain stage, so that then they can access this other training. You work with them to attain that entry level, then they can go on to do whatever additional, specialist or technical training that we would like them to have, so it’s a big investment in them and the transactional part is that they understand that that investment is being made in them. It’s good for their self-worth, their futures and careers, but we don’t need to overshoot and over-train them, we just need to get them to the point where they can quickly and efficiently access the additional training they need. In terms of reaching the intended learning outcomes according to the DSAT (Defence Systems Approach to Training), we have to be quite rigorous in what we are trying to teach people, how we do it and to what level we do it. When we do that analysis we can come up with some requirements and adjust our teaching methods and the amount of teaching time we need to reach the intended learning outcome, as it is very systematic and it’s because training is expensive and it is public money so we don’t want to over-train or under-train anybody. We have to be sure that the training meets the intended outcome because it could be a matter of life or death.