“It would have saved lives” : The Importance of Language Training in International Strategic Missions (Part 1 of 2)

Lieutenant Colonel Justin Holt has been in the Royal Marines for over 25 years, throughout which he has held a variety of command and staff positions. He has deployed on operations numerous times throughout that period, the majority of which have been in the Middle East area. His first deployment was in 1988 in the Persian Gulf, then in 1991 in northern Iraq with the Kurds, followed by two years in Northern Ireland, toured twice in Oman – the second occasion being in 2001, after 9/11 – as a springboard to go to Afghanistan, for the first of two deployments and lead the British contingent of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Aside from these command positions he has been engaged in the policy field of the Ministry of Defence in the International Policy Plans section, where UK security policy is devised with colleagues from the Foreign Office and Department for International Development.

 

You have spent a large part of your overseas military operations in Arabic- speaking countries, so did you receive any training in Arabic language at any point?

It is indeed across the Middle East and North Africa that I have – not by design, but by circumstance – spent most of my time both in command and staff roles. Work in the policy field is organized regionally, so from mid-2011 I was responsible for North Africa, covering from Libya around to Mauritania, including Tunisia, Morocco and Western Sahara. The Arab Spring had just made the area quite a topical and interesting place, so Libya took up most of my focus, although not to the detriment of the other countries.

Much to my shame I’ve never been formally taught any language in the military. We collectively know that one of the great weaknesses in the Armed Forces is that we don’t invest enough time, effort and energy into training and giving people the required language skills in order to perform their tasks more effectively. Having invaded Iraq twice and been responsible for policy across North Africa, I still know very little Arabic and have no proof of my level in the language and know no Pashtu, either.

 

We clearly need a solution for scalable, widespread language training, then. Why is English language learning so important to the Ministry of Defence and what methods have you tried out?

Accepting that we are very poor at learning foreign languages, when I got involved with Libya it became very clear that the demand for English training is enormous. This extends in part from the fact that English was stopped from being taught in schools in 1986 after the Tripoli bombings by the US on Operation El Dorado Canyon. That’s almost one and a half generations who have had no formal instruction in English and yet the world has moved on, and with interconnectivity and the Internet, these people really want to learn English, whether it’s for commerce, education or communication, as it’s the lingua franca above any other European language. When we started getting involved in Libya our intention was to help with reform – defence, police, judiciary – all across the security sector. There were colleagues of mine working in education and health, but whichever way you turned, the barrier was the language as the language deficit was enormous. Therefore all our intent came to nothing, as we just couldn’t surmount this huge language barrier, so we looked at ways to try and resolve this.

What capacity did we have to help people learn English? The existing models were completely inadequate for the scale and size of the problem: there was the British Council, traditionally known as the custodians of exporting English language – we approached them, but they can only deal in very small numbers, so my experience in dealing with the British Council is that I found them pretty inaccessible and unaffordable to the average person. We looked at bringing students over here, and that was fraught with lots of bureaucratic red tape about visas and again the numbers were even smaller than trying to teach them in their country. I can’t say it was any form of success; in fact it was an unmitigated disaster, taking them out of their country and putting them into a foreign culture very alien from their own and expecting them to learn. A lot of these people not only had had no English language training, but they had also had very little formal education so this was an eye opener, plus the cultural differences. When those two were added together, students went feral or we lost them – they were, I think, overwhelmed by western culture and it was just not conducive to serious learning to bring people over here, so the expense, made up of public money, was wasted, the effort was wasted and we all learnt a hard lesson that it’s not a model we would pursue ever again. So we really had no success in either teaching them in the UK or teaching them in their own country.

We looked then at the private sector [in-country] and to me it was scandalous, actually, as the courses being offered by companies that set themselves up as being providers of English language training would not stand up to any form of quality assurance or quality control or scrutiny. They couldn’t even spell the name of their school correctly so it was slightly indicative of the quality and that they were there to make money – they knew the market was enormous, and it was again unaffordable and inaccessible. At least with the British Council there was some guarantee of quality but these cowboy English language providers were something we couldn’t touch, which left us in a real quandary. Then the costs of bringing expat teachers to Libya were prohibitive, the risks were enormous and no sooner had they come out than people would have to be evacuated in that sort of post-conflict environment. Therefore we had to think of a completely new model and start with a blank sheet of paper; how could we roll this out on an industrial scale and make it affordable, scalable and deliverable by non-expatriate teachers in the country of origin? So this is how the UK Ministry of Defence became involved with Dr Ralby, who went away and worked on this problem for us and came back with a proposed package [ELT Tiger] that we simply had to trial.

 

What was your experience of ELT Tiger?

The trial was designed so that we had three test groups, with the students being vetted and then randomly allocated to one of those groups. Oversight of the trial was done by our own internal MoD training authority which is an organisation called DOLSU (Defence and Operation Language Support Unit), the custodian of standards. We asked if they would do the trial design and trial oversight for this and the control group was provided by the British Council with quite a seasoned instructor in Libya, who took one class, Dr Ralby taught his class and then we selected a local Libyan national called Yusuf, who taught the third class. He was given some training, which only took about a week, and then the trial started. In terms of trial design, all students were in-tested so their standard was checked at the beginning and their amount of progress was checked again at the end of the 13 weeks. There were to be some mid-course interviews by the trial overseer but due to the security situation they couldn’t be right in the middle of the trial, unfortunately, so they were slipped to week 10, but actually that produced some interesting results in itself. The trial started and it was best effort with 13 weeks, ‘best effort’ being in the context of a really difficult security situation, with kidnappings, shootings and bombings as well as electricity shutdowns and petrol shortages and so forth going on. Nonetheless, everybody persevered, although we did lose some individuals who weren’t able to continue with the course, so where we ideally wanted a sample size of 15 per group it was reduced to about ten or 11 which was a shame, but was not a result of natural wastage, rather a difficult environment. For the mid-trial interviews we still managed to get the overseer out, and he conducted one-on-one interviews and assessments, which enabled us to provide a second form of assessment in addition to the Aptis online test which is the methodology used by the British Council.

We got to the end, a report was written and what was hugely pleasing for us at the MoD was that the first prototype of this [ELT Tiger] methodology had outperformed the British Council, who had been doing this for years. The margin was small, but we could show that it was at least as effective as the British Council and I furthermore know that the course that Dr Ralby had produced has evolved and has improved, so from already being over the bar at the first attempt, with the lessons learnt and everything incorporated back in, I would be very surprised if that margin wouldn’t increase at further trials. That was hugely encouraging and what was more encouraging was that with our requirement for the use of a Libyan national, Yusuf got the best score of all. He was not over-qualified, he did not have a PhD in Linguistics, or an MA or MSc, or a PGC in English-language teaching as the British Council teacher did, so in terms of cost, that makes a significant difference in employing a local national. Overall, the total ELT Tiger programme costs were somewhere between a half and nearly two-thirds less than the British Council course, so it was really pleasing for us and that has allowed us to look at this in terms of operationalizing and exporting English language training for the Defence but also for Her Majesty’s Government. The direction is very clear for/from the Prime Minister: we must do more defence engagement and one of the key weapons in our armoury is the English language, so now we have the methodology to do that.

 

What are other important factors in the scalability of a language programme?

I am certain the model we wish to roll out will depend on local teachers, whose quality we will have to check on, so there is a process whereby stage 1 will be to select the teachers. We would then like to bring them to the UK to the Defence Cultural and Language Centre (DCLC) , as we would like to get them CELTA-qualified as a basis and then we will train them as ELT Tiger facilitators/ deliverers, before sending them back to their own countries fully trained. The qualification they will gain is really important to the population of the countries we’re working with, as they like having the internationally recognized qualifications that we can give them, as well as the branding through the Defence Academy of the UK with the DCLC a part of that academy. We would give them all the tools that they need to go back and deliver the programme, so when that relationship is formed, there’s the reach-back as well, meaning that should they ever require any assistance or support, they can come back to the DCLC or to Dr Ralby so that we can ensure they are not left on their own.

 

How can we measure the importance of English language training in the effects it has on the outcomes of strategic missions?

Our strategic mission in Libya was to try to improve the security, justice and defence sector in order to introduce the required stability for growth there and in every one of those sectors we just couldn’t break the language barrier, so to us language training is the key enabler for us to make a difference, to introduce stability or to help countries through a period of transition by giving them the technical help and advice across that sector. We’ve got to be able to communicate in order to do this and English is the language that gives the local people access to all the courses and professional training we can offer them, whether it’s in leadership or management on the military side, International Humanitarian law, rules of engagement – those kinds of ethical issues – and again on the policing side it’s forensics, protection of evidence, Human Rights law in terms of the trail for evidence and looking at the care for prisoners going into their system: it simply touches on everything. It is the one common thread we cannot ignore and that’s even before I touch on commerce or the private sector, education, trade, health… all these are areas of huge interest to us, and we can give them all this technical training, for instance, for doctors, nurses, midwives and so on, but they can only access it through English.

 

Do you think it is important to measure the effects of English language training statistically and is it indeed possible to do so in terms of the time and cost of operations where English is already a common language versus when interpreters are required and so on?

I’m not sure these effects can be measured statistically, but I certainly feel viscerally that the benefits are immeasurable. We’ve spent nearly ten years in Afghanistan struggling with the language barrier, and similarly in Iraq, the misunderstandings, the delays, the problems… I don’t think you could get your head around the problems that language barriers create, particularly in complex humanitarian and security situations. It’s just all really difficult, as we don’t tend to go to countries where English is the common language, unfortunately! Where we have invested in foreign officers who have learnt English and then come over to move through the UK education system, then are subsequently in positions where they can exercise authority, control and influence, those relationships are just so valuable that we really feel we have that rapport, that common ground and that we can make real tangible changes and differences. That is absolutely why we are doing more defence engagement to identify tomorrow’s leaders and to help train and prepare them to go back to where they’ve come from, in order to make a difference.