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Improving linguistic interoperability

Mark Crossey considers the importance of language policy at NATO and its effects on interoperability based on the experience of Central and Eastern European countries.

Back to school: Visitors to the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia, cannot fail to be impressed (© Baltic Defence College)

Since the end of the Cold War, foreign language training - especially the learning of English, the de facto operational language - has become increasingly important within armed forces. This is especially the case at NATO due to an ever-increasing number of peace-support operations, on the one hand, and the Alliance's enlargement and partnership activities, on the other. Language skills - in both Allied and Partner countries - are primarily a national responsibility. However, language training must be of concern to NATO as a whole since linguistic interoperability is as important to ensuring that countries are able to participate effectively in both NATO missions and wider Alliance activities as any other form of interoperability.

While soldiers in all Allied armed forces benefit from language training, the need has been particularly acute in former Warsaw Pact countries where historically people and soldiers had not had the same opportunities to learn and practise English as in Western Europe. As a result, organisations such as the US Defense Language Institute, and my own, the British Council, through its Peacekeeping English Project, have been working to help improve English language skills in prospective member states and Partner countries since the mid-1990s.

The challenges such organisations have encountered in Central and Eastern Europe stem from the low base that many soldiers in these countries are starting from. Moreover, the situation has often been compounded by a "top-heavy" approach to training, inherited from Soviet era military philosophy, whereby investment is focused on senior officers at the expense of their non-commissioned colleagues.

For understandable reasons, it proved difficult for defence ministry training departments to change this way of thinking at the dramatic pace required by NATO. As a result, individuals at an advanced stage of their careers were often expected to acquire a completely new and difficult skill in an unrealistic space of time. Many were sent on lengthy and expensive language courses, some lasting as long as two years, away from their posts. However, due to their age, progress was often slow and disappointing for sponsors. Moreover, the reform of language testing in these countries led to political problems. Whereas in the "old days" language tests, especially for senior officers, were considered little more than a formality, the process became increasingly rigorous. Indeed, in some cases, senior generals were entered into NATO's English language Standardisation Agreement or so-called "STANAG" examinations only to fail.

To be fair, a number of senior officers also made remarkable progress in English, some of whom have since risen to become chiefs of staff. Nevertheless, in retrospect, the emphasis on providing language training to senior officers proved doubly counter-productive as a result of the large-scale downsizing that was taking place at the same time. Indeed, because the officer corps was usually disproportionately large in Warsaw Pact militaries, many of the same individuals who benefited from language training were subsequently made redundant.

There have also been other problems. In some instances, foreign language requirements for posts have been set without sufficient research. This has led to problems, such as high-profile posts being filled by senior staff with poor language skills, or conversely, difficulties in filling posts with unrealistically high linguistic requirements. Moreover, this has directly contributed to the demoralisation and haemorrhaging of quality personnel in several NATO accession states.

A further problem is that of different understanding of what represents a "professional" level of foreign language knowledge. This is compounded by cultural differences in language testing, leading to great difficulties in agreeing on whose language skills are "good enough" for a particular post, along with some stereotyping of nations seen as presenting candidates with inferior linguistic abilities. In some countries, reliance on certificates issued several years earlier rather than testing immediately prior to departure exacerbates the situation. In a handful of Partner countries, there is also a shortage of competent foreign language teachers, usually the result of insufficient funding to attract better-qualified staff.

Peace-support operations

The need for effective communication is particularly acute in peace-support operations where linguistic misunderstandings risk leading to mistakes, which might, in a worst-case scenario, result in casualties. To date, it seems that language difficulties have contributed to putting soldiers in embarrassing and even dangerous situations, but have not actually been the cause of any casualties. This should not, however, be viewed as a reason for complacency.

While the language skills of deployed forces in peace-support operations are generally sufficient for the tasks they face, several countries have reported experiencing difficulties in contributing sufficient linguistic expertise to operate to maximum efficiency. The situation appears most serious in those peace-support operations that are staffed by a large proportion of more senior officers who have struggled to get to grips with English. Moreover, in cases where more senior officers are having difficulties operating in English, the situation is usually much worse in the lower ranks where some non-commissioned officers may have had no formal English training.

Another difficulty frequently encountered by non-native speakers of English on peace-support operations is that posed by the strong regional accents of many of the native speakers with whom they work. Indeed, many report experiencing greater problems understanding the English of native speakers than of non-native speakers, complaining that native speakers are never trained to modify their speech when talking with their non-native peers. In other words, native speakers rarely recognise that the common working language in peace-support operations is international English, as opposed to their own version of the language.

As part of its Peacekeeping English Project, the British Council conducted some research among staff posted to various NATO headquarters. Since the number of people involved was comparatively small, the results are by no means definitive and only amount to impressions. Nevertheless, they seem to indicate that delegations made up of non-native speakers may be disadvantaged because of their perceived lack of language skills.

Disadvantages are manifested in a variety of ways. In some instances, when working groups are formed to deal with important assignments or when complex tasks are assigned to individuals, preference may be given to native speakers. In this way, non-native speakers may effectively find themselves cut out of key processes. In other instances, senior non-native speakers may pass on inferior-quality work carried out in English by junior staff within their delegations without fully understanding it, thereby effectively lowering the esteem of non-native speakers in the eyes of native speakers. Native speakers may also for linguistic reasons be the preferred first point of contact in an office, unwittingly creating an impression of "cultural discrimination" and undermining the sense of self-worth of non-native speakers. The political implications of this situation are clear. Perceived weakness in English may directly reduce the influence of national delegations.

The need for effective communication is particularly acute in peace-support operations where linguistic misunderstandings risk leading to casualties

One reason for the apparent linguistic shortfall appears to be the lack of relevance of the type of language taught in country prior to posting. For example, while many military English courses emphasise a particular form of English, whether "Standard American English" or "Standard British English", the reality on many postings is that most business is connected with other non-native speakers of the language. This language does differ and could loosely be described as "International Professional English".

Another example of this gap between classroom and target language use is the persistent tendency in some countries to teach a rather academic form of English. This is especially the case when it comes to writing. British Council research has shown that most writing at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), for example, consists of short texts such as memos, notes and brief emails. However, some language programmes have failed students at the end of courses for being unable to compose detailed and lengthy essays. Perceptions of what should constitute "Military English" sometimes appear problematic. Although the language requirements observed at SHAPE appear very similar to what is traditionally defined as "Business English", that is writing brief letters, using the telephone and arranging meetings, this reality is still often not sufficiently reflected in course design. Although the situation is currently improving as a result of the introduction of well-researched new Military English course books, a rather stereotyped idea of what constitutes "Military English" prevails in some quarters.


While language-policy issues have been traumatic for many defence ministries, a huge amount has, nevertheless, been achieved in this field in a short period of time. This is largely because language learning has been viewed as critical to NATO integration in all accession countries and accordingly made a priority. In this way, there has been a steady improvement over the years in the standard of both English teaching and soldiers' language skills. In some countries, highly effective language-training structures have been created which are now well resourced and leaders in terms of military courses and teaching standards. Visitors to, for example, the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia, or the Polish Naval Academy at Gdynia cannot fail to be impressed. Moreover, a Military English course run by NATO, together with the British Council's Peacekeeping English Project, has seen trainers from countries such as Lithuania successfully train personnel from countries such as Sweden and France. Indeed, where problems in the new member states remain, they tend to reflect wider issues related to the transformation from Warsaw Pact to NATO-style militaries.

Most international research into military foreign language learning has been focused on NATO accession and PfP countries. However, there is no clear-cut "East-West divide" in this field and many older Allies report experiencing similar difficulties in identifying, training and retaining soldiers with relevant language skills for international assignments. As a result, more needs to be done if the linguistic basis for interoperability is to become an effective reality, as opposed to a hit-and-miss addition to preparations for peace-support operations and NATO postings.

Despite the importance of linguistic interoperability, little NATO-wide research has been carried out into actual language used on missions and current shortfalls. While there are obvious sensitivities involved, the attitude that this cannot be looked at because it is "political" or "cultural" is not helpful. Countries clearly have differing capabilities to resolve language problems for historical, cultural, financial and even geographical reasons. But the problems have to be addressed because they have a direct impact on a nation's influence within the Alliance and/or the Partnership for Peace programme and therefore the political profile of the organisation.

Much work in the standardisation of language testing has been undertaken by individual countries, with the assistance of agencies such as the Defense Language Institute, the British Council Peacekeeping English Project and the Bureau for International Language Cooperation, NATO's body for language training policy. Moreover, much can be learned from the experience of new Allies, accession countries and PfP members. For example, the language-testing teams of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia in the Caucasus have been cooperating on the piloting of tests in each other's countries, as well as coming to a common understanding of levels of English, based on NATO's STANAG, and the kind of language that should be taught. These countries have also understood that candidates for international postings must be tested immediately prior to departure, as opposed to relying on certificates issued in some cases several years earlier.

Defence ministries have a vested interest in ensuring that the soldiers they second to represent their countries in Alliance bodies and NATO-led operations have all the necessary skills, including effective language skills, for the task they have been assigned. But to achieve this, they would benefit from additional Alliance-wide guidance concerning requirements and best practices. A thorough and coordinated review of all aspects of language-training policy, with the participation and understanding of all concerned states, is essential for NATO to deal with the problems stemming from this issue. If the Alliance fails to undertake this task, the organisation will face increasing problems of interoperability as it strives to reinvent itself to address the security challenges of the 21st century. It also risks unnecessarily generating frustration and resentment at its core as a result of perceived "cultural discrimination", which may in reality be simply a question of language.

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