By Robert R. Greene Sands, CEO of LanguaCulture LLC
A soldier from the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) recently shared with me his frustration about the quality of language and culture training he received before the last couple of his 10-plus deployments to the Middle East.
He had been taught Modern Standard Arabic—even though no one in the region to which he was deployed spoke that language. The people spoke several different languages and dialects, and had numerous cultural differences. And his Arabic instructor—who wasn’t a native of that region and hadn’t visited the area in years—was unable to provide an accurate picture of that culture.
“The people and military we worked with were as different from each other as they were from us,” he told me. “I went in armed with a language that nobody used and a shocking lack of awareness and understanding of the actual cultural landscape.”
The soldier’s experience is not unique in the Department of Defense (DoD), even for those military segments like SOF that deploy into culturally complex areas repeatedly and for long periods. Most of the time, these units are not there to fight an enemy. Typically their mission is to train militaries the U.S. considers partners in the fight against terrorism. So, the soldier’s frustration with the lack of language and cultural preparation was more than understandable.
Educators in the DoD and beyond should provide the kind of language and culture learning that builds a broader cross-cultural capability. Doing so sets up students for success in unique and changing environments. Active use of language and cultural skills, with learning interventions provided as needed, will help students maintain and sharpen competence. Without these opportunities, critical capability erodes over time and eventually serves little advantage in missions.
“Trying to get to and maintain the kind of proficiency needed in language and culture understanding is not possible within the current learning approach,” the soldier told me. “There is little opportunity for sustainment. Often, the soldier does not use the language or culture skills after learning them.”
Over the past decade, I’ve heard similar frustrations and concerns from military and civilian students. My own research and writing about language and culture learning has led me to feel equally frustrated and concerned. In a recent publication, I outlined a vision for SOF language and culture training that incorporates a hybrid and distance learning approach. I proposed that sound instructional design should combine a focus on developing foreign language skills; social and cultural understanding; and competencies in perspective-taking, bias mitigation, and cross-cultural communication.
Sounds like a heavy lift, but research has shown that there is greater efficiency in learning when components of cross-cultural capability are threaded or braided together, rather than learned in parallel. Further, this approach promotes the development of a set of transferable skills and knowledge that are useful across the world at any time—not just in the Middle East.
The DoD is not the only organization that can benefit from an approach that develops cross-cultural capability. Essentially, any government agency (State Department, USAID, Department of Agriculture, etc.) and the vast majority of non-governmental organizations work in the same kind of complexity, often sharing spaces and some aspect of an overall mission with the DoD. International corporations and businesses that work on an international stage and engage in long-term interactions with a host of foreign cultures can also profit from a set of transferable interactional skills and general knowledge about human behavior.
The Department of Education (DoE) has promulgated the concept of “global competence” as an important skill students need to navigate a continually growing interconnectivity of peoples, cultures, marketplaces, and perhaps most importantly, ideas. The DoE has identified specific proficiencies and provided a framework to help K-16 educators meet these goals.
There is palpable synergy between the DoD and DoE efforts to promote global competence along with cross-cultural capability learning programs. Both concepts provide similar critical skills and abilities to engage others who have different worldviews and speak different languages, or both. For the Special Operator, the teacher, or the business executive, it’s critical to “think globally, act locally.” But do so with the right kind of language and culture. And that is the least of our worries.
About Robert R. Greene Sands
Robert R. Greene Sands is CEO of LanguaCulture LLC, an adjunct professor at Norwich University, and CEO and board chair for Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities. He holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Illinois.
Dr. Sands participated in a recent education roundtable hosted by Rosetta Stone. Watch the live stream of “Advocating for Change: Connecting Our Nation Through Language.”