Bilingual Jobs: Inside The U.S. Military’s Intensive Language Program

A U.S. Marine gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how service members are tested for and taught new languages, and how they use them in the field.
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Bilingual Jobs: Inside The U.S. Military’s Intensive Language Program

When you think about bilingual career opportunities, military service might not be one of the first options to come to mind. But the United States Armed Services has one of the most comprehensive language programs out there and a surprisingly creative way of determining which service members should pursue linguistics jobs.

Considering the amount of work the armed forces conduct overseas, it makes sense that they would have a robust way of teaching foreign languages. We spoke with Christian Westleigh, a cryptologic linguist for the U.S. Marine Corps, to get an inside look at how the military recruits and trains its polyglots.

“A Really Cool Test”

Westleigh grew up in a small city in Maine. Besides taking some French classes in high school, he had very limited exposure to foreign languages, and didn’t expect to join the military either. But a combination of post-9/11 world events and a desire to delay starting college led Westleigh to meet with a recruiter, and he joined the Marines in 2003.

Anyone who wants to join the U.S. military has to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a standardized test that determines how qualified new service members are for specialized positions. Westleigh scored high on the ASVAB, so his recruiter asked him if he wanted to take another test, the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, to gauge his natural linguistic abilities.

“It’s a really cool test, actually,” Westleigh said. “It’s not based on whether you know any foreign languages. It’s a completely made up language that they use.”

The goal of the DLAB is to measure a service member’s ability to understand grammar, sentence structure and other components of language. Westleigh did well on this test too, and was assigned to the role of cryptologic linguist.

The Assignment

After completing Marine Corps boot camp and combat training, the next step was for Westleigh to find out which language he’d be tasked with learning. So he set off for the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

He arrived with a few other recent recruits and was asked to list the languages he’d most like to learn, with options that included Arabic and Korean. Shortly after, he was told he’d be learning Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian — none of which were on his short list. (Note: though they are technically considered separate languages, many linguists say they are actually mutually intelligible variations of the same language.)

“I didn’t even know Serbian/Croatian was an option, nor would I have probably thought about it, because this is a few years after the big Bosnian conflict that was happening in the late ’90s,” Westleigh explained.

Languages are assigned based on military need. Often, it’ll be languages spoken where ongoing conflicts are occuring. But even in non-active zones, service members have to be trained in the local language in order to respond quickly if tensions arise, as well as to perform routine intelligence gathering.

In the military, languages are ranked in categories by how difficult they are to learn. Category I languages, like Spanish and French, are the easiest to learn; category II is a little harder, like German; and category III is harder still and includes Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. Category IV languages are the most difficult to learn and include languages like Arabic and Mandarin Chinese. The categories correspond to specific course lengths in order to reach the level of proficiency required for military service. Category I and II languages take 36 weeks to learn, category III languages take 48, and category IV languages take 64.

Total Immersion

Westleigh was locked in for a year of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian classes at the Defense Language Institute, and the program was rigorous, to say the least.

“It’s five days a week, eight-hour days,” Westleigh said. “You do all your other military stuff before or after school. You have homework every single day. So you’re probably putting in a good nine to 10 hours of language-related work every day, five days a week.”

And these aren’t your average high school language classes. They’re all-encompassing and extremely in-depth, covering reading, writing, listening and speaking the language.

“They also integrated learning about the actual culture and the countries of the languages that you were learning,” Westleigh said. “It helps to understand the cultural aspect of things, especially the further away from our normal American westernized version of thinking things work.”

The final week or two of his year at the Defense Language Institute, Westleigh said things got even more intense. It was called “full immersion training,” and all of the students of a particular language and their teachers would live together in a hotel of sorts on base. They weren’t allowed to speak English the entire time.

“It’s just communicating and living [in the language],” Westleigh said. “You have little events, you cook, so it’s as close as you can come to full immersion without actually having to go to any country.”

The Real World

Upon completion of their Defense Language Institute courses, Westleigh and his classmates were tested on their reading, writing and speaking ability in their new language. To make sure they were keeping up with the language, they were re-tested in reading and writing every two years for the remainder of their military service.

Cryptologic linguists work in signals intelligence — intercepting and analyzing communications between people or electronic signals, whether they be from radio transmissions, phone calls, wireless internet communications, electronic weapons systems or anything else — and specifically in gathering and interpreting communications in other languages.

Despite spending a year mastering Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, Westleigh was deployed to Iraq. Twice.

“I was on a team of individuals who were mostly made up of linguists,” Westleigh said. “One year, it was myself, two Russian linguists and two Arabic linguists. [The Arabic linguists] were doing the general listening and translating of things, but everybody is trained in the job of collecting and or disseminating the information as needed, and then sending it back to the analysts, who would be doing longer-term analysis of any intelligence collected.”

So Westleigh was using his skills in intelligence gathering, but what about the language he’d worked so hard to learn?

“I talked to some Serbian truck drivers I met in Iraq,” he said, with a laugh. “But that was the extent of using it for my job.”

Additionally, Westleigh remembered his language skills coming in handy when he traveled to Croatia with a few friends.

“There’s not that language barrier,” Westleigh said. “It’s nice to be able to interact with [the locals] without them having to default to something that maybe they aren’t as comfortable with.”

Back To Civilian Life

Westleigh left the military in 2008. He never really got to use his language skills for work, but the time he spent at the Defense Language Institute wasn’t entirely wasted. His interest in language learning had been piqued, and he chose to study more at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in part because of their extensive and well-known language program. He studied Spanish there and said his previous language-learning experience helped him in this new endeavor.

“Learning another language was definitely a little bit easier, already having those rules and how they work in your head. And of course, the grammatical structure of Spanish is so much simpler than any of the Slavic languages,” Westleigh explained.

He added that he learned a lot about English grammar through his Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian studies.

Westleigh currently works in law enforcement, serving as a lieutenant for the Federal Reserve, and his division is exploring language-learning options for its employees. He’s not sure what his future career path looks like, but if language is involved, he’ll certainly have a leg up.

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