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Many linguists are not up to par, Army says

WASHINGTON — A quarter of U.S. Army linguists are not considered proficient in their primary assigned languages, which could hinder translation for everything from intelligence to interviewing prisoners of war.

And the Army also is concerned about poor recruiting for speakers of Arabic, Farsi and Korean to help in two of the most likely theaters of war.

That is according to a report obtained by the Deseret News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Army Audit Agency studied 23 linguistic units nationwide in the active Army, the Army Reserve and the National Guard.

It concluded in a June 12 report that the Pentagon just cleared for release to the Deseret News that only 23 percent of the linguists met minimum proficiency standards. "As a result, they may not be able to fully support foreign-language missions" it said.

Among the many units it reviewed was the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade of the National Guard, which has its headquarters in Salt Lake City. It includes six battalions: two in Utah, and one each in California, Florida, Washington and Louisiana.

A spokesman for the 300th, Maj. Russell Long, said proficiency percentages for the Utah units are somewhat better than the national average: only 18 percent did not achieve minimum proficiency standards in their primary languages.

The report listed many reasons the situation nationally is not better. They include that a large number of National Guard and Army Reserve members are assigned to "category III and IV" languages that are difficult to learn and maintain on a part-time basis. They include Russian, Japanese, Arabic and Korean.

"Reserve component personnel state that the amount of training linguists received on their drill weekends wasn't enough to maintain their foreign language skills," the report said.

It added that few financial incentives exist for them to train hard on their own time. Proficiency incentive pay had only been about $13 a month until recently, when it was raised to $40.

Long, when discussing Utah unit scores, added that the Army is in the process of converting emphasis from languages needed during the Cold War — such as Russian — to languages needed more from emerging threats, such as Arabic, Farsi and Korean.

So, he said, some linguists who may have been assigned in the past to a "Cold War" language are trying to learn a new " emerging threat" language, which may account for some of the low proficiency levels.

The report also said another reason for low performance levels is that many linguists were not taking the Defense Language Proficiency Test annually as required. So some units let members' skill slide unknowingly. When low tests scores are received, linguists must take remedial training and be tested every six months.

The report said that National Guard linguists who failed to raise scores even after such remedial work were never removed from their positions because of murky guidelines from the Army. The report called for such people to be removed from language-dependent positions, and Army management agreed.

The report also raised concerns about recruiting to fill the Army's linguistic needs and efforts to retain soldiers.

"The Army continues to have problems recruiting individuals into military intelligence language-dependent positions," it said, with some types of linguistic positions attracting only 18 percent of their overall goal numbers in 2000, for example.

It noted the Army had hired special recruiters called "language advocate" to help attract people who spoke especially needed languages, such as Arabic and Korean.

But the report complained that most of them weren't located in high-density ethnic areas.

For example, it said that two of the eight special recruiters available in 2000 were based in Las Vegas. The report noted, "Less than 1.5 percent of the U.S. Arabic and Korean population resided in Nevada."

It added, "Since California, New York and Michigan have the largest concentration of Arabic and Koreans, they appear to provide the greatest opportunity to recruit Arabic and Korean speakers. Yet, there weren't any advocates located in any of these states."

The report also noted that other reports showed that 49 percent of recruits attracted by the language advocates spoke Spanish, and only 5 to 14 percent spoke Korean and Arabic.

The Army said in written comments with the report that it planned to send more language advocates to areas with large ethnic populations to help with recruiting.

The Army also raised concerns about sometimes low retention rates. For example, only 45 percent of active Army linguists up for their first reenlistment were retained. Retention rates for linguists in the Army Reserve are 71 percent, and 80 percent in the National Guard.

The report said commanders attribute low retention rates to low reenlistment bonuses for linguists, compared to other specialties, and for competition for their skills from private industry.

It said retention in the National Guard was down from goals in part because of "increased deployment," and reluctance of some soldiers to attend school to keep up skills or learn new languages.

Because of low retention, the report also looked at the feasibility of the Army contracting with outside firms for translating services. It said the decreasing numbers of qualified linguists mean the Army must look at that option.