How the military improved its language education


We may ask why the US sends troops abroad, but the fact is that we do send large numbers into a region about which they have little knowledge and almost no cultural connection. We then ask them to interact safely and efficiently with military and civilian natives. These interactions require varying levels of linguistic, cultural, and interpersonal background. As a foreign language educator, I am fascinated by the evolution of the training materials given to US soldiers and how cultural visual knowledge plays and increasingly important role.

Over the past seven years, the military has noticeably changed how it trains soldiers for these vital kinds of cross-cultural interactions. These "changes in visuality" allow an exemplary look at how visual & cultural literacy has seriously impacted language and cultural training.


The first way instructors train is to rely on a simple visual clue for meaning. This is the equivalent of simple translations. The approach image = word = meaning is effective when it comes to teaching soldiers basic life saving skills in the field while trying to increase their visual perception performance. In the case of IED recognition, nuance is not necessary and soldiers react quickly, based on what they see, to avoid this threat. Images of various IED types are presented for soldiers to study with the basic word association of IED = Death. The training materials also feature severed limbs to show the result of these attacks.

In highlighting cases like these we need to keep in mind the importance of the elementary nature of this survival training. Important vocabulary items were usually handed out on so called "smart cards" or laminated sheets for people to study with a limited amount of material on them. An almost complete reliance on visuals proved to be somewhat effective in the arena of threat recognition. When soldiers face the danger of improvised explosive devices, they need to visually recognize the object immediately. Additionally, they need to quickly identify their target in conditions that may not be optimal. Soldiers are increasingly using technology-mediated visual equipment, for example night vision, and must quickly make decisions based on visual clues alone. Beyond the mere threat recognition strategies associated with visual training of soldiers, a problem with 'enhanced' visual perception devices is the avoidance of fratricide as indicated in this 2008 study.

In the Iraqi and Afghani combat zones, however, the initial war was a precursor to the real war, that of the insurgency. The initial fighting gave way to an occupation involving an insurgency coupled with a civilian population that may or may not be hostile. Soldiers were not only expected to make decisions regarding friend or foe, they were expected to engage locals in close quarters with both weapons and words. The military also relied heavily on these visual training modules to equip their soldiers with linguistic and cultural knowledge.

The classic military phrase book method puts the locals in a clear adversarial position. All the phrases introduced center around providing security for the soldiers and keeping them alive. From that starting point, basic cultural knowledge is introduced including local customs, expressions, and items that one might encounter in the field. Here we see the progressions of two separate training cards for soldiers at two different stages. The second card moves towards authentic photos to instruct the soldiers in basic culture in Iraq, as the stick figure drawings were not providing enough useful information.


Cultural training materials developed from mere tools of threat recognition to models of threat prevention. The method of threat prevention is based on understanding the authentic culture of the area in order to engage the locals in a meaningful way. At Fort Irwin, California, at the National Training Center, the military has constructed Iraqi villages in the desert so soldiers can practice their interactions with locals and insurgents and get the authentic feel for life in Iraq as an occupying force. The documentary film Full Battle Rattle (2008) chronicles soldiers' experiences in this virtual arena where they are expected to engage people through culture and language, not merely through the force of their weapons.

This shift in approach has proven to be effective. Cultural training programs are ongoing and exist for several areas. Cross-cultural competence is "something that we want to bring to the department as a critical piece of training that we think needs to be incorporated into our overall training establishment," said Gail H. McGinn, the deputy undersecretary of defense for plans, during an interview with Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service reporters. This cultural training program has now gone electronic through the program "Tactical Language Series," a type of virtual reality gaming environment designed to teach people visual literacy and cultural knowledge for the geographical and linguistic areas in which they will serve. The company that developed the Tactical Language series, Alelo, Inc, states on their web site:

DARPA The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Program Manager Dr. Ralph Chatham was inspired to start the program after listening to one of the first soldiers who went into Afghanistan in 2002. The captain told how he and his comrades reluctantly rode on tiny ponies into a town, totally relying on their Northern Alliance escorts who only spoke Pashto and some broken Russian and Arabic while the U.S. soldiers only spoke English and some broken Russian and Arabic. When the town's people came out on the streets the soldiers did not know if they were friendly or hostile from their gestures, demeanor and words.

The Tactical Language Series currently has virtual worlds for military personal to learn Iraqi Arabic, Pashto, Dari, and French for North Africa. Here you see examples from the "Tactical Iraqi" October 2009 release. These programs use a hybrid approach to training that employs authentic visuals and mission-based skills. Most importantly, though, cultural competence is taught through virtual engagement with locals. The program teaches soldiers to recognize military insignias of foreign militaries through virtual reality games designed to enhance their visual perception. Most of the training here takes places at a cognitive visual level, so that recall time is enhanced. Soldiers take commands in the local dialect and navigate virtual authentic cities and villages. They learn local customs, gestures, and cultural practices that are meant to help them interact with locals in order to avoid cultural misunderstandings.

This training software resembles the typical first person shooter game many soldiers are familiar with. Unlike a first person shooter game, though, this series does not have the option to pull a gun. In place of weapons one finds culturally-appropriate gestures and an accurate voice recognition system, which allows the learner to interact with virtual Iraqis in Arabic.

The development, implementation, and continued use of this intercultural training approach poses several questions.

What does this teach us about how we learn languages and interact with other cultures? In a short period of time (from an educational-curricular perspective) the military has gone from the old "Hands-up!" phrase book to a complete realization that culture is intrinsically tied to language and that phrases are not enough to engage people. In order to communicate, you must know something about a person. While it may not be a magic bullet for intercultural training, the fundamental design aspects of this educational training tool focus on cultural proficiency and use of the language in an authentic, respectful context.

From the Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) perspective, this training program highlights the fact that images, specifically culturally authentic images are required in this training. When you train absolute beginners, authentic images tie the language to a culturally specific context for use. For too long we have used generic stock photos, clip art, and line drawings for visual clues in multi-media learning environments. Since the greatest source of these images in the US, most of the world's computer based language programs reflect a world view (literally) that shows homes as always having a two car garage, white picket fences, grocery store baggers, and upper middle class citizens. You could say that clip art and stock photos are not representative of any culture. Nevertheless, they remain popular in popular language learning software packages.

In the educational world, we talk of assessment to prove educational effectiveness. In the world of the U.S. Military, assessment of cultural training can be a life and death matter. Therefore it is an interesting example from which we can learn a great deal. Alelo, Inc is developing software for the US Military that is, educationally speaking, pretty advanced and quite effective for elementary learners with little experience in language acquisition. The necessity of that training aside, it is fascinating to see a US military training program that sets out as its premise the need for threat avoidance through cultural understanding and linguistic proficiency. If one looks at the suggested pre-deployment reading list, one will find a great deal about the culture of the area, a shift from the previous approach of phrases and limited cultural information. Since NATO forces will adopt some of these technologies in the near future, specifically the UK and German forces, it is also fascinating to see the US take the lead on language learning.

What is the word for someone who speaks three languages? "Trilingual"
And the word for a speaker of two languages? "Bilingual"
And for one language? "American"

Perhaps the old joke may not be true anymore.

While the lessons of war are often lost on current and future generations of citizens, soldiers, and leaders, I'm hopeful that this method of using authentic media in an effective & prudent manner will be one to reach language educators at all levels of instruction. The media is out there, so let's use it in a better way.


  1. A really interesting and insightful article, thank you!

    Another aspect of using gaming and virtual environments for training is that they provide for endless repeat iterations of scenarios.

    One obvious benefit is that in a virtual recreation the price of failure is just to hit “try again” instead of someone getting shot or blown up.

    But also an immersive environment can give the soldier a more systemic understanding of what particular phrases mean in context — i.e. a simulated marketplace, cafe or mosque.

    Finally, through the role-playing aspects of games and VWs, the soldier can learn what it might be like to be a noncombatant and have foreign soldiers enter your home or business, or even to be “the enemy.”

    Lots of great learning opportunities from these new tools for our troops (and anyone, really.)

  2. I like the little hat and glasses checkboxes in the game screenshot. Odd there’s no shoes box.

  3. I’m very happy to see that the US military is finally starting to realize that it’s at least as important to know how to communicate with people as it is to know how to kill them.

    The bad old days, where soldiers spent weeks learning to shoot, and mere minutes (if that) learning a local word or two seem to be on the way out.

    It doesn’t solve the problem of US military gigantism, but it begins to reduce the harm.

  4. This is more like “Know thy enemy” stuff, because urban warfare is now the norm.

    Can’t tell the players without a program.

  5. As a linguistics student, I find this interesting. They are using state of the art CALL programs to teach communication. However, the language acquisition techniques being employed are from the behaviorist and audio-lingual schools of thought. These methods of language acquisition were scientifically proven to be ineffective in the late 1950s and were buried by language teaching specialists. Language acquisition techniques based on the ideas of Chomsky’s Transformational Generative Grammar and Dell Hymes’ theory of Communicative Competence have been proven to be far more effective. Of course, the Behaviorists have always been more preoccupied with controlling people’s minds and I doubt if military linguists would have bothered to read Chomsky or Hymes.

  6. I’d prefer having monolingual troops, if it meant that they would stop leaving our country to imprison, kill, and torture people outside of our country. I have trouble supporting ways to make illegal and aggressive warfare more efficient and culturally sensitive.

    1. Anon #7 said “I’d prefer having monolingual troops, if it meant that they would stop leaving our country to imprison, kill, and torture people outside of our country. I have trouble supporting ways to make illegal and aggressive warfare more efficient and culturally sensitive.”

      I’d offer to you that the vast majority of soldiers don’t particularly want to be there, and most will never fire their weapon, kill, imprison, or torture anyone.

      I conducted more than 200 dismounted patrols with the Iraqi Army while there, was shot by insurgents, but never fired my weapon outside of the range.

      On the other hand, the more we do to educate young men and women that the world is full of different people with different beliefs and different languages–not better or worse, just different–the better chance they have of seeing Iraqis or Afghanis as people and not just a bunch of religious terrorists waiting to kill them.

      Programs like Tactical Iraqi provide servicemen and women with the skills needed to move beyond the barriers of language and context so they can find ways to build rapport and empathy, not to make war more efficient but to make creating a peace we can live with more efficient so we can come home.

      If we want to be more efficient at killing, then our time is better spent on the range.

  7. It’s extremely interesting to see a whole culture broken down into a cheat sheet.

    Now, where can I find an a card with American culture given a similar treatment. It would be interesting to see how we look to Iraqis.

    1. As an Australian myself, the blatant racism towards Aborigines in that book made me die a little inside. I know given that it was from 1946 I could’ve expected it, but still….

  8. I admit the virtual-world approach is probably the best for domain-specific language/culture acquisition (e.g. for the military).

    In more general-purpose language acquisition, however, I think artificial virtual worlds are very limited. A person’s daily native language communication, such as native language Web pages that he browses, is actually a broader “virtual world” in which the computer can select a native language word and teach its foreign language counterpart from time to time. This is detailed in Section 1.1.1 “Automatic Code-Switching” of my free ebook “Breaking the Language Barrier: A Game-Changing Approach”, .

    In the ebook there is also an obscure yet very effective approach to word memorization, Section “Phonetics-Enhanced English”.

  9. Good thing they’re doing this now, 7 years into the occupation.

    Great Job!

    To be fair, they had only planned to be there 6 weeks.


  10. Say, if a German is reading a German Web page which has this sentence:

    Er ist ein guter Schüler.
    (German for “He is a good student.”)

    a browser add-on can select a word, e.g. “Schüler”, and insert its English counterpart “student” after it, automatically transforming the Web page to:

    Er ist ein guter Schüler (student).

    After several times of such teaching, the computer can directly replace future occurrences of “Schüler” with “student”, to practice the German user’s knowledge of the newly learned English word “student”:

    Er ist ein guter student.

    For more details, see the ebook above.

  11. If you can find it, US military training materials are always the best, no-bullshit stuff around. As the article says, the price of failing to learn something in the military is often death. This price is often emphasised in the material. For example, I’ve seen an old Naval pamphlet explaining grammar basics not as arcane rules, but as a means of clearly communicating so that you don’t die because someone misunderstands what you’re saying. (Eg. “Our patrol the enemy did defeat.”)
    I find the most useful ones are ones that teach everyday skills to people with an uncertain educational background in a hurry. These are things people usually learn slowly through trial-and-error and osmosis; but there’s no time for that in basic training. I learned to properly use a mop and bucket from a US Marine core manual. I’d spent a decade just pushing the dirt around before that.
    On a related note, in University I passed Statistics because I found some English translations of Soviet statistics texts. The old USSR was run on statistics and these things were aimed at teaching things like “moment statistics” to tractor drivers. They had a program whereby they translated all their undergraduate texts to other languages and distributed them from their embassies.

  12. It’s often been said that the U.S. has wars in order to bring culture to the masses. A lot of men who wouldn’t have travelled much outside of the county where they were born got to see the world that way. Looks like more of the same tradition.

    1. There’s nothing harder than attempting to immerse yourself in the very culture you are in the process of destroying.

  13. “We may ask why the US sends troops abroad, but the fact is that we do send large numbers into a region”

    Fun fact, we spend more on our military in Afghanistan in 2 months than the entire GDP of Afghanistan for an entire year.

  14. What’s next, the SS guide to Jewish Culture? This is about the same…seeing AmerKKKan $oldiers learn just enough to operate so they can exterminate the smelly foreigners.

    1. >What’s next, the SS guide to Jewish Culture?

      Didn’t know they are still in business.

  15. As a language teacher I found it fascinating how tightly this material binds content with goal. Unless you’re highly curious (and most of us aren’t) you need to be convinced that new information is worth learning. In this material the military have done exactly that.
    The problem with teachers (speaking as one) is that we assume our love of learning is shared by our students. Most of the time it isn’t. So the trick is to tie the students’ interests to what needs to be learnt: fear of dying works pretty well.
    Mo in Berlin

  16. That thing about the color of the headdresses is nonsense. If anything the all-white headdress is a mark of piety (without the head-band) and would suggest that the person has been on Hajj (if it’s a white headdress without the headband). The pattern headdress does not suggest anything. The black-and-white headdress vs the red-and-white might suggest where the person is from — that’s about it.

  17. That thing about the color of the headdresses is nonsense. If anything the all-white headdress is a mark of piety (without the head-band) and would suggest that the person has been on Hajj (if it’s a white headdress without the headband). The pattern headdress does not suggest anything. The black-and-white headdress vs the red-and-white might suggest where the person is from — that’s about it.

  18. As a linguist and President of the Accent Reduction Institute, which provides language training to the US Department of Defense, I find the relationship between language learning and cultural competency a critical one. Research in the area of socio-linguistics demonstrate that ‘best practices’ for learning a second language include developing a deep cultural understanding of the people who speak that language; the more we learn about an unfamiliar culture and its language speakers, the faster we become proficient in the second language. Part of the neuro-linguistic process of language acquisition depends on experiencing an emotional response, positive or negative, when we first hear a new word or phrase.

    In terms of the military’s approach to achieving operational objectives through linguistic competency, it may be interesting to note that the military is now providing accent comprehension classes as part of pre-deployment training. The goal is to enable servicemen and women to engage in conversation with foreign nationals without having to ask, “Excuse me? What did you say?” To learn more:

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