Our blog this time around is from a familiar author, MAJ Terron Wharton, who wrote a four part series for us last summer on the overlooked mentors: Establishing CharacterGrowing Platoon Leader CompetenceDeveloping a Commander’s Judgement and Tying It All Together. He’s also the author of a novel entitled High-Risk Soldier: Trauma and Triumph in the Global War on Terror, available on Amazon. This time around he presents us with a quick two-part series on the idea of becoming multilingual, or multifaceted, in our understanding of our profession.

The Army contains over 30 different branches and functional areas, each with its own expertise and craft. Army leaders synchronize these various skill sets to accomplish missions, and clear communication and shared understanding are essential to accomplishing that. While doctrine should provide a common language, large gaps remain. Despite doctrine providing a framework for planning, the fact remains that detailed planning happens within the specific languages of the warfighting functions and the dialects within each branch.

The multitude of different branches and functional areas also means hundreds of dialects, creating a series of language barriers across our profession. We try to communicate, but don’t understand what others are saying. These misunderstandings lead to the friction, frustration, and confusion that hinders planning, makes cooperation difficult, and inhibits effective cross-expertise collaboration. In short, the Army has a language problem, and the only way to fix this problem is to develop multilingual officers.

What Does Being Multilingual Mean?

The Army has one common language, six major languages, and hundreds of dialects. Being multilingual translates to how many of these languages can one speak, understand, and employ. In addition to simply speaking and understanding, being multilingual also corresponds to proficiency in each.

Army doctrine is the common language, providing a collective understanding and start point for planning. Doctrine provides the common framework that all the other languages derive from. Since doctrine provides the baseline, speaking it is the basic language requirement for all leaders.

Next, the Army has six major languages with each corresponding to a warfighting function: Movement & Maneuver, Fires, Protection, Intelligence, Sustainment, and Mission Command. Each warfighting function is a group of concepts, and capabilities untied in common purpose that commanders use to accomplish objectives. As such, when one speaks a warfighting function language, i.e. sustainment, they speak to those concepts and capabilities, how the commander can employ them, and how they tie into doctrine.

Finally, each major language has its own array of dialects based on branch competencies, unit types, etc. A logistics officer may speak doctrine, sustainment, and dialects tied to aerial resupply and sling load operations based on a career spent in the 82D Airborne Division. Unfortunately, these dialects can also create communication problems within the same branch and warfighting function. For example, an infantryman who has spent his entire career mastering the airborne and special operations forces dialects may have trouble communicating with an infantryman who developed in an armored brigade combat team speaking mechanized infantry and combined arms.

With so many languages and dialects we need a way to gauge how effectively we can communicate in each. I propose three levels of proficiency to measure effectiveness. The first level is familiarity. Being familiar with an Army languages means one can understand the basic concepts and can communicate in generalities. At this level, the goal is to know what questions to ask to gain further knowledge and clarification.

The next level is being conversant. This equates to working knowledge and an ability to apply it to a variety of scenarios. The goal at this stage is the ability to engage native speakers and generate productive collaboration.

The final level is mastery. Mastery represents an intrinsic understanding of all the language’s aspects and multiple dialects with an eye towards nuance and ability to apply this knowledge to complex and ill-defined problem sets. With mastery, the goal is the ability to teach others your language.

Mastery allows two important things that the other proficiency levels do not. First, it enables the officer to see how their own language fits with other languages they are familiar and conversant in. Second, it allows an officer to bring others into conversations in his or her language, generating shared understanding across a team. Ultimately, language mastery is where true effectiveness begins.  Mentorship should build said language mastery, growing the capacity for our true effectiveness.

How Many Languages Should I Speak?

In an ideal world, an officer would master all the Army languages and dialects.  In a slightly less ideal world, an officer who struggled through learning to be multilingual would help those who have not.  However, the breadth and depth of knowledge across our profession of makes both of these almost functionally impossible. As a result, we must pick and choose focus areas to invest in. Over time, these focus areas expand as an officer’s knowledge, experience, and capacity grows.

Company grade officers must focus on mastering their branch’s dialect first and foremost before anything else. Next, look to becoming conversant in doctrine and the other dialects under their warfighting function’s language. Finally, they should start gaining familiarity with the other warfighting function languages.

The goal during this period is establishing a base of knowledge. A senior captain may begin to serve in organizations and positions outside their comfort zone. They may be the only officer in the room with their skillset. They must know their craft and effectively communicate their expertise to others while knowing what questions to ask gain clarification and further knowledge in unfamiliar areas. By building foundations across the warfighting functions company grade officers begin seeing how their language ties into others, increasing their effectiveness within a team or working group.

At the field grade ranks the aperture undergoes drastic expansion. Field grade officers must master doctrine and their warfighting function, along with the associated dialects. The field grade officer must become conversant in the other warfighting functions, as well as expanding their language base to include some of the “Big Army Dialects” such as force management. Finally, field grade officers must gain familiarity with joint languages. Officers begin their first serious forays into joint service at this level. Consequently, they must gain familiarity in joint languages so they can shorten their learning curve upon arriving to a joint assignment.

Mentors can help, but they’re aren’t the only ones responsible. If leaders do not possess some level of proficiency in languages outside their own, then multidisciplinary groups, such as staffs and working groups, lose the ability to communicate clearly and collaborate effectively. Being able to speak and understand multiple languages and dialects enables clear communication, creates more effective teamwork, and encourages collaboration by reducing the friction that comes with language barriers. However, at a minimum, every staff, working group, or team must have at least one translator.

Translators reduce friction and enable productivity, but this benefit is limited by the translator’s personal knowledge and capacity. For example, if I can speak to maneuver, fires, and protection I can help translate in those areas, limited only by the number of dialects I know. However, my value would be limited if issues with mission command arose and I would also encounter difficulty dealing with a maneuver dialect I’m not at least familiar with.

As the primary problem solvers on staffs, field grade officers, particularly majors, are the first to serve as translators. As such, they must possess a breadth of knowledge that allows them to ask detailed questions, tease out nuance, and integrate disparate inputs into a single solution. Specifically, on battalion and brigade staffs field grade officers are the ones who begin to teach company grade officers how the Army languages weave together. A good litmus test for a larger organization’s effectiveness is how multilingual the field grade officers on the staff are.

To be continued…

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