This is the second part from MAJ Terron Wharton (see his four part series on the overlooked mentors: Establishing Character, Growing Platoon Leader Competence, Developing a Commander’s Judgement and Tying It All Together). This blog presents us with final thoughts on the idea of becoming multilingual, or multifaceted, in order to better understand our profession.
Becoming a Polyglot
Learning and developing a keen understanding of Army languages is a personal responsibility for every Army officer. While the professional military education system does a respectable job of giving broad brush strokes, self-development and practical experience is still needed to gain true understanding. With that in mind, here are four suggestions to become multilingual.
First, an officer must study and know doctrine. As stated earlier, doctrine is the common tongue and provides the framework for everything else we do. This framework allows us to integrate the other fields of expertise into a single coherent plan. It does not matter how many languages an officer speaks if they do not know doctrine. Without doctrine, we will have no ability to apply our knowledge to the military decision-making process.
Second, an officer must read about our profession. Reading branch journals, history, and blogs will help one explore a wide range of languages and dialects. Branch journals provide an excellent starting point and reading history provides examples of practical application and real world context. Military blogs provide contemporary, professional discussion from multiple
perspectives and across numerous topics. Doctrine Man, From the Green Notebook, War on the Rocks, and Small Wars Journal publish pieces and link articles covering everything from small unit tactics and mentorship to strategic level concepts. While there are some longer pieces, most can be read and digested in under 15 minutes. Additionally, many of the articles can easily lay the foundation of a unit’s professional development session.
Third, officers should pursue opportunities and schools outside their comfort zone. A branch detail assignment is, by far, the single best method for learning another Army language. Nothing can replicate the growth, knowledge, and experience gained like serving in another branch for three to four years prior to returning to the primary branch. Concerning schools, the logistician should seek a spot at the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course. The infantryman should go to the Unit Movement Officer course. The intelligence officer should volunteer for Cavalry Leader’s Course. Each case provides an opportunity to expose oneself to a different languages and dialects outside their own. The branch commandants
should work with Army Human Resources Command (HRC) and Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) on ways to expose our officers to multiple languages as often as possible through incentivizing branch detail assignments and by increasing school availability to branches outside the traditional ones that attend a specific course.
Finally, engage peers as often as possible. Schools like the Command and General Staff College structure small groups to include a cross-section of all branches, sister service personnel, and foreign military officers. During class, planning sessions, and social events take the time to learn about your peers’ expertise. Ask questions, actively listen, and push yourself to engage them in their language. Take the same approach in units and never miss an opportunity to
engage with and learn from others.
Above all else, mentorship plays a critical role in developing multilingual officers. Mentors, typically one to two ranks and several jobs removed from their protégés, are critical in guiding linguistic development. Mentors, with greater knowledge, expertise, and linguistic understanding, serve as both translators and teachers for their protégés.
When we met my mentor was a major who had completed an S3 job in a combined arms battalion and was serving as the executive officer for a division special troops battalion. He was a master of the movement and maneuver warfighting function and approached mastery in several other languages. Conversely, I was still learning my craft as young armor officer.
During my time as the battalion logistics officer he constantly forced me outside of comfort zone. He pushed me to think and view the world outside the narrow lane of an Armor officer. In one instance I had bemoaned that an answer I needed for a contracting issue was buried in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), a monstrous tome of nearly 2000 pages and
something typically only understood by lawyers, contracting officers, and acquisition professionals. His response was simple: “Download it, read through, and find the answer.” In his opinion, if I was given a task then I would learn the language surrounding it, whether it was within my native tongue or not.
In addition, he pushed me to read deeply and apply what I’d read. History, the military profession, current events, policy, strategy, and more were all subjects that appeared in my inbox and topics of discussion while sitting on T-Walls in Iraq. He sent me to learn from logisticians, signalers, and anyone else who had the knowledge I needed for the current problem set. Finally, he always took time to ensure I understood how the languages tied into mine and doctrine.
My mentor is now serving in a senior position in a Corp headquarters. I still get articles. We still have deep conversations. However, the conversations have grown as we both have grown. Now, as I enter the field grade officer years, the conversations center on organizational leadership, “Big Army” processes, senior leader decision making, policy, and strategy. What has not changed is his ability, and willingness, to translate the languages I do not comprehend into ones I do, thereby expanding my own linguistic comprehension.
Our profession encompasses numerous specialties, fields, and subjects, leading to a multitude of languages. To work together, we must communicate effectively. Being multilingual helps reduce friction, enable clear communication, and generate effective collaboration. As such, our best and brightest can speak, understand, and translate across breadth
and in depth. It is not enough to simply master our own niche. We must step outside of our comfort zones and broaden our scope. We must become multilingual.
Start a conversation. Spark a transformation.