The Wavell Room
Capabilities and Spending People and Leadership

Using Language

This post discusses the British Army’s approach to language training, its recent changes, and how it might improve in future.

The British Army has opportunities for soldiers and officers to complete language training, with courses ranging from 1 week to 1 year. But, the recent removal of the language survival qualification requirement for Sub Unit Command takes away any fixed language requirements for officers.  Although the requirement itself was hardly challenging, it signalled an attempt to change the culture of language training in the British Army.

The Sub Unit Command standard was a step in the right direction, but it was limited.  Officers were only expected to reach a rudimentary standard and pass a basic assessment at the end of a two-week course.  Such a short length of time allocated to language training is unlikely to produce any long-term language aptitude or retention.

Language skills always have been, and will continue to be, vital to the military.  Particularly as the British army is likely to find itself in complex coalitions, working alongside partner and host nation forces whose first language will not be English.  Or on counter insurgency or peace keeping operations, where understanding an alien human terrain will be made far easier through language skills.  Specialised Infantry Battalions, and Regionally aligned Brigades will need to focus on their language skills so they can be effective in Defence Engagement activities.

Spending money on short term language courses (2-5 weeks) is potentially money wasted.  Languages need to be practiced continually in order to prevent skill fade and memory loss.  The British army needs a ‘Physical Training’ approach to language training.  Little and often.  This will require an adaption of the culture of the British Army.  Most units already have well-structured physical training programs.  It is generally accepted that if you do not train regularly, you will lose your fitness levels.  The same principle should apply to languages.

Units could be partnered with local schools or academies (larger garrisons could contract in teaching staff) to provide weekly language training.  1 hour twice a week of a language, with sensible levels of homework/self reflection is far more likely to be effective long term than 2-5 intensive weeks of language training which is then not used.  How much money has been wasted already on tick box courses which are forgotten within weeks of completion?

Partnering with local schools or academies brings a secondary benefit of keeping the military in the public eye.  The British Army is the smallest it has been in generations.  Contact between the Army and the public is more infrequent as a result.  This type of partnering would increase public understanding of the plethora of activities the Army undertakes and could be beneficial for both sides.

The benefits of language training are clear.  It not only enhances the operational effectiveness of the Army, but also provides an important life skill for soldiers and officers.  The opportunities for language training may also have a positive effect on Army retention and recruitment.  The Army needs a modern, competitive offer for young recruits.  In an increasingly globalised world, language skills will become more valued.  Particularly as Britain looks more globally post Brexit.  Increasing and spreading the opportunity to gain language qualifications and skills could be a tempting addition to the New Offer for New Joiners.


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The Parapet
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The Parapet

Wavell Room, you open up an interesting and relevant discussion topic. The relevance of language training within any military, not just the British Armynis a premium. If “people out our edge” it is therefore surely incumbent on us to develop and equip them with the necessary tools to enable them to bring their “edge” to bare to maximum effect. Before criticizing the removal of the mandatory language training for sub-unit commanders we should remember it was likely to cause more damage than good. The principle; of increasing the language skills of our medium level leaders; was made in good faith.… Read more »

Krisjand Rothweiler
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Krisjand Rothweiler

Reading into this, I think it’s fantastic you guys (I’m U.S Army) have this opportunity at all and then leverage it for regional alignment. Further, the concept of treating it like physical training is also quite poignant. While I like the idea of partnering with schools (again, something I might not have thought of), why not also leverage technology? If regionally aligned, is there a forward element that calls back routinely, where part of a briefing or update could be done in the target language (both basic and professional language learning)? There used to be a platform called Live Mocha… Read more »

Jo Burgon
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Jo Burgon

Thanks for raising the issue. I think that the culture had changed sufficiently to allow the Army to ditch a blunt tool that was not relevant to many. The SpIBs and most DE Bdes are engaged in language learning in innovative ways. They use short courses, Garrison language tutors for improvement and practice; the best scaffold learning in country and upon return. If we’ve got the organisations that need the capability engaging voluntarily out of a clearly identified need, we don’t need to force the issue with those that don’t need it. It’s been an uphill struggle but not dissimilar… Read more »

Dettingen
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Dettingen

I think the Army has got this right in principle (in A2020R). HQ TF Helmand was huge by the end because we did not deploy a UK divisional HQ and so made them responsible for a range of activity and a planning horizon that was well outside the norm for a brigade, even in COIN/Stability. The introduction of RC(S) and then RC(SW), and the NCC in Kabul, helped but did not fully address the heart of the issue – clear chains of command where a commander and staff could focus on their core role. As Mike and commentators have pointed… Read more »

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