Language Proficiency and Cultural Awareness: Mandatory Military Skills

Language Proficiency and Cultural Awareness: Mandatory Military Skills

By Dialogo
February 18, 2011

Mandatory military capabilities? Form “Filipillos”? Turn preocupations, perceptions and necessary allies in order to reach the strategical visions? It is summarily confusing to establish a defensive communication which belongs to an orchestrated international community. It seems to me that the theme does not come across in the language of the culture, I believe that in the end it is to define what your interest is and what is the interest of the other party. The practice of colonial intellectualism continues. The new generations are pending on the “culture of now”. What is certain is that much of the human knowledge is in languages like English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, German, French just to mention the more outstanding ones. The culture does not have the same relationship with the knowledge.

The United States Department of Defense considers knowledge of foreign
language and cultural awareness as essential to mission readiness. In late January
2011, the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness hosted a Summit
entitled Language and Culture: A Strategic Imperative. This summit brought together
the foremost military leaders and academics to discuss ways to enhance cultural
awareness and promote language learning throughout the Services.

During the summit, General Douglas Fraser, Commander of the United States
Southern Command, spoke on the importance of language and cultural training as a
component of security cooperation activities with Latin America and the Caribbean.

Diálogo sat down with General Fraser to discuss his
perspective on language and cultural competencies in the Services.

Interview with General Douglas Fraser, Commander, United States Southern
Command:


Diálogo:


How has your experience in the region shaped your understanding about the
importance of language and culture?


General Douglas Fraser:


Growing up in the region had a significant impact on me. It gave me an
appreciation for Latin America, for the richness of the culture, for the passion and
focus of the people—I have a real affinity for Latin America and its warm and
engaging people. Even though my language skills are not as good as I would like, I
appreciate the fact that we need to work together in a common language to truly
understand one another. I think many of my counterparts appreciate the fact that I
lived in the region—that living there gave me an understanding of the culture and an
ability to communicate with people in the region.


Diálogo:


How does that translate from a military point of view? What advantages does
that provide?


General Douglas Fraser:


The ability to communicate and to understand a culture means two things: I am
able to literally understand what my counterparts are saying, but I can also hear
what they are trying to tell me—the cultural message—and adjust to that. Language
and cultural knowledge provide opportunities to communicate and also connect, which
enhances our engagement with the region.

For the military, our Foreign Area Officers are extremely important. Their
ability to communicate allows us to form very close relations with our counterparts.
They help us break through a lot of the communication barriers or avoid
miscommunication. They help us translate concerns, perceptions, and
needs.


Diálogo:


What are the challenges in implementing these capabilities for cultural
awareness when you’re dealing with full spectrum operations?


General Douglas Fraser:


One of the challenges is time and the other is our biases and our
perspective—how we use our information sources to interpret and see what we hear.
Language is not just about words, it is also about culture, which affects how we
understand and process language. Two people who share the same language but come
from completely different cultures may understand a situation in two completely
different ways. The way a Spanish speaker in Peru thinks about an issue may be very
different from the way a Spanish speaker in Guatemala thinks about the same idea.
Cultural awareness—understanding the culture that underscores the words—is critical
to really communicating with and understanding the rest of the world.

Different cultures can lead to different understandings and meanings, and we
don’t always understand that the way we need to. It’s important that we always apply
a language and culture filter and ask ourselves if we really understand the problem
we are facing—and if we understand it the same way our partners do.


Diálogo:


Can you provide an example of how language skills have enhanced
interoperability?


General Douglas Fraser:


The best example at a senior level, although this happens throughout the
forces, is when we put U.S. forces in to help the people of Haiti. LTG Keen
commanded those forces and had spent time in Brazil, had gone to their staff college
and understood and spoke Portuguese. The MINUSTAH Commander was Brazilian and a
friend of LTG Keen’s. They knew one another from their days of training and their
days in school. They already had an established connection—they already trusted one
another and did not need to build a relationship from scratch—and they could
communicate with one another, which helped us enormously in accomplishing common
goals.

Focusing on the U.S., I’ve had senior officials tell me that they’re looking
to have their men and women take part in our schools and in our training exercises
for the same reason: so that their people can form relationships with U.S. military
personnel, and get an awareness and understanding of life in the United States. They
have a lifelong benefit from engaging with and understanding U.S. citizens, and they
want to make sure this engagement continues.

So it’s really a two-way connection. We need to be immersed in their schools
in Latin America; they need to be immersed in our schools here in the U.S., and that
way we’ll be able to really communicate with one another.


Diálogo:


How do language and culture skills in SOUTHCOM specifically benefit the
militaries in Latin America and the Caribbean?


General Douglas Fraser:


I think there’s a direct connection because of the people who work on our
staff—many speak the languages in the region. Some of them are first-generation
citizens of the U.S., while others are second-generation. Many of them have lived in
the region and return there to train or attend educational institutions within the
region. Overall I find we have the ability to communicate much more directly and
much more openly because of the inherent language and cultural capacities of our
staff—this helps us to connect to the region in important ways.


Diálogo:


Why is language and culture so strategically important?


General Douglas Fraser:


We live in a multicultural world. Within the United States, different regions
see and approach life differently. Within government, different organizations
approach things differently. Different countries approach the world in different
manners.

But because we’re such an international community, because our world will
continue to get smaller in the information age, language and culture will play an
increasingly important role. We need to understand one another, not just to talk to
one another—communication is more than just words or computer translation
programs.

Because we live in an increasingly small world, we are going to be engaged
more frequently with other nations to solve problems together. The best way to do
that is to be open, to engage with one another, to understand one another’s cultures
and perspectives. If we can speak one another’s languages, and apply the cultural
context to our interactions, our communication will improve
dramatically.

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