Small Wars Journal

Special Forces Language Training: What Would It Cost To Do It Right?

Tue, 04/08/2014 - 3:10pm

Special Forces Language Training: What Would It Cost To Do It Right?

Sean P. Walsh


High-level language skills for Special Forces personnel are a requirement for current and future operations, but they are very difficult and costly to achieve and maintain.  In response to the needs for high-level foreign language in Special Forces units, the United States Army Special Forces Command (USASFC) has set the ambitious goal of having at least one Soldier qualified at the 2/2 and 3/3 levels in each deploying twelve-man Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA).  The Defense Language Institute (DLI) considers a 2/2 to be “Limited Working Proficiency” and is the minimum score for certification as a Defense Department Basic Linguist while a 3/3 is considered “General Professional Proficiency” and is the score needed for most positions in the Defense Attaché system.[1]  This paper determines the cost and time required to achieve USASFC’s goal in perhaps the most direct way possible: contracting a private company to provide intensive, long-term language training for 720 recently qualified Special Forces Soldiers. 

This paper estimates the cost by first determining the gap in hours between the length of initial foreign language training at the Special Forces Qualification Course (SFQC) and the length of language courses at the Defense Language Institute (DLI).  Language training at the SFQC is only designed to train students to the 1/1 level (elementary proficiency), while the DLI advanced courses produce 3/3 speakers and the DLI basic courses produce 2/2 speakers.  This paper used the gap between the SFQC and DLI as an approximation of the additional training Special Forces Soldiers require to reach advanced proficiencies.  This gap was then multiplied by the hourly rate for foreign language instruction at a major General Services Administration (GSA) certified foreign language contractor to determine the cost required to achieve proficiency at the 2/2 and 3/3 level in all SOF priority languages. A total cost for the program was then determined under four language distribution scenarios: a base scenario that evenly distributed languages in each Special Forces group, a current needs scenario that placed priority on operationally critical languages such as Arabic and Chinese, a low-cost scenario that assigned all Soldiers the easiest to learn language (and therefore least expensive) relevant to their assigned Special Forces group, and a high-cost scenario that assigned all Soldiers the hardest to learn language (and therefore most expensive) relevant to their assigned Special Forces group.

The total cost for this program would be approximately $20 million dollars for the base scenario and $23 million for the current needs scenario.  As $23 million dollars may be too expensive in today’s fiscal environment, USASFC could lower costs by having less ambitious goals such replacing the need for a 3/3 speaker with a 2+/2+ speaker or having two 2/2 speakers on each ODA.  Under a current needs distribution, these programs would cost only $15.9 million and $8.9, respectively.

Foreign Language Skills Are Key for Current and Future Special Forces Missions

Army Special Forces units, popularly known as Green Berets, are often confused with the broader term Special Operations Forces (SOF).  SOF refers to all forces assigned to US Special Operations Command and includes not only Special Forces units, but also Navy SEALS, Air Force Commandos, Marine Corps Special Operations personnel as well as other Army Special Operations units such as the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.  Army Special Forces are the Defense Department’s primary force for conducting Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense and, along with the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade and the 4th Military Information Support Group, are distinct from other SOF units due in large part to their language training and cultural and regional expertise.  Active duty Special Forces qualified Soldiers are assigned to one of five regionally oriented Special Forces groups where the individual language and cultural skills of these Soldiers are leveraged to execute the regional specific missions of each Special Forces group.  As an example, a Special Forces qualified Soldier initially assigned to the PACOM oriented 1st Special Forces Group would receive language training in an Asian language such as Chinese, Korean, Thai, Tagalog or Indonesian.  This paper only conducts a cost analysis for Special Forces language training, but the results are relevant for other language capable Army Special Operations Forces units, specifically SOF Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations units.      

Nearly fifteen years of post-9/11 operational experience have reinforced what Special Operations Forces leaders have long understood: that foreign language skills are essential to conducting the unique missions of Army Special Forces.  Going back to their World War II roots in the OSS, Special Forces have long been distinguished by their foreign language skills.[2]  In recent years, these skills have only become more important.  In the foreword to the Army’s most recent doctrinal publication involving Special Forces, ADP 3-05, Special Operations, USASOC commanding general LTG Charles T. Cleveland writes that success for SOF in future conflicts requires “a profound understanding of foreign culture and fluency in local languages.”[3]  Current SOCOM commander ADM William McRaven has frequently stressed the operational need for SOF personnel with “…languages, more cultural attunements, and regional expertise.”[4]

USASFC Has Set Ambitious Goals For Its Organic Foreign Language Capabilities

In response to this stated need for high-level foreign language skills for Special Forces personnel, USASFC has declared ambitious goals.  Beyond the basic requirement for all Special Forces soldiers to maintain a 1/1 in their assigned languages, the most recent USASFC Command Language Policy sets as the unit objective for each deploying ODA as having one Soldier proficient at the 2/2 level and one Soldier proficient at the 3/3 level.[5]  These goals are certainly ambitious given that the required minimum for Special Forces Soldiers is only a 1/1.[6]

Extrapolating this requirement to every active duty ODA will require at most 360 2/2 qualified Soldiers and 360 3/3 qualified Soldiers.  This number is based on a fully manned Special Forces organization of four battalions per Special Forces group, three companies per battalion and six ODAs per company.  Not all Special Forces groups have grown a fourth battalion and this plan may be put on hold or even reverse as result of defense cutbacks, but this paper used the above figure in estimating costs and time requirements.    

Current Special Forces Language Training Resources

Special Forces Soldiers are afforded essentially two types of language training: acquisition and sustainment.  Currently, acquisition training comes in the form of Basic Special Operations Language Training (BSOLT).  All students in the Special Forces Qualification Course now attend BSOLT as the last phase of the qualification course prior to graduation.  BSOLT is 26 weeks for all students regardless of the difficulty of the language studied and students are required to achieve a 1/1 before they can earn their Green Beret.[7]  Foreign languages are grouped into four categories based on their difficulty.  Category I languages, such as French or Spanish, and Category II languages, such as Indonesian, are the easiest to learn, while Category III languages, such as Russian, and Category IV languages, such as Chinese, are the most difficult.  Special Forces students are assigned their target language based on their aptitude for learning foreign languages as demonstrated through scores on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery.

After graduation, Special Forces Soldiers continue to receive sustainment training and are expected to maintain a 1/1 in their designated target language.  Soldiers who fail to maintain a 1/1 are not eligible for advanced skills training and are less competitive for promotion.[8] Special Forces Soldiers who are assigned a Category I or II language must have, at a minimum, 80 hours of annual foreign language sustainment training while Soldiers who have a Category III or IV language must have 120 hours.  In all cases only 40 hours of this annual training can be independent study, the remainder must be instructor led in some form.  Based on operational needs and availability, Soldiers also have access to alternative training venues to include distance education through video conferencing, resident courses at DLI and participating universities, intermediate level courses specifically designed for Special Operations Forces and short-term overseas immersion programs.[9]

Current Special Forces Language Training Is Not Sufficient To Meet USASFC’s Goal

An analysis of the current Special Forces foreign language program indicates that it will be almost impossible to reach the goal of a 2/2 and 3/3 qualified Solider per ODA without major changes to the training language program.  Using training at DLI as the standard for the length of time required to achieve high-level proficiency, it is clear that there is an enormous gap between a typical Special Forces Soldier’s initial language training and what is required to achieve a 3/3 or even only a 2/2 in all but the easiest to learn languages.

At DLI, the basic course in each language is designed to reach a 2/2 level, the intermediate course a 2+/2+ and the advanced course a 3/3. Graduating the DLI basic course and earning a 2/2 takes between 26 weeks for Category I languages and 64 weeks for Category IV languages.  If the DLI basic, intermediate and advanced courses were placed back to back to back, reaching a 3/3 would require 62 weeks for Category I languages and 158 weeks for Category IV languages.[10]  As BSOLT is only 26 weeks in length, there is a huge gap between initial acquisition and the DLI requirements for advanced proficiency.  For Category I languages BSOLT is the same length as the DLI basic course, as a result it is likely that enough learners can earn a 2/2 out of BSOLT to meet USASFC’s goal of a 2/2 speaker per ODA.  For the hardest to learn languages there is a gap of up to 38 additional weeks between the length of BSOLT and the DLI Basic Course.  For achieving a 3/3, Category I languages have a gap of 36 weeks and Category IV languages have a gap of 132 weeks. 

Scholarship on foreign language maintenance indicates that it is very difficult for learners with low initial acquisition levels to significantly improve their skills without another iteration of prolonged intensive study.  In fact, according to a study by instructors at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, learners who do not initially acquire at least a 3/3 level of proficiency are unlikely to improve and in fact are likely to see their skills degrade outside of intensive formal training.[11]  This is significant for Special Forces Soldiers because it will be very difficult for them to improve their skills solely through independent study.  Critically, however, if Special Forces Soldiers achieve very high levels of proficiency initially they are much more likely to retain those skills throughout their careers.

But even assuming that annual sustainment training will improve a Soldier’s language score over time, the gap between initial acquisition and a 2/2 or 3/3 level of proficiency is so great that it would take decades to make up the difference.  Assuming a Solider only received the minimum annual language training and his skills increased at a constant rate, it would still take 13.5 years to reach a 3/3 in a language such as French and would take over 30 years to do so in a Category IV language like Arabic.

Unfortunately, studies by the Defense Department indicate that additional sustainment training must be intensive and lengthy to successfully raise a Soldier’s proficiency level.  Short or part-time command programs will help sustain a Soldier’s skill but are not effective enough to raise a Soldier’s proficiency score.[12]  Only full time training seems to be truly sufficient to raise a Soldier’s score.[13]   Most of the additional training venues available to Special Forces Soldiers, such as online training or study at participating universities are not long or intensive enough to raise a Soldier’s proficiency level.  Even overseas language immersion is not as effective or cost efficient as intensive daily training for acquiring higher-level langue skills.  The cost of a single plane ticket to China, for example, would buy approximately twenty hours or more of intensive contracted training for three students.  The learning center for Special Forces personnel, the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS), does offer intensive 32-week intermediate level SOLT where Soldiers are expected to graduate with a 2/2, but not all languages are currently offered and class sizes and numbers are not sufficient to meet USASFC’s goal.[14]

What Type of Training Would Be Sufficient to Meet These Goals?

If regular annual training and the additional training venues currently available to Special Forces Soldiers are not sufficient to meet USASFC’s unit goal of a 2/2 and 3/3 qualified Soldier per ODA, then what methods would be sufficient?  As described earlier, only long-term, intensive training can reliably improve foreign language proficiency.  Though attendance at DLI or additional advanced and intermediate level SOLT classes would be optimal, this strategy would require support from outside agencies or lengthy implementation timelines.  The simplest and most direct solution is for USASFC to take recently qualified Special Forces Soldiers and contract a private company to provide enough additional hours of instruction to make up the gap between SOLT and the DLI basic or advanced course.  USASFC could select from a number of GSA approved contractors that already have the necessary capacity to train 720 Soldiers in any of the Special Operations priority languages.  This solution would provide the intensive, long-term training that Defense Department studies and outside scholarship indicate are necessary to achieve high-level proficiency.          

Estimating Training Cost: Methodology

The number of hours required to reach a 2/2 and 3/3 in each language was determined by multiplying the gap in weeks between the relevant DLI course length and the BSOLT by 30 hours per week, the theoretical maximum number of hours of weekly instruction.[15]  An hourly instruction cost was based on the per-lesson cost of a well-known GSA approved language contractor.[16]  The per-lesson cost of this contractor is $40.81 per 45-minute lesson.  This per-lesson cost was divided by 45 minutes to determine the per-minute cost, which was then multiplied by sixty minutes to estimate an hourly rate of $54.41 for all languages.  This rate is equivalent to an hour of instruction for up to three students in a single class.

Using these two figures—the gap between the length of BSOLT and the length of the equivalent DLI courses and the hourly rate—a total cost for each language and desired proficiency score can be determined.  Total cost varies significantly between target languages based on their difficulty.  A Category II language would cost an additional $14,691.60 after BSOLT to reach a 2/2, while a very difficult to learn Category IV language would cost $62,091.20.  Cost and time vary even more at the 3/3 level.  Category I languages would only require $58,766.40 and take an additional eight months after BSOLT.  However, for Category IV the total cost would be $215,476.40 and require more than two and a half years of additional training after BSOLT.  As mentioned above, these figures are for three person classes.  Significantly, reaching a 3/3 in a Category I language costs less and requires fewer weeks than reaching only a 2/2 in a Category IV language.

Determining the total cost to reach USASFC’s goal requires making certain assumptions about language distribution within Special Forces units.  Each Special Forces group has associated languages based on each group’s regional orientation.  Because teaching cost increases as languages become more difficult to learn, the number of Special Forces Soldiers studying each language has a significant impact on the program’s total cost   This paper analyzes four language distribution scenarios:

1) A baseline scenario that evenly distributed languages within each Special Forces Group.  For instance, in the CENTCOM oriented 5th Special Forces group, half of the Soldiers were assumed to have Arabic as a target language and half were assumed to have Persian-Farsi.

2) A current needs scenario that distributed languages based on current operational priorities.  For example, in the PACOM oriented 1st Special Forces Group, half of the Soldiers were assumed to have Chinese as their target language.

3) A low-cost scenario that analyzed each group with all Soldiers assigned the easiest (and therefore least expensive to teach) language associated with their Special Forces group.  In this scenario, for example, the EUCOM and AFRICOM oriented 10th Special Forces group as assumed to have all 144 Soldiers learn French as opposed to a harder language such as Russian.

4) A high-cost scenario that assumed that all Soldiers would have the most difficult (and therefore most expensive to teach) language in their Special Forces group.  For instance, in the Central Asia oriented 3rd Special Forces Group, all 144 Soldiers were analyzed with Pasto-Afghan as their target language. 

Estimating Training Cost: Assumptions

This methodology did not see seek to balance current operational needs with the goal of acquiring high-level language skills, but only sought to reach USASFC’s language goal in the fastest and most efficient way possible.  As a result this methodology did not take into account the opportunity cost of making 720 Special Forces qualified Soldiers unavailable for a maximum of thirty months after graduation.  In addition, the methodology also attempted to be forward looking by assuming that all Special Forces groups have a fourth battalion to their organization.  The methodology also assumed that for Category I languages where BSOLT and the DLI Basic course are the same length enough students will graduate BSOLT with a 2/2 to meet USASFC’s needs for 2/2 speakers in these languages.  This assumption was made even though the graduation requirement for BSOLT is only a 1/1.  Other, potentially significant costs such as housing or travel expenses for language students were also not included.  In addition, this methodology only included the cost of language training for active duty Special Force groups and did not include the Army’s two National Guard Special Forces groups.    

This methodology also did not take into account the possibility that some Special Forces Soldiers will have preexisting high-level language proficiency as heritage speakers or from training in a previous military occupational specialty.  Finally, the methodology also assumed that no Soldier, except in the case of Category I languages, would score higher than a 1/1 at the end of BSOLT.  Every Soldier that comes into Special Forces or completes BSOLT with 2/2 or 3/3 language scores would mean one less Soldier that has to have additional training to reach USASFC’s goal.  Between the incomplete build of a fourth battalion in every group and taking advantage of preexisting high-level proficiency, USASFC may have to train significantly less than 720 Soldiers to reach its language goal.  As a result, the total cost of this program could ultimately be several million dollars less than estimated here.

Estimating Training Cost: Results

Reaching USASFC’s goal of a 2/2 and 3/3 speaker per ODA would cost approximately $20 million dollars.  The base scenario has a total cost of $19,605.124.00 while the current needs scenario would cost approximately 15% more at a total cost of $22,984,192.00.  However, there is a major cost difference between the low-cost and high-cost scenarios.  The high-cost scenario has a total cost of $25,935,571.20.  It is significant that the highest possible scenario is only 15% higher than what current operational needs dictate.  However, if USASFC attempted to meet only the letter rather than the spirit of its goal by choosing only the easiest to learn languages, it could meet its goal at a cost of $11,518,214.40.  The significant difference between the low-cost scenario and first three scenarios is mainly due to the relatively high cost of teaching Category IV languages compared to easier languages.  In the base scenario, teaching Category IV languages is 37% of the total cost of the program, even though only Category IV learners only makes up 21% of learners in the program.  In the current needs scenario this affect is even more pronounced; teaching Category IV languages is 56% of the total cost of the program but Category IV learners only make up 39% of the learners.

Alternative Courses of Action

In the current fiscal environment, $23 million dollars may be too great an expense.  However, USASFC could pursue a number of alternative courses of action that could come close to achieving their language proficiency goal at significantly lowered cost.  In all scenarios, achieving a 3/3 level of proficiency in each ODA constitutes more than 79% of the program’s total cost (that is achieving 2/2 level for 720 Soldiers costs approximately 20% of the program’s total cost, while achieving 3/3 level for the other 720 Soldiers costs approximately 80% of the program’s total cost).  As a result, lowering the goal for upper level proficiency has significant cost saving opportunities.

For example, a less ambitious goal of having a 2+/2+ qualified Soldier (the equivalent of the DLI intermediate course) instead of a 3/3 would reduce the cost of the “current needs” scenario from approximately $23 million to $15.9 million.  Importantly, it would take only 85 weeks to fulfill this goal rather than 132 weeks needed to reach the 3/3 level.  An additional course of action would be to have two Soldiers per ODA reach the 2/2 level.  In this course of action, the “current needs” scenario would cost $8.9 million dollars, while the “low cost” scenario would only cost $2.5 million.

More dramatic courses of action may be able to achieve the spirit of the USASFC goal of increasing high-level proficiency within deploying ODAs. For instance, because of their relative greater focus on Special Warfare activities versus Surgical Strike missions, SOF Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations forces may be a more appropriate place for USASOC to develop high-level language skills.[17]  Civil Affairs and Military Information Support Operations units regularly deploy with Special Forces units and a 3/3 speaker in each Civil Affairs Team or Military Information Support Team could provide a similar level of mission effectiveness as having the same level of proficiency organic to the deploying ODA.

An even more radical option would be for USASFC to abandon its high-level language goal in favor of achieving high-level cultural competency.[18]  Without discounting the value of language skills for Special Forces Soldiers, former commander of 1st Special Forces Group and the Special Forces Language School Brigadier General Retired Russell D. Howard writes that “learning culture is easier than learning a foreign language, and more useful for the soldier in the short-term.”[19]  Having two Soldiers on each ODA earn a certificate of study in cultural anthropology relevant to their deploying region may help achieve a level of mission effectiveness similar to USASFC’s language goal at a fraction of the time and cost.[20]


$23 million dollars is a major expense in today’s fiscal environment, and losing a portion of as many as 720 recently qualified Special Forces Soldiers for up to 30 months is a significant opportunity cost, but contracting a private company to provide intensive long-term language training is certainly the most direct and effective way of reaching USASFC’s language goals.  This program can be thought of as a major, long-term investment that would meet USASFC’s language needs for possibly as long as ten to fifteen years.  Once an initial cohort of 720 Soldiers were qualified at the necessary proficiency level, only a few new Soldiers every year would have to receive high level language training.  In fact, because Soldiers at the 3/3 and 2/2 levels are less likely to lose language proficiency over time, less spending on language sustainment training within the Special Forces Regiment would be necessary.  As a result, this program may actually be able to save USASFC money in the long term.        

End Notes

 1] For scores needed for certification as a DoD Linguist see Defense Language Institute Foreign Language School, DLIFLC Regulation 350-1, July 2004, 8-2 and

Defense Language Institute Foreign Language School, DLIFLC General Catalog 2011-2012, 2011, 27. Available from

[2] Philip A. Buswell (2011).  Keeping Special Forces Special: Regional Proficiency in Special Forces. M.S. Thesis. Naval Postgraduate School: Monterey, CA, 48. Available from

[3] Department of the Army, Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-05, Special Operations, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2012), Foreword. Available from

[4] William McRaven, Written Statement to the Senate, Advanced Policy Questions for Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, USN: Nominee for Commander, United States Special Operations Command, Senate Confirmation Hearing, 28 June 2011, 30.

[5] Headquarters, United States Army Special Forces Command (A), USASFC(A) Command Language Policy, March 2012, 5.

[6] For a detailed description of all Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) Proficiency levels see Defense Language Institute Foreign Language School, DLIFLC General Catalog 2011-2012, 2011, 51-65. Available from

[7] Headquarters, United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, USAJFKSWCS Course Catalogue 2013-2014, 2013, 32, 47. Available from

[8] USASFC(A) Command Language Policy, 5.

[9] USASFC(A) Command Language Policy, 3.

[10] DLIFLC General Catalog 2011-2012, 35-44.  All course lengths were cross checked in the Army Training Requirements and Resources System (ATTRS) 

[11] Frederick M. Jackson and Marsha Kaplan, “Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching,” Georgetown University Department of Languages and Linguistics, July 1999, 84-5. Available from

[12] Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, A Manager’s Guide for DoD Command Language Programs, 37. Available from

[13] A Manager’s Guide for DoD Command Language Programs, 43.

[14] A 1 December 2013 search of courses available in the Army Training Requirements and Resources System (ATTRS), showed Intermediate SOLT (ISOLT) courses in the following languages: Dari, Persian-Farsi, Russian, Arabic-MSA, Chinese Mandarin and Pashtu-Afghan.  However, these courses are only capable of holding 

[15] Scott McGinnis, “The Less Common Alternative: A Report from the Task Force for Teacher Training in the Less Commonly Taught Languages,” Association of Departments of Foreign Languages, 1994. Available from

[17] Army Doctrinal Publication (ADP) 3-05, Special Operations, 8.

[18] Many authors have stressed the need for Special Forces to achieve high levels of cultural as well as regional proficiency in addition to language skills.  See Buswell.

[19] Rusell Howard, “Cultural and Linguistic Skills Acquisition for Special Forces: Necessity, Acceleration and Potential Alternatives,” JSOU Report 11-6 (December 2011), 35.  Howard points out in his study that learning culture and language simultaneously has a symbiotic effect that yields more long-term benefits than learning either alone. 

[20] Howard, 36-7.


About the Author(s)

Sean P. Walsh is a candidate in the Masters of Science in Foreign Service program at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.  Prior to beginning his studies at Georgetown, Sean Walsh served 7 years as an Army officer first as an infantry officer with the 2d Stryker Cavalry Regiment and then as a Civil Affairs officer in the 95th Civil Affairs Brigade. His last piece in Small War Journal was “Lopsided Wars of Peace” with COL Brian M. Michelson.



Tue, 11/30/2021 - 10:02am

It is very important that young people are trained, it is very important for their future. I also learned different languages when I was at the military academy. I recently found an interesting article about caught buying essays in college and I recommend everyone to read it.  Writing service testimonials can help you make the best decision for the job.   


Thu, 04/01/2021 - 9:59am

The knowledge of languages is important in every sphere. I try to learn several languages to feel free in any country. To combine it with my studying, I use some services that help me write my assignment and visit different online language courses. I need to be the best, so the guys from this resource do my university assignment for me on the highest level. I suppose the military industry will be better if it pays more attention to this aspect. 

Outlaw 09

Sun, 04/27/2014 - 10:59am

In order to shift to the old style SF UW practiced by many of the SF teams in the 60/70s and even into the 80s languages were key---once that decision is made and supported everything else is easy.

The Why is the hardest the How is the easiest as it seems everyone commenting here has a bad story on the How--if it is decided at the highest senior leadership then simply implement.

This link is interesting in that many of us in Det A and then later in Company A 10th SFGA in Bad Toelz learned our languages as a complete team in Oberammergau and then got the chance to use it continually in UW training missions and operations---ie immersion.

With the inherent slowing of the ops tempo and the downsizing of the coming SF budgets---there will be more than enough time to learn, practice and employ a foreign language.

The old days of SF were tied to UW and everything came out of UW (UW is all about languages and cultures) and still does-whether DA, SR, or Stay Behind---it is out of UW SF was originally designed to be and the height of that ability was Det. A---every current SF team should aspire to follow their lead in the coming years.

"Throughout the Detachment's time in Berlin it was known, and unknown, that Det. A was a unique and diversified, unconventional classified unit. The Detachment had utilized all of the Special Forces tactics during this time, such as unconventional warfare, stay-behind, direct action, and anti-terrorist operations.

Detachment A was an extremely well trained and highly dedicated unit and very culturally diversified. A specific type of Soldier was instrumental in the success of the Detachment's missions. Men were brought in with a wealth of knowledge about other nations, different language capabilities, and many other specific skills."

It is and will always remain in the world of UW---all about languages.


Wed, 04/30/2014 - 8:44am

In reply to by golfdelta

Perhaps by having team members embed in foreign communities at home.....Arabs living in Michigan, Asian communities along the West Coast, etc, etc.... team bubbas can maintain language skills at lower costs...?


Tue, 04/29/2014 - 12:28pm

In reply to by Lloyd Sparks

Last point first - agree with importance and expansion of language pay.

You second point - "after the initial introduction to the language (assume you mean 6 months at SWCS), the student must continue to work in his job while studying."

At this point SFQC graduates have learned how to walk...spending time on a team and deployments teach him to run. If your thesis is that guys must spend additional time studying language then everyone will have to either give up personal time or sleeping. Part of my comments focused on the fact that whether training a Group or an individual, there is always a finite amount of white space. This zero sum gain means something has go if something new moves into that training board.

"This will focus his study on the skills and vocabulary he’ll need most and eliminate the problem of decay of his MOS skills such as happens with a year or more away at DLI."

With regard to vocabulary, I criticized the DLPT - much of it is fluff that is a waste of time that isn't relevant to real world requirements. Your statement implies that guys can train on all of the required skills simultaneously; I disagree for the reasons I discussed at length on my post.

Your first point - "language training must be done in the native culture. This isn’t about learning to pass a language test; it’s about learning to communicate with natives on their turf. Why the hell are we teaching languages like Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic in California?"

Is it your position to move hundreds of SF dudes to foreign countries for language training? I can think of a number of issues; money, time away from families, not to mention the 600 pound gorilla of golden opportunities for foreign intelligence to target our guys. Immersion should be integrated but how would one “eliminate the problem of decay of his MOS skills” in foreign countries? JCETs and deployments offer the chance to do both language and other skills training by their very nature. I question how one would realistically train shooting/commo/demo/medical and all the other basic skills we do in a non-combat or JCET deployment whose focus is language.

You mention the ability to train guys to be nearly-native in three years. I would like to hear more about how men can fulfill all requisite duties, both CONUS and OCONUS, become highly proficient in that time frame, and apparently spend lots of time TDY in foreign countries, while still maintaining some semblance of familiarity with one’s family; sign me up!

Lloyd Sparks

Fri, 04/25/2014 - 11:21pm

Very disappointing. No new ideas and no addressing the reasons why these old approaches continue to fail. It takes only three years to get a soldier to near-native fluency. I’ve been doing it for over two decades.
First, language training must be done in the native culture. This isn’t about learning to pass a language test; it’s about learning to communicate with natives on their turf. Why the hell are we teaching languages like Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic in California?
Second, after the initial introduction to the language, the student must continue to work in his job while studying. This will focus his study on the skills and vocabulary he’ll need most and eliminate the problem of decay of his MOS skills such as happens with a year or more away at DLI.
Third, language pay should not only continue but expand. It is a hugely cost effective motivator.

Marshall Wilde

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 4:40pm

Just curious - I'm not SF, but I've taken a couple SOFTS Online VTC classes and found them to be quite good, if appropriately supplemented by individual effort. You commented that they were not effective. I'm curious if that's your personal observation or the result of a study, and if you think that the ineffectiveness of that program is due to lack of effort/available time for the soldier to complement it or some other reason?


Wed, 04/09/2014 - 11:49pm

Well done paper.....I and the dozen or so CA and SF pax in our Cat IV Serbo class seldom got to use it , much less train in it. OIF, OEF, Africa, Romania...even Canada. You're given a language, then sent everyplace it's NOT spoken, and denigrated or even penalized for not maintaining an arbitrary score.

At least you asked for DLI. I psyched myself out of even asking, didn't figure I would even get a shot.

Again, well done Sean.


Fri, 04/11/2014 - 6:19pm

In reply to by golfdelta

Shouldn't there be the worry of passing language just like another phase?

If your an E-5 and above at DLI and don't pass, there was a high likelihood (at least when I attended) that a soldier would get an AER with "failed to achieve course standards". That served as a great motivating factor. I unfortunately knew an good captain or two who did this in the late 90's and found themselves on the wrong end of a majors promotion board.


Wed, 04/09/2014 - 9:32pm

In reply to by Wyatt


Don't let the dirty little secret out about how many hours a night SWCS students spend on homework instead of going out drinking in Bragg chasing some tail after being starved/trained and finally have a chance at "academia" without the worries of passing any other phase...

I spent more hours because I wanted to be a better asset when I showed up and got a Team assignment(MY CHOICE)...but yeah, lots of time chasing girls at Bragg. I made sure I was a great speaker before leaving SWCS, but that only meant I was mediocre before going overseas a couple times to buffer my skills. If I would have spent more time treading water at Bragg at Language School, I would have become fatter and more lazy...period. No offense to the unlucky schmucks who drew duty to be SWCS cadre from active teams...but nobody....nobody...wants to be freaking tapped to go to SWCS.

Disagree with you my brother WRT the speakers ala 2/2 3/3 being Team Daddy of Warrant...these cats guide and tell us what they want us to do...then WE do it. Conversely if your Zulu and Warrant only were speakers, your entire team would be handicapped ala Big Army like a bunch of privates waiting on orders.

Autonomy, ability to speak and deal with foreigners, and trust in team members to relay those data to leadership is a keystone.

My comments WRT USASFC's goals remain: I cannot see anyone who will convince me that the current methodology to train future SF personnel is either viable or sustainable.

be safe, gd


Wed, 04/09/2014 - 7:56pm

In reply to by golfdelta

An honest estimate of how many students in SWCS study their language an hour a night in my opinion would be around ten to fifteen percent, at least in arabic. The curriculum is set up so there is very little homework to be turned in because the contractor teachers don't want to grade it. New vocabulary is learned in class along with grammar which is opposite of the college model of learn at home practice in class.

As far as people wanting to finish the course, its an absolute truth and I'm sure its always been that way. Consider how dedicated the 18D candidate would be who spends 3years of his first enlistment trying to get to a team and DO HIS JOB if you told him to just go ahead and plan on another 36 weeks of language or whatever before he sees his team. He would lose his mind.

Let people be team guys, thats whats going to retain talent, not an extra 6months in SWCS. Add additional training for those who show promise later. If you are going to have a 2/2 or 3/3 on a team, it should probably be the Team Daddy, Fox or Warrant anyway right?


Wed, 04/09/2014 - 3:16pm

Everyone agrees that the plan is “ambitious.” That is a great phrase used by staffs, similar to parlance used in meetings like "we can speak off-line" (translation: shut the f**k up and sit down). USASFC is delusional if they think SF Teams can achieve their proposed level of proficiency without big changes. A number of things will prevent this.

First, unless an ODA member is physically separated (be it DLI or another institution) there is ALWAYS something going on that will 'urgently' require his presence back in the Team room. SF Teams are different that Infantry platoons/etc in many ways, but when there are only 12 dudes on a Team, the absence of one creates a proportionately larger impact. So, if the plan is to employ local GSA approved linguistic instructor, then it must be understood that while that guy's place of duty may be in class for ~8 hours a day, he will have to go back to the Team room to help out - this is the nature of not leaving the rest of the guys to work alone. We tried a project where our entire ODA's "place of duty" was at the local language lab for instruction, but the reality of that didn't last long. This methodology is purely an "additional duty" as opposed to freeing up a Team member to focus on language.

Second, trying to expand the amount of time for post-BSOLT studies will not bear fruit. Having spent, for some specialties, nearly two years in training and chomping at the bit to get to a Team, making new guys spend another "X" amount of weeks doing MORE language training will the perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. I understood how important language school was but could NOT WAIT to get to a Team. This feeling is common throughout all SWCS students. Allow guys to graduate, get on a Team, deploy, and then consider language expansion.

Third, the article doesn’t discuss the importance of deployments’ effects of creating better speakers, assuming that one is deployed in a target language region. Having gone through three instructors native to three different Arabic speaking countries was a challenge when learning the basics, as regional/national differences in language can be stark. Further, learning Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) assumes one will be speaking with a local who has a fair-higher level of education. Deployments are immersion, and the sort of immersion wherein people die if things go wrong…this isn’t making a mistake on an order at a restaurant. Learning to differentiate how and how to say to different people, be they uneducated mud hut dwellers or tribal/military leaders, is invaluable real-world experience whose value isn’t always registered via the DLPT.

Fourth, the DLPT – be in version IV or the current version V; both are arbitrary and convoluted measures of one’s abilities. After taking version IV, we headed back to the Team room and joked about the number of times we might be able use test topics like “fishermen in the Mediterranean Sea finding an antique Roman statue” or other nonsense which would never be useful downrange. There needs to be a better mechanism to holistically measure and grade language abilities. Ask any of the guys their thoughts on Version V and you will hear the same.

Fifth, the willingness of a Group or USASFC to allow men to be gone from an ODA for an extended period of time will have to change. For my indefinite re-enlistment contract, all I wanted was a trip to DLI to concentrate on language. Yeah yeah, I know, it is in California but treat the trip just like you would for sending someone to Graduate School – big boy rules, but, you better come back with a 4.0 GPA and in awesome physical shape. The answer was not only ‘no’ to DLI, it was ‘no’ to any school. The obvious question; what is the cost/benefit ratio for USASFC to green light a ~ one year absence from an ODA to language school vice losing all the money spent on training if someone declines to re-up? Not only was I prepared to forego what had been, at various times, a high re-enlistment bonus, but it would be to accomplish exactly what USASFC now articulates as their primary goal.

This theme of allowing men to take time from regular ODA duties of deploy/return/refit/go TDY/prepare to deploy/deploy cycle would do two things; allow guys to take a break and catch their breath as well as expanding the language capabilities to attain USASFC’s stated goal. The big Army allows a certain percentage of their field grade officers/warrant officers a chance for an 18 month rotation to gain a Master’s degree. I agree with this and its second/third order effects for the force. Can SF not see the benefit of taking a number of our ranks and allow them the time to better themselves and, by default, better the SF community as a whole?

With regard to the cost evaluations, it is embarrassing that a paltry $23M would be considered an exorbitant sum to produce a full complement of trained SF speakers. Why on earth should the SF community feel bad about requiring money to gain a skill that we have thrown away on expensive interpreters? While on that topic, let’s not forget the negative second and third order effects of using those guys i.e. unsure loyalties, whether they actually convey what should be stated, and worse, after repeated rotations they begin to think they are ‘cool guys’ and assume a different posture than their duty position merits. They are pulling down crazy salaries for supplying a skill set that SF guys could and should be doing.

Good speakers and great speakers are a combination of things, but you cannot force this and certainly cannot accomplish high goals without some major changes. Leadership should revisit the SOF Truths and then evaluate what best courses of action will achieve those goals.


Wed, 04/09/2014 - 6:59pm

In reply to by TominVA

Another huge advantage of immersion is that you get exposure to language and culture as they actually exist, and as they are used in the field. A GSA-approved language contractor is likely to be giving you language as it was spoken in the national capital (or in the linguistic core for multi-nation languages) 30 years ago... and languages do change, sometimes dramatically, over time and with distance from that core.


Wed, 04/09/2014 - 12:19pm

For the average Soldier or Marine on patrol, basic vocab and a few phrases will suffice: "Where are the men with machine guns? How many men?" - that sort of thing.

For Army SF with a foreign internal defense mission - training, planning, building alliances - fluency is a must. Ambitious, yes, but given the mission, I don't see how you get around it.

I'll pile on with the other comments here though and say that immersion i.e., living and working daily with native speakers, is probably the only way to achieve this.

BTW, in my case: four years of high school French, two years in college, and I could barely communicate at the end of it.

The emphasis on classroom training seems odd to me... perhaps take a leaf from the Peace Corps book and give 8-10 weeks of language and culture training in the classroom followed by a period of total immersion in a community, with an informant but ideally with access to no other English speakers. Learning language and culture are a lot like learning to swim: the sooner you get in the water, the faster you learn.


Tue, 04/08/2014 - 6:16pm

In reply to by Bijagos

Agree that USASFC's goal is very ambitious. As I write in the article

An analysis of the current Special Forces foreign language program indicates that it will be almost impossible to reach the goal of a 2/2 and 3/3 qualified Solider per ODA without major changes to the training language program. Using training at DLI as the standard for the length of time required to achieve high-level proficiency, it is clear that there is an enormous gap between a typical Special Forces Soldier’s initial language training and what is required to achieve a 3/3 or even only a 2/2 in all but the easiest to learn languages.

You are correct that DLI and FSI are the standard for learning difficult languages. It is only through extensive initial acquisition training that someone can achieve high-level proficiency. 120 hours a year will barely maintain a language, let alone help increase proficiency.

After 20+ years in State, 5+ in SOF, this is an unobtainable objective. Original SOF of Banks and OSS was based upon native languages. The goal may be obtainable in Spanish speaking countries, but it is highly unlikely in Africa, Central Asia, Asia, or the Middle East. Been working with SOF in French and Arabic speaking countries for 10+ years. Not meeting even one guy per team at 1+/1+ who doesn't seemed to have cheated on the test. Unfortunately, that is the state of affairs. State and Agency programs need to be followed. They're not much better; but at least they appreciate how hard the game can be.

We're so hamstrung with costs and predictions that we have lost sight of the fact that we have personnel with language proficiency.

The cost of training an individual into a new MOS with language abilities ?

We were treated as second class military far outside of our MOS and it did not seem to matter then.

How ironic, that someone finally figured out we were worth thinking about.

A bit late and tons of text to justify their April paychecks !