Speaking in tongues: Language, culture and the future of the military

September 01, 2009

North Carolina State University has received a grant that will make it a hub for teaching future military leaders the language and cultural skills they will need to address conflict in critical parts of the world, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

NC State will use the grant to create intensive language training courses that will allow students to take the equivalent of a first-year language course in six weeks. NC State will serve as a hub for other University of North Carolina system campuses and will vigorously recruit new students to the program. The language courses, which will be held in the summer, will focus on three critical languages in the first year: Arabic, Chinese, and Urdu. Two additional languages will be added in the second year: Persian and Russian.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Ratashak, who heads the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at NC State, says the grant is crucial because the military's future leaders "must experience first-hand the languages and culture of our global neighbors to better prepare them to minimize or resolve regional conflict."

Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC cadets and midshipmen from NC State will have priority in registering for these courses, says Dr. Ruth Gross, head of the university's foreign languages and literatures department. However, ROTC cadets and midshipmen from other area universities will also be permitted to enroll in these courses at NC State. Furthermore, Gross says, non-military NC State students and students from other American universities will be allowed to enroll, contingent on seat availability.

Gross says the grant will also allow NC State to incorporate cultural education into the ROTC training curriculum by bringing lecturers into ROTC training classes and creating an Internet archive of cultural and language education material that students can use. The approximately $500,000 grant extends over two years, though it is expected to be renewed for a third year for an additional $250,000. The grant was awarded by the International Institute of Education with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Gross says the grant will also be used to create scholarships for ROTC cadets and midshipmen who have already completed a summer intensive language program to attend study-abroad language training courses in various parts of the world, giving them the opportunity to integrate their cultural and language skills in a real-world environment.

"ROTC is training officers who may be sent to areas where cultural and language skills may be critical," Gross says, "and we're hoping to give them some familiarity with those skills.

"If these efforts lead to an increased interest in studying these languages and cultures," Gross continues, "we may be able to develop more programs in these areas - and become a center for critical language study."

North Carolina State University

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