A program contracted by the Department of Defense at the University of Montana has emerged as one of the top programs of its kind in the country, immersing U.S. troops and diplomats in critical languages and cultures where American interests are at stake.
Now three years old, the Defense Critical Language and Cultural Program at UM has launched several new initiatives to grow its program, including avatar-based learning, synchronized video teleconferencing and an immersion program in Korean.
“The bottom line is, we’ve grown to become the best language and cultural course in the U.S.,” said Donald Loranger, director of the program. “We’ve broadened our base to include other languages – Korean and Arabic – and we’re the school of choice for people who want to get fluent, which you need to do to win and the hearts and minds of people.”
The program is contracted by the DOD on a competitive basis, and despite UM’s rural location in Montana, it has managed to compete on a national scale, emerging as one of the top programs in the country.
Last year, the DOD awarded $6 million to its five critical language programs, including that at UM, the University of Indiana, North Carolina, San Diego State and Georgia.
Of that $6 million in funding, Loranger said, UM received the largest share at $2 million. It contracted again this year and is looking to expand its program, staying abreast of U.S. interests overseas and changes taking place on a global scale.
“As Pashto declines in its importance, and it hasn’t yet, we’ll have to be positioned to do other things,” Loranger said. “We started up our Korean program, and there’s more emphasis on Dari. We hope to do Chinese down the road.”
The program currently offers language and cultural training in Pashto and Dari, both dialects of Afghanistan. It also offers instruction in Arabic and, thanks to a recent hire, in Korean as well.
Loranger, a retired Air Force major general and pilot, said the language and cultural instructors are natives of the countries they’re teaching. It gives the training authenticity, and the results are evidenced in recent test scores.
Tracked by the DOD, the results show students at UM testing above the DOD standard in speaking, listening and reading. Test scores from cultural classes, which include subjects on Islam, demography, ethnicity and Afghan history, have exceeded DOD expectations.
“We cover everything from anthropology, geography, political science, Islam and the Palestinian question,” said Loranger. “Not only are our scores passing, they’re off-the charts passing.”
Loranger said most language training centers give the DOD a catalog with set dates, times and courses. The UM program is slightly different, with a schedule built around the students, including those from the Army and Marine Corps.
“Combatant soldiers are at the end of a whip, and they have a hard time fitting into those set schedules,” said Loranger. “We tailor our start dates around them and we tailor how long we’re going to have them. We shape some of the nuances of the courses depending on their specific military specialty, and we have to maintain the highest accreditation standards.”
The Montana National Guard also has taken advantage of the program. During the mobilization process, state soldiers attend several weeks of Army training, from marksmanship to convoy operations.
But they also receive training in language and culture from the UM program. Lt. Dan Bushnell, whose deploying soon to Afghanistan with the Montana National Guard, called the information useful, saying it helps state soldiers gain a better understanding of the cultures they’re expected to encounter.
“It gives soldiers a window into another culture they may or not be well versed in,” said Bushnell. “For us to be successful in that culture, we need a better grasp and understanding of it, so we can go to that host nation and be a good neighbor.”
Bushnell and other Montana soldiers receive a crash course in the Pashto language. They study cultural norms, learning that in Afghanistan, using the left hand or showing the soles of one’s feet is a sign of disrespect.
“What they (Afghans) find to be normal in their everyday culture isn’t what we see in Western society,” he said. “It’s a wealth of information for soldiers as they prepare for operations. It’s an appreciation and understanding so you don’t go into that host nation and make enemies out of allies.”
Loranger said there’s interest in introducing North African languages, especially as U.S. interests there grows with the fallout of the Arab Spring and the emergence of al-Qaida in Somalia.