The USMC has a comprehensive program to provide Marines with a mission centric language and cultural capability. MS&T’s Chuck Weirauch writes.

US Marines are often the first to be deployed to any military “hotspot” anywhere in the world. Learning the languages and cultures of any geopolitical area on the globe before deployment is essential, in large part, because many Marine missions have become more geared to those of a military advisory and humanitarian role rather than direct conflict. At the same time, operational environments are more complex, demanding a deeper understanding of their cultural elements.

While Marines remain in the Middle East region, they are now serving as advisors to indigenous military forces, as they are for many national military forces around the world. The service increasingly is becoming more involved in nation-building and humanitarian assistance roles as well. While DoD budget reductions have forced cuts in the total size of the service’s manpower, it still remains strong at approximately 182,000 active service Marines.

With the termination of direct combat activities in the Middle East, an increasing number of Marine forces are being deployed to other regions, in particular to the Pacific region and other areas. For example, in May of this year, the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-South was deployed to Central America to help train friendly forces there and to be in position to aid disaster relief during the 2015 hurricane season, while other units have been sent to South America in support of the US Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM covers 31 Latin American and Caribbean countries, with its territory extending to the Antarctic Continent).

More Marines are being deployed to the Asia-Pacific region as a part of the shift in US foreign policy, with increasing numbers being stationed in Japan, South Korea and Australia. And other Marines are studying such languages as Romanian and Bulgarian to support any potential deployments to that region of Europe.

The CAOCL Role

The Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture and Learning (CAOCL), a part of the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Va., is the service’s primary agent for all language and cultural training. While the CAOCL develops general-purpose curricula for Marine pre-deployment training and provides for its instruction and delivery, it also has created and administers the Service’s Regional, Culture, and Language Familiarization (RCLF) Program.

The RCLF is the basis for the mandatory career-long language and cultural learning program for those enlisted active service and Reserve Marines of the rank of sergeant and above, and officers up to colonel. The Marines want to make sure that they have culturally competent personnel in every unit, for now and in the future, for every operationally significant region, and the RCLF program is the service’s primary educational tool to help accomplish that goal.

The plan is to have the officers and enlisted Marines in a unit study the languages and cultures of one of 17 global regions to which that unit is permanently assigned. They will focus on learning these skills for the duration of their careers, according to Marine Administrative Message 468/10.The hope is to have at least one or two Marines in every unit have a solid understanding of any operationally significant region where such units might be assigned.

Under the RCLF program, there will be several blocks of progressively more advanced language and cultural training courses developed by CAOCL over a Marine's career, each to be completed every few years, coinciding with that Marine’s career progression. Failure to complete a block could adversely affect a Marine's career, although it is not a prerequisite for promotion.

Those service personnel enrolled in the RCLF program will also be required to take electronic language and cultural training courses that are available through MarineNet, the Marine Corps online knowledge portal. They will also be able to make use of the Defense Language Institute (DLI) Foreign Language Center’s Headstart2 program, a basic capabilities program featuring 34 languages that was developed by the DLI with the help of the CAOCL. Another resource available is the Joint Language University.

“The RCLF program a career-long training and education program that is designed to introduce, develop and sustain the foundational program across the total force,” said CAOCL Director George Dallas. “The program has four core elements, to it, but the foundation to it is Culture General, the knowledge and skills that are transferable across any culture in a specific region, with a language familiarization aspect to it.”

According to Dallas, for the most part, the CAOCL staff develops its own curriculum for the RCLF program, as well as numerous 80-hour pre-deployment language and cultural courses provided for Marine general forces. The Center features a Social Science Research section to keep abreast of trends developing in operational environments, as well as a Translational Research Group that studies behavior norms so that they can be integrated into the organization’s foundational curricula. These personnel also align the CAOCL curricula with service, DoD and Joint Chiefs of Staff requirements and standards.

“All of our programs, both the training and the educational programs, are designed with increasing levels of flexibility of thought; integrating the cognitive, affective and psychomotor elements of the Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives,” Dallas pointed out.”As a Marine progresses through the ranks, he is presented with increasing levels of complexity in order to develop this cross-cultural competence which is our end-state, providing the ability to fully operate in any environment.”

Even so, the CAOCL general-purpose pre-deployment curricula is based on about 800 key words and phrases that focus on social graces in the military domain, Dallas explained. It's more about communicating than speaking the language – working with an interpreter, yet teaching enough social graces for rapport-building while having enough of a vocabulary of key words and phrases to allow Marines to operate effectively based on their mission.

Keeping Relevant

With geopolitical environments in some regions experiencing rapid change, such as in the Middle East, keeping up with cultural shifts as new players emerge in the operational environment can prove to be a major challenge for those involved in providing cultural training. Doing so is just a part of the job for the CAOCL staff.

“One of the great things about having language and cultural SMEs on board is that we can react to the ever-changing world,” Dallas said. “So we have had a large effort over the last year dealing with ISIS and the impact that ISIS is having on culture in the Middle East. We also have done a lot of work on Boko Haram and the impact that they have had in Africa. And we took a look at how the October earthquake in Afghanistan and Pakistan to see how that might impact things in that area, for example. Then we work with the appropriate Marine Expeditionary Force to design the training that they need based on their mission in those areas.”

In order to keep up on what Marine forces need, the CAOCL’s Translational Research Group conducts a number of surveys with units to find out what these forces want and how they want it delivered in terms of pre-deployment training. The organization also provides the means for students of its classes to provide immediate feedback to instructors both on quality and content, and has officers in each of the operational groups so that so that CAOCL can provide the training that they need in preparation for their deployment. The CAOCL is also ready to determine how they want the training delivered – with instructors in the classroom or in the field.

Since a primary function for the Marine Corps these days is serving in an advisory role for various national military forces, the CAOCL supports advisor training with the organization that is primarily responsible for Advisor Training, the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group in Fort Story, Va. According to Dallas, for example, one of the organization’s Latin American instructors is currently is providing a month of instruction in Spanish for advisors headed to that continent in support of USSOUTHCOM.

“So we do support adviser training, mostly through the Marine Corps Security Office Security Cooperation Group, but we also provide that training to civil military operators as well, Dallas said. “We also provide cultural advice to commanders in the field. The Marine commander in Bahrain has one of our SMEs on his staff, advising him on things that are within his area of operation, for example.”

Along with the shift in Marine deployments is of course a shift in the emphasis on certain language and culture training courses offered through the CAOCL. According to Dallas, last year the organization offered ten focused languages that were taught live. This year there are fifteen.

“We have seen a shift away from languages like Pashto and Dari to the Black Sea romantic languages, including Bulgarian and Romanian,” Dallas said. “We have seen some Pacific languages begin to surface, and we have done Korean and Tagalog, Japanese and Maylay, along with a couple of other of Pacific country languages that we are focusing on now. And we have also begun to split the Arabic languages. Traditionally, it's been modern standard Arabic, but now we are getting into Lavintine, Egyptian, and Jordanian Arabic languages -- some of those finer dialects based on where Marines are deployed.”

Along with the shift in language and cultural focus, the demand for CAOCL training support is growing as well, as various US regional commands have increased their needs for language and cultural training. According to Dallas, tour training numbers “have been going way up” for the organization.

“Whereas a few years ago, we were primarily focused in supporting the US Central Command (USCENTCOM – includes 20 countries considered to be at the center of the globe, such as Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq and others in the area), we are now balanced across the globe,” Dallas reported. “However, CENTCOM is still playing a major role, but we have seen a rise in requirements from Africa, Europe and SOUTHCOM.”

“We have seen kind of a leveling of the numbers,” Dallas continued, “but certainly the shift has occurred from CENTCOM principally to the US Pacific Command (USPACOM – 36 nations in the Asia- Pacific region). For example, in 2013 about 67 percent of the training we did was in CENTCOM. Today, it’s 30 percent, In PACOM it was 13 percent, but now it is 30 percent. And our total numbers are up, along with the number of languages. So I think that people are understanding what this kind of capability brings to the operational commander, and they are taking advantage of it.”