April 22, 2006

Language skills for US Special Forces

For obvious reasons, the past few years have moved language training to the head of the class. Language skills have always been a part of special operations, but the emphasis recently is dramatic.

By Mickey McCarter

Students at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS) in Fort Bragg, N.C., are experiencing a different approach to language training as they enter the school’s Special Forces Qualifications Course (SFQC). For example, the school has replaced its stand-alone program with a language-training regimen integrated through the six phases of SFQC.

The staff at SWCS has developed many of these changes in synchronization with the Department of Defense transformation roadmap, which calls for increasing language and cultural expertise throughout the careers of warfighters, according to Lieutenant Colonel David Fitchitt, secretary general of staff at the warfare center.

“Once a soldier is selected at the end of Special Forces Assessment and Selection [SFAS], he is immediately handed some language tools, and he’s told what language he is going to learn, so that he can go back to his unit even before he comes back here for his formal language training and study,” Fitchitt told Special Operations Technology. “He’s got language products such as Rosetta Stone and our Special Operations Language Training [SOLT] program available to him on disc and in hard copies.”

Assigning a Special Forces soldier a region and language once occurred much later in the training process, Fitchitt noted. But now, the soldier has much more time to become comfortable with the region to which he has been assigned and thus has more time to prepare for language training.

As part of this new way of doing business, the warfare center has chosen to concentrate on 10 languages and provide lifelong focus on them, as opposed to chasing after “crisis languages” that could change too often for training purposes as the U.S. military enters into conflicts around the world.

The Special Forces groups therefore focus on varying combinations of the 10 core languages. They are:
1st SFG, Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and Indonesian;
3rd SFG, French and Arabic;
5th SFG, Arabic and Persian;
7th SFG, Spanish;
10th SFG, Russian, French, German and Arabic;
19th SFG, French, Arabic, Korean and Chinese;
20th SFG, French, Russian, Spanish and Arabic.

“The intent there is to improve the instructor base and the student proficiency,” Fitchitt explained. “We have raised the standards for a language for a soldier to graduate.”

The U.S. federal government employs a proficiency scale in which 1 indicates a basic competency in the language while a 4 would indicate the proficiency of a native speaker. Translators and linguists usually seek proficiencies at levels 2 and 3. SFQC students must now achieve a proficiency of 1/1/1 in reading, writing and speaking on the Defense Language Proficiency Test at the end of Special Forces training. Previously, students had to achieve a designation of 0+ in reading and writing alone.

In addition to restructuring the manner in which languages are taught, the school is making more efficient use of technology, Fitchitt added.

“We are employing a lot of technology and a lot of commercial-off-the-shelf stuff,” he said. “We don’t want to be creating something that is already available. We want to make use of industry. We are using Rosetta Stone, for example. The Army has just come online with making that available to everybody Armywide, and we have been doing that for over a year for our soldiers, once they are selected at the end of our SFAS. We hand them their language tools, and they go back and study that stuff on their own.”

The language tools can include commercial software applications and specialized programs, such as SOLT I and II (basic and advanced language training programs for special operations) as well as specific devices to help boost language-memorization skills.

For example, SWCS has begun incorporating the use of iPods into its language classes. Students use the iPods to listen to instructional podcasts to maximize exposure to their target language around the clock and make the best use of their after hours and weekend time.

While technology is important in this initial skills-acquisition environment, the Army also has employed it to sustain language learning in the field and to provide contingency learning in the event that a Special Forces soldier must pick up language skills outside of his or her area of expertise.

“The big piece is that language is important, but the broader aspect is culture,” stressed Lieutenant Colonel Paul Rounsaville, who runs the school’s contingency training program. “The societal aspect of the modern-day Special Forces solder, civil affairs or psychological operations soldier, [is that] this individual has to start learning about the region he is going to and really and truly become enamored with it. That’s the goal: for him to really enjoy it. He will want to learn the language.”


In addition to the Rosetta Stone software, USSOCOM has purchased specialized language-training software from Auralog Inc., based in Tempe, Ariz. In a purchase order dated September 6, 2005, USSOCOM bought the company’s Tell Me More Software, which Auralog modified for military use.

“We changed the exercises so that they are more conducive to soldiers and their learning environment as opposed to the academic or corporate environment. Any time you deal with the armed forces, you have to be mindful that those people may not be in the most relaxed settings. They may not have the most time available for study either,” Sebastian Louisoder, Auralog marketing manager, told SOTECH. So we wanted to make the software conducive to their needs in terms of the timeframe and the quickness of getting through the exercises and the quality of those exercises,” he said.

U.S. warfighters are most interested in the company’s Arabic language software, Louisoder said, but they also have used modules for Chinese, Japanese, French and German.

Military users can install the Tell Me More software on a laptop or desktop PC from a disc, or they can access it via the Internet.

“We have an online solution where they can have a username and password and log on to our server and use the program from there. It’s pretty convenient for the military,” Louisoder said. “We can also install it on their server so that they can have it on their servers and use it on their LAN network. It’s pretty sophisticated, and it’s very flexible to meet their needs.”

The Puerto Rico Army National Guard (ANG) also has employed the software with great success, Louisoder added. The ANG has used Tell Me More in an English-as-a-second-language program for its soldiers, who have learned English at a very rapid rate with the software, he said.

“Their progress from where they first started to where they are right now is incredible. The results you see in how well they scored on tests or how well they use the program has been very impressive,” he said.


U.S. armed forces also have relied upon a number of devices to provide limited translation capabilities when servicemembers have not had the opportunity to learn the language firsthand. The rapid deployment of forces to Afghanistan and Iraq prompted the need for solutions to enable warfighters to communicate with local populations in the course of operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

Shortly after September 11, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency turned to VoxTec International Inc., based in Annapolis, Md., for a device that had some limited one-way translation capability. The company’s Phraselator, a handheld device much like a personal digital assistant (PDA), had been in research and development under a DARPA-funded small business innovation research program since around 1997, according to VoxTec’s President John T. Hall.

“Other than the DARPA funding, we have also had U.S. Special Operations Command as a big supporter of ours all the way back to 2001, and the U.S. Joint Forces Command has also been a big sponsor,” Hall told SOTECH.

The latest model of the Phraselator, the P2, was launched in 2003 after VoxTec incorporated feedback from troops deployed in the Middle East. Hall, a former U.S. Navy SEAL, came to the Phraselator project with a keen understanding of what U.S. military forces would require from a one-way translation device.

“For both the regular troops and the spec ops guys, it is being used to take control of situations, convey basic information, ask yes/no questions, and give directions and other information,” Hall said. “It’s both voice-activated and can be used as a PDA, so it has a touch screen.”

A variety of specialized software modules support the Phraselator, and warfighters can download modules depending on the situations they face, including force protection, field medic, military police and others. A soldier can say one of the pre-defined phrases into the device, which can then translate the phrase into Arabic, Iraqi, Pashto, Urdu or Dari, as well as languages from Asia, the Pacific Rim, Latin America and Africa.

“Another key thing here for the spec ops guys is that we have a tool kit,” Hall added. “It is a software package that runs on a laptop PC. It gives them the capability to customize the content out in the field. They are able to create their own phrases if they have a trusted linguist and they have a very specific mission or a very specific tasking where they want to do some translation and put them on the devices. It is a force multiplier if linguists are in short supply.”


DARPA is not an agency known for putting all of its eggs in one basket, however. It has funded the development of another one-way handheld translator, the SpeechGuard. DARPA contacted Ectaco Inc., based in Long Island City, N.Y., two years ago with the idea of creating another multi-lingual handheld device. The result was the SpeechGuard, which Ectaco has since diversified with specialized devices for law enforcement, medical services providers and transportation security officers.

“There are so many different things that SpeechGuard is capable of doing. The actual content in the Military SpeechGuard has been provided by the military, specifically by DARPA and the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force [REF],” noted Tim Houston, director of business development at Ectaco.

With the SpeechGuard, warfighters can speak into the device and it will translate into Arabic, Dari or Pashto, Houston said.

“One of the nice things about the technology is that the speaker-recognition engine is speaker-independent, which means that anyone can use it. It doesn’t have to be trained to understand anyone’s voice,” Houston explained. “The recognition engine recognizes English phonetics. As long as someone is speaking English into the unit, it will understand what they are saying and find the appropriate command, question or phrase and repeat it appropriately.”

As such, enunciating clearly really isn’t as important as many people think when using the SpeechGuard, Houston added. Whenever Houston takes the device out for a demonstration, a new user often speaks loudly and clearly into the device as if he or she were an English teacher. Houston encourages the speaker to relax and speak naturally.

“The speech-recognition engine has been developed so that it can understand over 300 different speaking patterns of people that speak English,” he said.

Warfighters have used the SpeechGuard widely at detention facilities in Iraq and have found them to be very effective, Houston added.

Voice Response Translator

Both the Phraselator and SpeechGuard were developed as handheld systems, but Integrated Wave Technologies Inc., based in Fremont, Calif., started work on a hands-free device even earlier.

Integrated Wave Technologies began work on its Voice Response Translator (VRT) in 1996 with funding from the U.S. Justice Department, said Tim McCune, the company’s president. Justice hoped to produce a device for use by police officers on patrol, who had to have their hands free to deal with trouble that they might encounter.

“It had to be totally eyes-free and hands-free,” McCune said. “If you are in a dangerous situation like a domestic dispute or at a traffic stop, engaging your hands so that you couldn’t handle a weapon puts the officer at risk.”

In the late 1990s, the military expressed interest in the VRT, McCune added, because warfighters often find themselves in situations where they had to keep their hands free to operate ordnance. “But our big difference isn’t that we have a headset,” McCune revealed. “Our big difference is that we can recognize speech in high noise with high accuracy.”

Indeed, the VRT can operate in environments that have more than 100 decibels of ambient noise, according to Integrated Wave Technologies. In addition, the device has nearly 100 percent speech recognition, reducing any errors that could occur when warfighters shout out at the device under fire.

“No one is going to take into battle a device that you have to hold in your hands so you lose situational awareness and weapons readiness,” McCune said.

Warfighters in Afghanistan and Iraq have used the device very effectively after a few hours of training, McCune added. They have used the VRT to capture weapons and people in situations that could be deadly. For example, search parties have used the VRT when sweeping houses for targets or munitions.

“The soldier could still have his eyes up and his gun up, and he’s able to issue commands,” McCune said.


Interestingly, not every device created for translation came to fruition under a strictly structured program targeting specific language barriers. Take the case of the PockeTerp Phrase Translation and Reference Device, developed by Exponent Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif.

“The Army didn’t make any requirement for this. In fact, they had requirements out for things that were almost impossible to build and required voice recognition, two-way communication and a bunch of other things for which the technology is only now emerging,” Dr. Rick Kremer, Exponent principal and practice director, told SOTECH.

Exponent had supplied experts to work with REF in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kremer explained, and those scientists and engineers basically work to overcome any problems encountered in the field. If something breaks, they fix it. If something doesn’t work to specifications, they upgrade it.

“We see problems and provide technological solutions,” Kremer said. “We are kind of like technological MacGyvers over there.” For instance, when some Exponent employees on patrol with soldiers in Afghanistan saw that the Army did not have enough interpreters to conduct as many search sweeps to find weapons and materials as they would have liked, the Exponent employees took action.

“[The Army teams] have one guy that can speak the language, but they have a whole company of guys and they want to do parallel searches of places,” Kremer said. “So they needed more ability to tell people what was going on, to tell the villagers what was going on. So my guys sat down that night and wrote up the first version of this software.”

The PockeTerp software is written in XML, which enables it to run on any device that can operate a Web browser. The application has access to phrases gathered over time from operators in the field, enabling one-way communications through a tap of an icon. A soldier selects the phrase in the browser and the device broadcasts a prerecorded message in Arabic or Pashto in response.

“You also can add phrases in any language you want, but it takes the time of finding a translator to read off what you want in the target language and record it,” Kremer added. “We set it up so that soldiers can add their own phrases when they come up to some new situations.” The XML files are available for free from Exponent, which soon hoped to post them on its Web site.

1 comment:

living online said...

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