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Boot camp, camouflage, guns - and Farsi lessons?

The Defense Language Institute is at the forefront of the Pentagon's growing emphasis on linguistic and cultural skills.

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The Pentagon makes no secret of the fact that Staff Sgt. Aaron Jarvis will soon be one of its most valuable assets in the war on terror. Yet the most important part of his daily training does not involve a fighter jet, a rifle, or an obstacle course. It involves only a classroom and constant conversation, as Sergeant Jarvis unravels the peculiar pronunciations and subtle scrawlings of Dari, one of the two official Afghan tongues.

To Jarvis, a one-time pizza-store manager who has already learned Serbo- Croatian as an Air Force linguist, the switch to Dari is just another assignment here at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). But more broadly, it is part of a fundamental shift at the Pentagon, as leaders increasingly see foreign-language skills not as a peripheral part of the military's mission, but as crucial to the success of American forces abroad.

In the future, officers could be required to have some familiarity with a second language; enlistees might receive language instruction during basic training. No decisions have yet been made. Yet when the Pentagon released its Defense Language Transformation Roadmap last month, it made clear its view that security in a post-Sept. 11 world requires not only a military capable of deploying to the remotest corner of the world at a moment's notice, but also soldiers capable of coping with the cultural and linguistic challenges they meet when they arrive there.

"We think this is, in the end, an essential war-fighting skill for the military of the future," says David Chu, undersecretary of personnel.

A linguistic roadmap

The Pentagon's roadmap offers only a general outline of what language skills it feels are needed in today's military. Yet its goals are ambitious. In essence, it seeks to take language from the perimeter of military life - the province of intelligence specialists translating documents and listening to radio chatter - and make it a more seamless part of modern soldiering.

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