Tuesday, May 28, 2019

It was an overcast, cold day in October 2008. We were in the crucible of the French Foreign Legion’s basic training: the infamous “Farm” where the legion introduces its newest recruits to its traditions, hardships and expectations.

That day, my platoon leader had me speak with a civilian teacher who was at la Ferme to analyze the legion’s methods of teaching French to foreigners. For about 15 minutes, I spoke with this teacher in French.

Even a few months before, this would have been difficult, if not impossible. In summer 2008, my abilities to communicate in French remained limited. This was despite a French minor from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, a semester studying in Paris, numerous vacations throughout France, and about two years when all my recreational reading was in French. When I joined the legion, I could read French novels with ease, but I had real trouble carrying on basic conversations with my French-speaking fellow recruits. After four months, however, I was speaking, thinking, writing and even dreaming in French.

Unique Method

Surely my previous background in French helped, but the legion’s unique language-teaching method—the Képi blanc method, named for the iconic Foreign Legion headwear—helped me overcome whatever had kept me from developing true French fluency.

Endless repetition of words and tasks, forced singing of French songs day and night, numerous French-speaking fellow recruits and the imminent threat of painful physical encouragement—all contribute to the legion’s ability to teach essential conversational French to new recruits from over 140 nations with speed and effectiveness. The legion’s goal is to ensure that during its four-month basic training, each recruit masters about 400 words, its estimated minimum for functional communication. In my experience, the legion easily met or surpassed this goal.

The Képi blanc method has unique characteristics, but it is similar to other successful language instruction. For almost 20 years, I have experimented with most language-learning techniques while developing functional fluency in at least six languages, and varying capabilities in several others. The Képi blanc method is excellent. I would also highlight the effectiveness of the Liechtenstein-based nonprofit Liechtenstein Languages. In first place, however, I would rank Israel’s ulpanim. These are schools dedicated to helping new immigrants develop fluency in Hebrew. No other nation or language-learning technique has ever resurrected such a complex language and made it the living language of over 6 million people.

Adapt Teaching Techniques

In the Army, we could probably develop similar and highly effective language instruction by adapting teaching techniques we already use at various levels of professional development. Call it the “drink from a firehose” or “sink or swim” method. For example, we send new infantry officers to a basic course and to Ranger School, then immediately upon arriving to their unit, expect them to adapt quickly and execute a wide variety of tasks they probably have never done in their lives, much less in their Army education. “Drinking from the firehose” is not always a pleasant form of instruction, but it is usually good enough for our line of work.

But the Army rarely, if ever, gives officers, especially junior officers, the chance to gain basic proficiency in a foreign language. Even more rarely do they get the chance to “drink from the firehose” in another language. Over the past year, however, I had the opportunity to do exactly this and attain functional fluency in a new language. This was not at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at Monterey, Calif., in another government language-teaching center or during a foreign exchange.

Instead, I gained proficiency in Spanish by taking the Maneuver Captains Career Course offered by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at Fort Benning, Ga. In early 2017, I discovered the course while looking for ways to study Spanish at Fort Benning. Curious about this Spanish-language course, I contacted the infantry branch and the course manager.

‘Drink From the Firehose’

Before long I had a slot for the April 2018 course. It was time to “drink from the firehose.”

The course I took is more or less a carbon copy of the English-language Maneuver Captains Career Course taught at Fort Benning that every infantry and armor officer must take before assuming company command. The U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence accredits this course, and about six take place each year. The course’s goal is to give maneuver officers the doctrinal foundation necessary to serve as company commanders and company grade staff officers.


Members of the Spanish-language Maneuver Captains Career Course visit the U.S. Army Armor School at Fort Benning, Georgia.
(Credit: Brazilian Army/Capt. Anderson Ribas)

Since the early 2000s, WHINSEC had offered a Spanish-language version of the Maneuver Captains Career Course for foreign students, but the course lacked accreditation from the Maneuver Center of Excellence and the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center. In October 2011, then-Brig. Gen. Sean MacFarland at the Combined Arms Center, WHINSEC’s higher command, directed WHINSEC to explore options to gain the accreditation needed to allow U.S. officers to fulfill their professional military education requirements by attending WHINSEC’s Spanish-language course.

By 2012, WHINSEC ran its first pilot Maneuver Captains Career Course with six U.S. officers and 12 foreign officers. Slight differences in course structure were necessary to account for the novelty of its contents to many Latin American students, most of whom had never before been to the U.S. But it covered the same material and doctrine as the English-language course. After two pilot courses, the WHINSEC course received its definitive accreditation in spring 2014. Since then, one Spanish-language Maneuver Captains Career Course takes place at WHINSEC every year.

Instructors From Latin America

This course’s small-group instructors come primarily from Latin American countries, as does the course director. Its current director, Lt. Col. Livio Ortiz, is from the Honduran Special Forces, and course instructors hail from Colombia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Peru. WHINSEC ensures its foreign instructors undergo detailed training to familiarize them with U.S. doctrine, and sponsors trips for them to observe U.S. maneuver units in action at our combat training centers. WHINSEC also maintains a regular line of communication with the Maneuver Center of Excellence to ensure course instruction mirrors as closely as possible the instruction in the English-language course.

Maj. Juan Rizo, currently the operations officer at WHINSEC, was a student in the 2012 pilot course and later an instructor for the Spanish-language course. There are probably few similar opportunities for U.S. officers to develop real “cross-cultural competence and interoperability at the tactical level” while simultaneously acquiring U.S. doctrine essential to progression as maneuver officers, he said. Rizo stressed that in this course, U.S. officers face the distinct challenge of figuring out how to perform and succeed as a minority in a group of foreign officers.

The course resembled some of my best past experiences with language learning because I had to focus not on language acquisition, but rather on survival by functioning and performing tasks exclusively in a foreign language.

When I began the course, my ability to communicate in Spanish was, at best, poor. Owing to a strong background in Latin languages, my score on the Spanish Defense Language Proficiency Test was sufficient to enter the course, and I could usually understand classroom materials and presentations written in Spanish. For at least six weeks, however, I was hardly able to understand anything my classmates said. Most of my peers in the course were Colombians with little or no knowledge of English.

Challenging Months

The ensuing months were challenging, but as we began the company phase, the course’s foundational core, I had enough proficiency in Spanish to be ready for our first operational order brief. After much trial and error, by the fifth and final order I could develop and brief the plan in Spanish to the required standard. I finished the course with a 3/3 on the Defense Language Proficiency Test, and I am confident I can conduct daily life as well as military planning and operations in this language, spoken by over 500 million people worldwide.

Currently, the course I took at WHINSEC is the only way for a junior U.S. maneuver officer to fulfill his or her military education requirements in another language. I hope other junior officers with an interest in Spanish and in Latin America will seek out this course, and that the armor and infantry branches will encourage their participation.

MacFarland and other senior Army leaders sponsored this course’s development to achieve specific Army leader-development goals. Today’s course meets their original intent while also providing U.S. officers the necessary preparation to serve as company grade officers.

If considering contingencies in Latin America, what battalion or brigade commander would not want a company grade staff officer or commander with demonstrated abilities to plan and brief military operations with foreign partners in their native language? The Maneuver Captains Career Course at WHINSEC provides this capability. This course also proves the Army has the ability to forge a quality Maneuver Captains Career Course experience in a foreign language. Although it would be a challenge, this success could probably be replicated in other widely spoken languages of vital strategic interest.

This is a modest but important step to address our broader problems with language proficiency in the force and to develop a cadre of maneuver leaders with cultural and linguistic skills honed for contingencies and conflicts in an increasingly multipolar world.