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Foreign Language Education As A Component Of PME: History And Impact

  • Published
  • By Prof. Thomas W. Stovicek

In 2005, a time when post-9/11 operations had revealed that the DoD was in need of improved organic competence in the realm of language regional expertise and culture (LREC) capabilities, the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap was published, and called for the inclusion of regional area education in professional military education (PME).1 The first strategic goal described in this document is to create foundational language and regional area expertise, while recognizing that up until that time language skill and regional expertise had not been regarded as warfighting skills, and had not been sufficiently incorporated into operational or contingency planning.  Three desired outcomes are defined with respect to this first goal.

  • The Department has personnel with language skills capable of responding as needed for peacetime and wartime operations with the correct levels of proficiency.
  • The total force understands and values the tactical, operational, and strategic asset inherent in regional expertise and language.
  • Regional area education is incorporated into Professional Military Education and Development.

The guidelines provided in the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap led to the establishment of foreign language and culture training programs at graduate PME schools across the services by 2006 with academic and instructional support provided by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC).  Today, only one such program remains in operation. This article briefly describes some key events in the history of foreign language education (FLE) at U.S. graduate PME institutions, explores the question of what value this education provides to the DoD, and suggests what direction such programs might take through the lens of student feedback collected at the Maxwell AFB Language Training Detachment (LTD) between 2019 and 2020.

Presently, the Maxwell AFB LTD consists of five DLIFLC faculty members: one Site Director and four full-time language instructors (Chinese-Mandarin, French, German and Spanish). The LTD team is charged with providing culturally based foreign language instruction to PME students at the Air War College (AWC) and the Air Command and Staff College (ACSC).  The LTD faculty are regularly augmented by instructors from the DLIFLC Distance Learning division to increase the overall number of students the program can support and to provide instruction in additional critical languages such as Arabic-MSA and Russian, which often have lower enrollment than the languages taught by the resident LTD faculty members.

When Air University established the language program, all PME students at the AWC and ACSC were required to complete a 30-hour language and culture familiarization course. Beginning in Academic Year 2014 (AY14), enrollment in these courses became optional. In AY15, the LTD piloted the first full-AY elective course in German language and culture studies, developed and facilitated by Dr. Sandra Schoder, for which the students received graduate credit and underwent in-depth study of the target culture via English-language readings and discussions in addition to the language instruction provided to students in the familiarization classes. Today, in addition to German, ACSC students can enroll in similar electives for French, Chinese-Mandarin or Spanish. AWC and ACSC students who complete the familiarization course during their first academic term will also have the opportunity to continue their language study throughout the rest of their academic year at Air University. Approximately 125 to 200 individual students voluntarily enroll in these courses each AY, with many opting to re-enroll after completing their first term language courses. In addition to providing these language courses at the AWC and ACSC, the LTD team also provides regular support to the Air Force Culture and Language Center (AFCLC), which is co-located at Maxwell AFB and which serves as host to the LTD, by collaborating on projects such as Language Intensive Training Events for Language Enabled Airmen Program (LEAP) Airmen and Guardians.

To illustrate how the Air University came to be unique among PME venues by continuing to offer foreign language courses, let us turn to the history of PME foreign language programs from the 2005 publication of the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap to the present day. Following the call for regional area education in PME, the DLIFLC established the Professional Military Education Support (ProMES) program in 2006.2  Through the deployment of mobile training teams (MTTs), the ProMES program provided foreign language and culture familiarization courses at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), Ft. Leavenworth, KS; the Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL; the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), Monterey, CA; and the Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA. However, it soon became evident that not everyone was in favor of making such courses mandatory for officers undergoing PME at these schools.  A 2006 officer PME study conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps recommends divesting curricula of universal language training in favor of targeted training for those with aptitude and interest, while enhancing cultural training for all.3  Among other arguments, the study states that “language proficiency is best addressed at younger ages—the younger the better”.

Meanwhile, in 2007, the Department of Defense Instruction 5160.70, Management of DoD Language and Regional Proficiency Capabilities, includes an explicit mandate for LREC in PME venues. A few years later, in 2011, the ProMES program was dissolved when the DLIFLC Field Support division shifted their organizational structure from functional to regional alignment.  However, although by this time the language courses at NPS and Quantico had already dwindled, LTDs had been formally established and staffed at both Ft. Leavenworth and Maxwell AFB where robust language and culture education was still being provided to PME programs at the CGSC, ACSC and AWC.  In 2012, approximately 316 CGSC students were enrolled in DLIFLC language classes.4

The following years saw further decline in the enthusiasm for mandated language training in PME. One such development occurred in 2014 at Air University when language familiarization programs at ACSC and AWC become voluntary, ending the eight-year experiment in mandatory language training for some 750 PME students annually.5 Seemingly following the recommendation published by the Marine Corps University in 2006, the efforts of the LTD at Maxwell AFB LTD shifted to providing language training only to those PME students most interested in, and willing to pursue it. In 2015, the Officer Professional Military Education Policy dropped any explicit requirement for foreign language.6 Any explicit requirement for the inclusion of foreign language in PME was also absent from the 2016 Management of the Defense LREC Program.7 The foreign language electives at the CGSC ended quickly when the LTD at Ft. Leavenworth, KS was abruptly closed by the Combined Arms Center and DLIFLC in 2019. Neither student enrollment nor program success were called into question, but rather the absence of a clear requirement for language in the Joint Professional Military Education Program, as well as an overall shortage of DLIFLC instructor billets were cited as reasons behind this decision.    This brief history brings us back to Maxwell AFB, where the last remaining support to foreign language education in the PME context remains strong as this article is being written. The 2019 USAF Total Force LREC Program contains a requirement for Air University to integrate LREC competencies, lending justification to the continued operation of the LTD.8  Although the language classes are no longer mandated for all ACSC and AWC students, enrollment in the language program has remained fairly consistent since 2014 when the program became voluntary.

With foreign language instruction having faded from the scene at U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps PME venues, one may question the continued value of such a program at Air University.  For insight into this important question, let us now turn to the opinions voiced by students in the program. The LTD Site Director routinely conducts sensing sessions with students in the language courses at the ACSC and the AWC. These sessions are typically conducted at the end of a class period, and with the course instructor absent from the room. The Site Director guides a 15-20 minute discussion with a few open-ended questions about the program, and records the students’ responses in addition to any other feedback provided.  These responses are later compiled and summarized in a report for the instructor without attributing any specific comment to any individual student.

In a qualitative analysis of this student feedback collected during 2019-2020, a few trends emerged. Although it is important to keep in mind that the students who participated in these feedback sessions had all volunteered for language study, thus implying a certain level of intrinsic motivation, their opinions provide us with a snapshot of what the program means to the thousands of PME students who have chosen this option.

Language classes are relevant. It is common for AWC and ACSC students to emphasize the relevance of the language classes to their overall course of study at Air University. The study of foreign languages and cultures complements the students’ study of regional studies and global security issues. Some have affirmed that regional and cultural studies cannot be as effective without the study of language. ACSC students enrolled in the language and culture electives have pointed to the strong connections they have drawn between the topics selected by their language instructors and their core PME curriculum.

Language classes are practical. The students tell us that the classes are highly effective at developing initial proficiency in the target language (TL).  These students see the language classes as a high-value time investment. Furthermore, regardless of the proficiency achieved in the TL, PME students tell us that studying foreign languages helps them to develop their understanding of English grammar and teaches them to think in new ways.

LTD instructors are effective. Many students express amazement at how much language they are able to learn in less than a year of study, especially when compared to language courses taken during college or high-school. It is frequently stated by the students during these sensing sessions that their foreign language class is their favorite class, or that their language instructor is their best instructor.  One potential reason behind this sentiment is that the students find their language instructors to be highly adaptable to the individual needs of learners. The language class also seems to add some refreshing variety to these students’ rigorous academic schedule.

These PME students want more. One of the comments provided in nearly all feedback sessions is that the students would like the opportunity to participate in a short in-country language immersion to enhance their proficiency in the TL after studying it in the classroom for months.  AWC students often want to align their language study with their Regional Security Studies programs. In general, the students surveyed would also like to see their respective schools place greater emphasis on the language courses when planning and scheduling. Others have gone as far as to suggest that the ACSC language and culture elective courses should be treated as a special program within the school akin to other special emphasis programs currently offered. Several students have also suggested that the ungraded language familiarization courses should be recorded on their Air University transcripts.

While it is true that the TL proficiency gained by PME students while studying a foreign language part-time during an academic year cannot compare to that attained by full-time students in the intensive resident training programs at the DLIFLC, we should also recognize that general professional proficiency, or even limited working proficiency, has never been the benchmark for PME language studies. The goals stated in the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap were to “create foundational language and regional area expertise” and to “increase the number of people exposed to regional studies and help those learning a language to better understand the cultures of the people they will encounter in the region”.  The insights provided by PME students affirm that the Air University language program is meeting and even exceeding these goals.

Although it may be argued that it is not cost effective to mandate foreign language study for all military officers (and civilian officials) pursuing Joint PME I or II credit, the long-term impact of incorporating the opportunities for such study into PME programs is immeasurable. Not only do these students gain a foundational knowledge of a strategic language and culture, they are leveraging the opportunity to become stronger inter-cultural communicators with a demonstrated ability to view global problems through others’ perspectives. Furthermore, as they advance in their careers to fill key leadership roles in the DoD, they will carry with them a deeper understanding of the tactical, operational and strategic value provided to the total force by the language-enabled professionals serving under their leadership. Although the impetus for incorporating foreign language education in PME arose from the geopolitical context of the early 2000s, the need for strategic leaders to leverage LREC expertise remains equally critical today as is expressed clearly in the 2021 Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.9

With respect to the way forward, let us consider the advice of the many officers who recognize the value of LREC and choose to develop this skill.  Let us continue to offer and incentivize participation in robust opportunities for foreign language study in the PME context, keep track of the proficiency attained and seek optimal alignment between language training and duty assignments wherever possible.

The content of this article was originally presented at the 2021 Air University LREC Symposium.

Dr. Thomas W. Stovicek

Dr. Thomas W. Stovicek is an Associate Professor of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. Assigned as Site Director at the Maxwell AFB Language Training Detachment since November 2018, his previous duty assignments with the DLIFLC include Site Director at the U.S. Southern Command and Brazilian Portuguese Instructor at Camp Lejeune, NC. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Hispanic Linguistics from the Ohio State University and a graduate certificate in ESOL from the University of South Florida.


1. United States Department of Defense. Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, January 2005, 3-4.

2. Binkley, Cameron. Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center Command History, 2006-2007. Monterey, CA: Presidio of Monterey, 27 March 2013, 105-106.

3. Wilhelm, Charles E., Wallace c. Gregson, Jr., Bruce B. Knutson, Jr., Paul K. Van Riper, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., Williamson Murray. U. S. Marine Corps Officer Professional Military Education 2006 Study and Findings. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University, 29 September 2006, 37-38.

4. Binkley, Cameron. Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center Command History, 2011-2013. Monterey, CA: Presidio of Monterey, 09 May 2017, 141.

5. Ibid., 131.

6. CJCSI 1800.01E. Officer Professional Military Education Policy, 29 May 2015.

7. DoDI 5160.70. Management of the Defense Language, Regional Expertise, and Culture (LREC) Program, 30 December 2016.

8. AFI 36-4005. Total Force Language, Regional Expertise, and Culture Program, 10 May 2019, 24.

9. Biden, Joseph R. Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. The White House, March 2021, 22.


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