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The Impact of Language Ideology on Military Interoperability

  • Published
  • By Major Philip Tice 


Figure 1 From AFCLC Culture Guide
Figure 1 From AFCLC Culture Guide

            Language plays a role in almost every human interaction. Because it is so commonplace, we rarely think deliberately about how we use it. This “Iceberg Analogy of Culture” image has become a common way to explain culture in a broad sense, demonstrating that there are certain aspects of culture that are visible and others that are below the surface and harder to recognize. Language is one of those cultural facets that is above the water line because it can be observed, recorded and analyzed with relative ease. However, speakers of every language hold certain cultural beliefs – or ideologies – about their language that they gained from their specific environment. These beliefs include socially acquired ideas of proper grammar, correct ways of speaking, or even attitudes towards language variation. Those beliefs, as demonstrated in the image, lie below the surface and can be difficult to evaluate. Understanding the ideologies – the underlying cultural assumptions – of our international partners is especially difficult if we do not understand our own ideologies. Failing to examine our own cultural beliefs about language can lead to flawed approaches to international activities. To work with foreign partners more effectively, it is vital to consider the different ways we think about language and use it. Taking time to consider our own language ideologies as well as those of our foreign partners can help us to refine our practices and approaches in simple ways that can yield more positive interactions.

Language Ideology

Figure 2: Cultural Beliefs and Behaviors are in a constant cycle of informing and modifying the other.
Figure 2: Cultural Beliefs and Behaviors are in a constant cycle of informing and modifying the other.

Linguistic anthropology and related fields have been concerned for many years with the study of language ideology.1 One way to define the concept is as “sets of beliefs about language articulated by users as a rationalization or justification of perceived language structure and use.”2 Speakers of every language hold certain beliefs about language that they gained from their specific social environment. These beliefs include ideas of proper grammar, correct ways of speaking or even which accents are better than others. These ideas are absorbed from society and are usually taken for granted. Most speakers never question their assumptions about language because they are unaware that they are assumptions. In this fashion, based on our own social experiences we unconsciously form beliefs about language which impact the way we employ language. The way we use language is then observed by others whose beliefs about language are also impacted. This goes on and on in a continuous cycle that Pierre Bourdieu recognized beautifully when he said “every linguistic interaction, however personal and insignificant it may seem, bears the traces of the social structure that it both expresses and helps to reproduce.”3

Our beliefs about society and culture are based on our own interpretation of what we witness. That means that if we lack certain information or were not in a good position to observe, our beliefs may be flawed. Many academic studies have failed to address language ideology as beliefs so that some linguistic theories have perpetuated ideologies as fact rather than as ideas. Despite strongly held beliefs about language and how it is “properly” used, language is characterized by variation rather than adherence to rules. A native, educated speaker may have learned what correct grammar is in school and believe that is what they use, but observation of their language habits will inevitably demonstrate discrepancies between the two. Precise pronunciation of words occurs only in the most formal circumstances. Linguistic analysis based on interviews and questionnaires has treated responses driven by ideas about language as fact even when those ideas are not born out in practice. These unquestioned beliefs become more problematic when we consider standard language ideology. 

Whenever we encounter standard language, we are dealing with an invention. Milroy acknowledges that this idea at first feels wrong to most people because culturally we tend to hold in our minds that certain forms of language are “correct” and therefore other forms of the language are less “correct.” “This belief takes the form that, when there are two or more variants of some word or construction, only one of them can be right. It is taken for granted as common sense that some forms are right and others wrong, and this is so even when there is disagreement as to which is which. Usually there is no disagreement: the utterance I seen it, for example, is obviously wrong, and I saw it is – equally obviously – correct.”4

This “common sense” feeling about language is nevertheless a culturally acquired attitude and does not reflect real language use. Standard languages became the standard only after many years of academics taking the time to codify rules, grammars, and spellings to facilitate communication across populations separated by time and distance. This codification process is arbitrary and artificial but results in something that becomes extremely important to the culture it came from. As standard forms become established, they take on a place of greater legitimacy and other forms become less legitimate in the minds of the speakers.5 Language standardization may occur naturally as a group of speakers converge on certain linguistic aspects and abandon others, but official standard languages come about through deliberate human intervention.6 Official language standards are the product of national or academic decision-makers who chose which aspects of grammar, spelling, and pronunciation would become the standard. Once they had been taught in schools long enough, it became common knowledge that there was a standard and it was easy to tell who was using it and who was not. But just because a standard exists does not mean that it replaces non-standard forms of speech. On the contrary, non-standard forms of language are more prevalent than standardized. National languages are standard forms that developed in different societies through different means. Over time, positive and negative attitudes about the standard inevitably develop. Setting up one variant as the standard eventually leads to feelings about which form of language is better, more educated, and therefore more valuable. 

Maintaining Language Standards

Language standards usually become entrenched in society through academic efforts and policies. History has shown that it serves the interests of national identity and broader communication goals to have and maintain language standards.7 While national and local governments often have something to say about the subjects that are taught, schools teach “proper” grammar and spelling and only in the classroom do we become concerned with parts of speech and verb tenses. Likewise, it is through academic institutions that those same standards are enforced. Home environments can help to reinforce “good” grammar, but that will vary greatly depending on the level of education and societal expectations of the parents. The native tongue that we learn as children is almost unrelated to the national standard because we learn it as a societal tool and not as an academic subject. With the amount of variation in spoken language, schools and universities must continually teach linguistic standards to maintain a common format for academic discourse. To achieve those ends, educational institutions regularly test students to measure their adherence to grammar rules, vocabulary, spelling conventions and so on.

In the United States we are especially focused on those literary standards. Graduation from secondary education is based solely on the ability to demonstrate mastery of those accepted scholastic standards and has little to do with how to apply knowledge. Admissions into higher education institutions are based almost exclusively on high school grades and standardized tests. Later, when an individual applies for a job, those same academic credentials are examined to find employee candidates. Possessing a high school diploma indicates some familiarity with Standard English conventions, while a bachelor’s degree from an American university assures the potential employer that the applicant has exceeded that basic level and can produce articulate English-language documents. Because we use these tests so often to determine suitability for specific jobs, we routinely overlook that these tests do not measure aptitude for a job. On the contrary, what they test is literacy – adherence to that arbitrary language standard. 

What about our foreign partners? What is their relationship with national language standards? What was their educational journey and what academic standard was used? Keeping in mind that no two national academic standards will be identical, we should be very aware of the potential disparity between the literacy of the average American and the average citizen of another nation. Being aware of that potential disparity, we should question how we posture ourselves in military contexts to work with foreign partners and agencies.

Military Applications

The US military and how it functions is a product of US culture. While this is to be expected, we must examine some of the ideology and beliefs that have led to current practices. Examining ourselves through that critical lens can reveal areas that might create friction when we interact with foreign governments, militaries and individuals. Standard languages – and the culture and ideology that surrounds them – play a prominent role in US military operations. 

Like other professions, there is a basic level of education required for entering the Armed Forces. In the US military we require that all enlisted personnel possess the equivalent of a high school diploma, and all officers have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. As mentioned previously, those educational standards are largely concerned with language standards. Additionally, enlisted candidates are administered the ASVAB and officer candidates take the service-specific test for the branch they hope to enter. While these tests are nominally more concerned with determining skills and aptitude for certain jobs, they are still primarily literacy tests. As Americans we normally operate in a monolingual society. While most are aware that there are large populations in the US that speak Spanish or another language, the expectation is that we all speak English. This might appear to be trivial on the surface but consider the fact that around 5% of personnel on active duty in the US military were born outside the country.8 If a candidate can’t understand the question they read, then they will likely answer it incorrectly – even if they actually know the answer. How many applicants are turned away or are incorrectly assessed, not because they lacked the requisite knowledge, but because they lacked the requisite language?

This problem becomes even stickier when we begin working with foreign counterparts. Foreign governments and militaries have different hiring criteria as well as different academic standards. While US military hiring practices place a great emphasis on literacy, we must be cognizant of the fact that our partner military forces do so to varying degrees. While we expect even our lowest ranking enlisted person to be passably literate in Standard English, we often find ourselves working with partner forces who are less literate or even illiterate in their own nation’s standard language. As mentioned previously, national language standards become the standard through a variety of paths – not all of them benign. Additionally, many societies are bilingual or multilingual. These countries might have more than one official language or an official language that is only spoken by a minority of citizens. What this means is that local cultures can have vastly different exposure to and attitudes towards standard languages depending on their history. Consider the case of African nations where indigenous languages operate alongside European languages from the colonial era, or parts of Asia where multiple dialects intermingle daily or Arab countries that use different language variations for formal and informal occasions. Most countries will have some standard language as the national or official language. But how do the citizens feel about those national languages? Is it widely available to the masses or is it the language of the educated elite? Is competency in the official standard language a requirement for military service?

These questions should give us pause again when we consider how we prepare ourselves to work with partners from different parts of the world. The challenges arise both when we send US service members abroad as well as when we bring foreign troops to the US. Our cultural predisposition towards literacy can create challenges when we go to work with foreign partners for an exercise and we rely on written plans or written orders. If literacy is not widespread amongst the foreign partner force, then most of the personnel become reliant on a small handful to explain the plans and supporting documents. Or, if we present the plan in the national language, we might assume that the information is understood when only a small percentage of the partner force speaks the official language.

Security Cooperation is a critical component of our defense strategy, but much of our focus on preparing for such activities is on language testing. Those testing standards are based in American educational methodologies with no consideration for our foreign counterparts’ educational backgrounds. Before a member of a foreign military can attend training in the US, we require them to pass the English Comprehension Level (ECL) test. This test has nothing to do with their specific job nor does it take into consideration any prior experience they may have in the field. It is strictly a language test. Consider the hypothetical case of an NCO who has worked as a flight line mechanic for twenty years. Before we allow them to attend a maintenance course in the US, we require them to pass a test in a second language. We are literally obliging them to demonstrate literacy in English when they might be functionally illiterate in their own language. Furthermore, the test is administered as if the maintainer must comprehend English from a vacuum. No external aids, no opportunity to speak with another person or to ask clarifying questions. Such a scenario, where the student is completely isolated and with no recourse but their own knowledge of English, is so unlikely that it’s hardly worth entertaining. But we test every applicant as if that is the situation they will be in.

On the other side of the equation, we use the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) and Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) to determine which US service members are capable of filling overseas billets or supporting different activities with foreign partners. These tests are also built on academic language formats and focus on testing to standard language criteria. This training and instructional approach has been the norm for decades despite constant feedback that learning standard languages has inadequately prepared them to interact with their foreign partners. Furthermore, like the ECL, the tests themselves are extremely rigid and are executed in a manner that has almost no bearing on any real-world situation. When was the last time you had a job to do and were told that you couldn’t talk to another member of your team or use any research material? The DLPT and OPI are administered as if you live in a world where for some reason you don’t even have access to a hard copy dictionary. The reality is that virtually every member of the US military has a smartphone which gives them access to online dictionaries and translation tools, yet we test as if jobs rely on them having memorized every vocabulary word in their target language. Our language-enabled personnel need to be familiar enough with the appropriate language to do their jobs and be competent in using the tools and applications that exist to support them. Yet we train them in language practices that aren’t appropriate and test them as if no tools exist.


American culture is steeped in standard language ideology. Through our societal experiences we develop expectations about how people speak in professional environments or how professional documents should be written. When we observe someone using incorrect grammar or misspelling words, we judge them to be less competent and less credible based solely off their language use. But these language standards are arbitrary and do not demonstrate actual knowledge or job skill. We might believe that we speak Standard English, but do we really speak that way? We might expect “proper” English in professional situations, but is it necessary if the employee is competent in their core mission set?

These same standard language ideologies have far-reaching implications when we partner with foreign militaries. Awareness of these ideologies should cause us to question how we prepare to engage in disparate regions around the globe. Do DLPT, OPI and ECL standards provide useful metrics? As academic tools, they inevitably measure against an arbitrary standard that has limited bearing on daily life. How do our training and testing methods compare to linguistic practice? If standard language is not prominent among the partner force, how does this affect our ability to interact with those populations if we receive only formal language training? What barriers are we creating for ourselves by emphasizing standard language instead of functional language? When we acknowledge these different views and deliberately act to compensate for them, we will begin to see improved cooperation efforts. Our need to engage with foreign partners will continue to increase as time moves forward so our need to adapt certain practices should become a priority at all levels of planning.

Major Philip Tice 
Major Philip Tice is an instructor at the US Air Force Special Operations School at Hurlburt Field, Florida. He is a prior-enlisted Airborne Linguist who speaks Arabic and Spanish as well as a few other languages to varying degrees. After commissioning through OTS, Maj Tice was assigned to NASIC at Wright-Patterson AFB as an Intelligence Officer. Immediately following, he worked as a Security Cooperation Officer at the US Embassy in Muscat, Oman and then as an instructor at Air University’s LeMay Center. Throughout his career, Maj Tice has deployed on multiple occasions to various countries in the CENTCOM AOR. He is a 2006 graduate of the DLIFLC, received his BA in Linguistics from Brigham Young University (Utah), and recently completed his PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University. 


1. Alessandro Duranti, Linguistic Anthropology, Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

2. Kathryn A. Woolard and Bambi B. Schieffelin, “Language Ideology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 23 (1994): 57–58.

3. Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, ed. John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, Reprinted (Oxford: Polity Press, 1991), 2.

4. Milroy, “Language Ideologies and the Consequences of Standardization,” 535–36.

5. Milroy, 547.

6. Milroy, “Language Ideologies and the Consequences of Standardization,” 531.

7. Joshua A. Fishman, Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays (Rowley, Mass: Newbury House Publishers, 1973); Eugene Tartakovsky, “National Identity,” in Encyclopedia of Adolescence, ed. Roger J. R. Levesque (New York: Springer, 2011), 1849–62.

8. Laura Barker and Jeanne Batalova, “The Foreign Born In The Armed Services,” Migrations Information Source, January 15, 2007, 5.

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