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By Miss D. Stammers

Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same thing, but learning another way to think about things – Flora Lewis

As stated in many New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) media awareness briefs, the NZDF is a well-trained and highly equipped force, prepared to take on any task in our Area of Operations (AO), however, there are some areas where we could do better. Language and culture are major barriers to success in foreign environments, and although it has been historically known that the NZDF has a high level of success when partnering with host nation forces we could enhance this through a program of language and cultural study. Our previous success is primarily due to our ability to get along with all nationalities, and to let their strengths shine through whilst developing their weaknesses. Our ‘no-8’ wire mentality allows us the scope to overcome most obstacles, however where language is concerned we are generally reliant on short common phrases or interpreters to maintain effective dialogue with those from other cultures. Language, and our ability to engage with the people we are working for and with, is a key part of developing our innate ‘Kiwi’ ability to relate to the local people in any AO. With the NZDF deploying to multiple areas of conflict and trouble around the globe, we need to broaden our scope of language training to enable better communication ability with different nationalities. Many foreign nations, particularly within the Five-Eyes alliance already conduct comprehensive language training for their soldiers, with a number of different approaches being employed. As suggested by the Flora Lewis quote above, language is not just learning how to say the same thing a different way, but is also learning how to think about things in a way which may not be familiar to us. This is an implied task when considering working with and promoting the best interests of the nations we are tasked to support. This essay is going to discuss the need for specialist language training to be available to soldiers, in order to enhance our already strong ability to relate to the people we are working with, and aid us in developing stronger working bonds with the people we are there to help.

The NZDF is currently tasked with multiple deployments from Egypt to South Korea.[1] All these areas have different languages, cultures and considerations to factor in when dealing with the local population. Historically, the NZDF has enjoyed strong working relationships with all nations, due to our innate character and our ability to work alongside anyone, bringing out their strong points and effectively developing their weaknesses.[2] Whilst we are achieving well in this area, there are steps we can take to enhance this, by improving our ability to communicate naturally with more nationalities and cultures. A key pathway for this is understanding their language and culture. Although some education in this area does generally occur within Pre Deployment Training (PDT), there is scope to increase our success by weaving this skill in to our own local training. This could be achieved through packages of training possibly developed through the Defence College, the Defence Learning Centre, or through lessons delivered by our own people as subject matter experts (SMEs). Language upskilling fits well with the NZDF’s current goal of striving for diversity within its forces, as stated by the Chief of Army during his end of year road show in 2019. Diversity does not come solely from employing different genders and ethnicities, but also through diversity of thought. Given the lack of widespread multiculturalism in New Zealand’s semi-urban and rural communities, many soldiers are unlikely to have limited exposure to different cultures whilst growing up, unlike those few who grew up in the larger population centres. The risk around this is that growing up in a more isolated community tends to develop a rather narrow-minded thought process within these soldiers, and although racism is not as much of a problem within New Zealand as it may be in other nations, there is still some trepidation towards the unknown. By training soldiers in other languages and cultures, we open their minds to different ways of thought, and enable them to work effectively with others whilst coming to their own conclusions and developing novel ideas around how to best facilitate the needs of those we are working with.

The NZDF has responsibilities not only to its current areas of influence, but also to its key outputs as required by the Government of New Zealand. These responsibilities lie within our Exclusive Economic Zone, as well as further afield- including the South West Pacific (SWP). These requirements have been outlined in the NZDF Plan, with the relevant key outputs to this topic being 5.1 – military operations in support of a rules-based international order, and 5.2 – military operations that contribute to regional security, including New Zealand’s immediate neighbourhood.[3] Our neighbourhood encompasses a number of countries, including, but not limited to, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Niue, Australia and Rarotonga/Cook Islands. With this widespread and diverse area to deliver outputs in, comes a new set of challenges around understanding culture and language. As the RAMSI forces found in the Solomon Islands in the early 2000’s, the understanding of culture and language, as well as the motivators and drivers of the local population, can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of any military and aid-related interactions. This was discussed in brief detail in the 2013 documentary Helpem Fren, particularly in one situation where following a disputed governmental election a protest rapidly turned violent when RAMSI forces were deployed to quell the protest without understanding the culture and reasons why the people were unhappy.[4] A greater understanding of the underlying issues could have led to quite a different outcome through the careful navigation of cultural and economic tensions in the area. At around the same time, the NZDF was deploying forces to Timor Leste. The soldiers deploying were given some rudimentary training in the local language of Tetun (a variant of Pidgin Portuguese). This provided minimal assistance with soldiers picking up one or two words during PDT, with greater fluency being developed through the course of the deployment. Soldiers at the time quickly realised the effectiveness of being able to at least welcome and introduce themselves to the locals, with a proportional increase in sharing of information observed when soldiers and commanders were able to spend a few minutes at the beginning of each interaction speaking in the local tongue. This could have led to an improvement in relations during the early stages of each cycle of deployment.[5] In more recent times, a sub-lieutenant in Iraq developed strong relationships with those commanders who he worked closely with to learn their language, and found that because of this he received a lot more ‘buy-in’ from those commanders and their subunits during training. He also gave an example of how the NZDF was made to look incompetent when delivering an Arabic translation of NZDF tactics and procedures. This was tasked to their attached interpreters, who delivered a poor translation, written from left to right rather than right to left as is custom. When this was delivered to a local Iraqi Colonel, the NZDF reputation was tarnished, leading the NZDF forces to instigate a range of conciliatory measures.[6]

Currently, the Defence Learning Centre does not have any resources available for language education, but from talking with others working in the language sphere, there are some resources available within the NZDF.[7] These packages, however, are minimal, and not well resourced. Recent information around options for language training within the NZDF suggests using an American website ( which promised a lot, catering for multiple languages (up to 80) as well as cultural considerations for most of these nations, yet failed to open and appears to be out of service at this time. This could be a valuable training asset to have, however from previous personal experience attempting to learn a language through correspondence-style learning, it can be very difficult to achieve the correct pronunciation and inflection when learning remotely. It was much easier to learn from face to face interaction during small group classes, and immersion training. From this, we can surmise that having the ability to develop SMEs in different language areas would be of added benefit to the subunit as a whole, enabling them to teach their peers in a face-to-face manner.

New Zealand’s Five-Eyes partner nations have comprehensive language training available at all rank brackets, with many delivering full immersion training opportunities alongside the traditional in-class learning. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has its own school for language training, the Defence Force School of Language Centre, which has been used for training languages since 1944. The school provides 53 courses at differing levels over 18 languages. The United States Military conducts classroom based training as well as regular three to six week immersion programmes for its employees. The immersion program sends students to countries throughout the world including Latin America, Africa and Asia. These students undertake language classes, cultural education, and out-of-class activities and excursions to enhance their knowledge of the customs and considerations.[8] The Canadian Defence Force has its own program for language training which is available for all employees to access through their version of DIXS called Autonomous Language Learning in Interaction with Elements in Synergy (ALLIES). This is a fully online system which encompasses a number of languages and allows students to practice reading, writing, listening and speaking a second language in their own time. It leads students up to the point where they are ready to sit a competency test prior to the use of the language in an operational role.[9] Within the United Kingdom (UK) there has been a push in recent years to enhance this skill, as the UK Ministry of Defence (UKMOD) realised the importance of language in national security. They initiated a system where soldiers (in particular) are encouraged to undertake testing to confirm their underlying competencies, and become registered as a speaker of a foreign language. Those who did not grow up with or previously learn a foreign language were encouraged to develop a second language as a core skill. The UKMOD also has the Defence Centre for Language and Culture, which covers core languages of Arabic, Dari, Farsi, French, Russian, and Spanish through listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Similar to the American system, the British offer in-class packages, as well as immersion programmes to promote a deeper understanding of the culture as well as the language. [10]This was taken up well by soldiers, possibly due to the cash incentive of up to NZ$22,000 for those who demonstrate language skills at a certain level.[11]

While these are a valuable assets for their respective countries, some language training systems are less applicable given the size and geographic spread of the NZDF. An online package similar to that which is delivered by the Canadians could be established within the NZDF, as could possibly sending high quality candidates on exchange/TOD to other countries’ programmes. Another option which has been done in independently by soldiers in the past, could see some soldiers attending non-military foreign language schools in Australia and Egypt for example. SMEs in languages not present within the subunit, such as Farsi, Arabic, Dari and other Middle Eastern or Asian languages would need to attend such courses, particularly with the majority of current operations being based in the Middle East area, and a large area of possible conflict in Asia, particularly South East Asia. Those who attend such courses would then become SMEs within the subunit, and subsequently pass on that information in a drip-fed style to their peers, enabling a greater scope of learning, and a broader uptake of the language for possible future deployments. This would also enable them to maintain their competency in their language and culture of choice.

A Health Professional, of the New Zealand Army health promotion team, takes mid-upper arm circumferences as part of a child growth development assessment in Vaentali Medical Centre, Rovo bay, Vanuatu on Exercise Tropic Major.

This looking outward for inspiration is well and good, but within our own units there are goldmines of language and culture knowledge, particularly considering the SWP. Due to the NZDF’s high proportion of Maori and Pacific Island soldiers, sailors and airmen, we are able to pull a large amount of understanding and education from within our own units. The NZDF currently (as at Feb 2019) has 358 Pacific personnel, 209 Asian personnel, and 22 Middle Eastern, Latin American and African.[12] Within 2/1 RNZIR itself there are 86 Maori, 12 Samoan, nine Cook Island Maori, nine Tongan, two Niuean, four Fijian and eight Asian soldiers.[13] These personnel are generally hard working, quiet, but well respected members of their sections, and have the opportunity to exert great influence on their peers by training them in the different languages of their families. This is an ideal opportunity for them to develop their leadership, their confidence in speaking in front of people, and their ability to fault check and provide feedback to their peers. Delivering lessons and critiquing peers develops soldiers’ skills, and sets them up for success in the future on courses such as Promotion All Corps RF Junior Non-Commissioned Officer Course, or other relevant coursing, as well gaining confidence within themselves, and increasing their Mana within the subunit. The opportunity for these soldiers to speak up and enhance learning within the subunit needs to be driven through the chain of command. Currently at Delta Company, 2/1 RNZIR, a number of SWP language SMEs have developed a series of videos, as well as a booklet of common phrases in a multitude of languages, including Cook Island Maori, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, Bislama and Niuean. The combination of the videos alongside the handout allows for pronunciation to be correct, with the added benefit of those soldiers being available for regular spot-checking of their peers encouraging an ongoing learning process. It is expected that further training in this area will see a larger range of phrases and terms being used, up to the point where most soldiers within the company are able to hold a short conversation in multiple languages. These languages have also been utilised in urban training scenarios, with key leader engagements (KLEs) being of particular benefit to this type of training.

It is not only important to develop this skill in a low-stress environment, but to be able to put it in place when scenarios are being played out and lives are potentially on the line. This could be done through using local civilians from other nations, or NZDF civilian workers, as role players for scenarios such as KLEs, vehicle check points, and general urban scenarios. This allows the soldiers to converse with civilians much like they would in an operational setting, and is similar to how the American Defence Forces train in their specific training facilities such as the Muscatatuck Urban Training Centre (MUTC)[14]. By training in this realistic manner, soldiers will develop a level of comfort working in an unfamiliar setting, and will be more capable of performing similar tasks in real-life situations, enhancing their already high inter-personal skills, and possibly influencing a greater sharing of information between locals and NZDF soldiers. This will improve the commander’s situational awareness and possibly provide solid information towards developing a broader intelligence picture.

Despite being a world class force in many areas, the NZDF has the opportunity to use our growth mind-set to enhance our reputation and skillset through the development of foreign language and cultural education. Many other Five-Eyes countries already have strong resources and programs in place which could be used as a start point to develop a NZDF specific framework. If each soldier were to be given the opportunity to develop a second or third language and cultural understanding, whether it be one of New Zealand’s local SWP neighbours, or further afield in the Middle East and Asia, they would become force multipliers. Their language and cultural skills would enable them to develop greater confidence in themselves, as well as to build stronger, more open relationships with the locals in any area they are likely to deploy into. This would lead to a greater situational awareness, and improve the trust between host nation and the NZDF forces. Soldiers would develop a wider scope of understanding, and increase the diversity of thought which the NZDF is striving for. The ability to use their language skills not only needs to be tested in a stress-free environment, but also in high stress situations, or ambiguous situations in training, to enable better transfer of skills into a threat heavy environment.

In the words of the late great Nelson Mandela – If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

[1] http://orgs/imx/hqjfnz/Pages/Operations.aspx, accessed 04 May 2020.

[2] Williams, Evan, ‘A Message from the Deputy Chief of Army’, Army News (issue 507, October 2019).

[3] Joint Forces, New Zealand Defence Force, The 2016-2017 NZDF Plan (accessed from DDMS 05 May 20).

[4] Helpem Fren – Rebuilding a Pacific Nation, viewed 10 Mar 20.

[5] CPL C, Interview with author 05 May 20, MAJ E-J, Interview with author 05 May 20.

[6] LT L, email correspondence with author 06 May 20.

[7] LT C, email correspondence with author 06 May 19.

[8], accessed 05 May 20.

[9], accessed 05 May 20.

[10], accessed 05 May 20.

[11], accessed 05 May 20.

[12], accessed 04 May 2020.

[13] Stringer R.G. for DHR HRMIS, email correspondence with author 04 May 20.

[14], accessed 04 May 2020.