Military Language Program Extended a Third Year at U.Va.

October 11, 2011

October 11, 2011 — The U.S. Department of Defense has extended an ROTC scholarship program at the University of Virginia that aims to increase the number of people fluent in languages such as Chinese and Arabic.

U.Va. has received $500,000 over the past two years through the ROTC Language and Culture Project of the National Security Education Program for "Project GO," which funds intensive summer study of seven languages designated as "critical," both at the University and overseas. The Defense Department will provide $298,000 for the coming year, a nearly 20 percent increase in its allocation.

U.Va. is one of only 20 schools in the country participating in the language program.

"This has been a fantastic program," said Col. Jon Wolfe, commander of the Air Force ROTC program at U.Va. "For some, these will be skills they will use on active duty as intelligence officers and for other duties."

U.Va. offers seven languages that qualify for the program – Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Russian, Hindi/Urdu, Persian and Swahili, said Project GO's principal investigator at U.Va., Richard J. Cohen, who is managing director of the Asia Institute in the College of Arts & Sciences and a professor in its Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures.

Chinese and Arabic have been the most popular, he said, adding that rigorous testing of intermediate students before and after the program measures its effectiveness.

Cohen and the ROTC commanders review the applications and select the cadets for the   eight-week intensive courses, which carry a year's worth of language credits. The programs are usually immersion courses, with the students speaking the language exclusively. Some of the students take the courses on Grounds, while others travel to overseas sites.

Wolfe said an important element of the program is that cadets learn not just the language, but also the surrounding culture.

Army cadet Joseph Riley, a third-year politics and Chinese language student in the College, said he was able to live on his own in Beijing through Project GO.

"This not only forced me to speak Chinese at all times, but it also forced me to reach out and make new Chinese friends," he said. "Because I was not with Americans, I could not follow American customs or traditions. Instead, I had to adapt my lifestyle in a way that was entirely compatible with the Chinese."

Riley said he was able to work one-on-one with his instructor and has become fluent in the language. 

"It has played an integral role in helping to develop my Chinese, a skill that will be extremely beneficial both to me personally and to the Army," he said.

Lt. Col. Timothy P. Leroux, commander of the Army ROTC program, said the students range from beginner to intermediate speakers. He said soldiers must be able to speak the local language, whether they are gathering intelligence or providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Arabic, Russian and Chinese are tied as the most popular languages for Army cadets, Leroux said. "Language is critical if you are going to make friends," he said.

So far, 56 cadets have taken the program through the University. Most have been U.Va. students, through some have been ROTC cadets at other schools affiliated with U.Va.'s ROTC programs. Last summer, 24 scholarships were awarded, and Cohen said he will use the additional money to increase enrollment.

"The cadets pay for some of it themselves," Wolfe said. "But for the amount of money the Department of Defense is putting into it, it is getting a good return."

Wolfe said a cadet who had studied Swahili in Kenya was able to assist him in a class on Africa he taught to his Air Force cadets, and Leroux said a cadet who studied in China will speak at a conference on China at the Virginia Military Institute.

"Everything is competitive and having language skills and cultural experience sets the cadets apart from their peers," Leroux said. 

The cultural experience helped Air Force cadet Brett Goodwin keep up his studies in Arabic. He took the program at U.Va. this summer, and as a beginner, found the language difficult.

"It was hard, but I like a challenge," he said. "I learned a lot about the people and the culture."

Goodwin, a second-year student in the Engineering School, said he developed a respect for Arab culture and it helped him break through some stereotypes.

He is continuing his studies in Arabic and said he would like to live in the Middle East for a while, as a student or by being stationed there.

Primarily Army and Air Force cadets have taken advantage of the program. Capt. Timothy Watkins, commander of the Naval ROTC program, said that the Navy's summer training requirements make it very difficult for his charges to participate.

"It's a great program, but it would be a lot of extra work for our guys to do it," he said.

— By Matt Kelly

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications