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Defense > 5. Defense Language and Culture Training

The Department of Defense needs a more integrated approach to reduce fragmentation in training approaches and overlap in the content of training products acquired by the military services and other organizations.

Why This Area Is Important

Due to changes in the global security environment and operational experiences such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Department of Defense (DOD) has emphasized the importance of developing language skills and knowledge of foreign cultures within its forces to meet the needs of current and future military operations. Traditionally, DOD has focused on its professional communities of linguists and regional experts to ensure that it has the language and culture capabilities it needs. In recent years, the department has identified the need to build these capabilities within the general purpose forces and has spent considerable time and resources to establish language- and culture-related plans, organizations, and activities.[1]

Specifically, DOD has invested millions of dollars to provide language and culture training to thousands of servicemembers, including those deploying to ongoing operations. For example, GAO estimated that DOD invested about $266 million for fiscal years 2005 through 2011 to provide general purpose forces with training support, such as classroom instruction, computer-based training, and training aids. Since 2009, GAO has reported on management challenges that DOD faces in developing language and culture capabilities, indicating that opportunities exist for DOD to approach its language and culture training efforts more efficiently.



[1]General purpose forces are the regular armed forces of a country, other than nuclear forces and special operations forces, that are organized, trained, and equipped to perform a broad range of missions across the range of military operations.

What GAO Found

As GAO reported in May 2011, language and culture training within DOD is not provided through a single department- or servicewide program, but rather multiple DOD organizations oversee the development and acquisition of language and culture training and related products and deliver training. However, GAO has found that the department lacks an approach for integrating these efforts, which has contributed to some fragmentation of service training efforts and overlap and potential duplication in some of the language and culture training products acquired by the services.

To establish organizational responsibility for language- and culture-related efforts, DOD has established the Defense Language Office and designated Senior Language Authorities within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the military services.[1] Each military service has a dedicated organization that provides culture and, in some cases, language training to its respective forces, while the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center also provides language training to each of the services’ forces. GAO also reported that the Office of the Secretary of Defense had not yet established internal mechanisms to assist the department in reaching consensus with the military services and other DOD entities on training priorities, synchronize the development of service- and departmentwide plans with the budget process, and guide efforts to monitor progress.

In the absence of an integrated approach, GAO found that DOD has not approached its language and culture training efforts in an efficient manner. In particular, DOD and the military services have not yet reached agreement on the common language and cultural skills that general purpose forces need to acquire. Without such an agreement, each military service has developed an individualized approach for language and culture training that varies in the amount, depth, and breadth of training. Moreover, DOD did not have a process to coordinate training requirements for ongoing operations, and therefore multiple organizations independently established varying language and culture training requirements. As a result, the services have expended considerable time and resources adjusting their language and culture training plans.

In addition, the military services have not fully coordinated efforts to develop and acquire language and culture training products. As a result, the services have acquired overlapping and potentially duplicative products, such as reference materials containing country- or region-specific cultural information and computer software or web-based training programs that can be used within a distributed learning training environment.[2] GAO previously reported that when assessing delivery options for training, agencies may achieve economies of scale and avoid duplication of effort by taking advantage of existing training content, such as sharable online courseware.[3] However, GAO found that departmentwide working groups existed but had not been formally designated with the responsibility to develop training products that can be used by more than one service. In practice, while GAO found some individual examples where the services had coordinated efforts to develop or contract for similar language and culture training products, in most cases they did not take steps to coordinate these types of efforts.

To illustrate, GAO analyzed 18 DOD language and culture training products and found that the content overlapped to some extent with at least one other training product. While all of the products are intended for use by the services’ general purpose forces, there is some variance in the amount of language and cultural information contained within each product type. The following describes instances in which DOD might have increased training costs by developing or acquiring overlapping and potentially duplicative training products:

  • Cultural reference materials. Three of four services (the Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps) have used contractors to develop reference materials, such as “field guides” and “smart books” at a cost of about $1.6 million that contained similar general and country-specific cultural content. In addition, the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center has invested about $15 million to develop two products—”Countries in Perspective” and “Cultural Orientations”—that also offer country-specific cultural information, including some of the same countries addressed by the services’ products.
  • Distributed learning products for culture training. According to service officials, DOD obligated about $15 million on contracts within the period of fiscal year 2008 through fiscal year 2010 for three computer software or web-based distributed learning culture training products (for the Air Force, the Army, and the U.S. Joint Forces Command) that provided overlapping cultural content and similar learning objectives. For example, each of the products contained training modules for Afghanistan with learning objectives focused on behaviors to show respect and steps to avoid gender taboos. The same subcontractor developed the Air Force’s and the Army’s products, and the products generally did not contain information that was unique to the services’ primary roles and missions. At the same time, the Joint Staff was also developing another product that provides similar content as the Air Force and Army products.
  • Distributed learning products for foreign language training. The military services (the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy) and the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center estimated costs totaling about $63 million within the period of fiscal year 2005 through fiscal year 2011 to develop and acquire multiple computer software or web-based distributed learning foreign language products that offered some overlapping foreign languages. For Afghan languages, DOD invested in at least five products that were intended to build basic foreign language skills or specific language skills needed to perform military tasks.


[1]The Defense Language Office, within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, provides strategic direction and programmatic oversight to the DOD components, including the services and combatant commands, on present and future requirements related to language, as well as on regional and cultural proficiency. The office’s director reports to the Deputy Assistance Secretary of Defense for Readiness, who has been designated as the DOD Senior Language Authority.

[2]DOD defines distributed learning as structured learning mediated with technology that does not require the physical presence of the instructor. Distributed learning models can be used in combination with other forms of instruction or it can be used to create wholly virtual classrooms.

[3]GAO, Human Capital: A Guide for Assessing Strategic Training and Development Efforts in the Federal Government, GAO-04-546G (Washington, D.C.: March 2004).

Actions Needed

DOD has taken positive steps, but has not fully addressed the recommendations that GAO has made since 2009 regarding management challenges that can cause inefficiencies in DOD efforts to develop language and culture capabilities. For example, in February 2011, DOD published the Department of Defense Strategic Plan for Language Skills, Regional Expertise, and Cultural Capabilities
(2011-2016)
, but it still needs to take additional action. GAO recommended in May 2011 that the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness

  • establish a clearly defined planning process with mechanisms, such as procedures and milestones, for reaching consensus with the military departments; coordinating and reviewing approval of updates to plans; synchronizing the development of plans with the budget process; monitoring the implementation of initiatives, and reporting progress, on a periodic basis, toward the achievement of established goals.

Further, DOD published a September 2010 training strategy that called for eliminating unnecessary redundancy and duplication and leveraging the investments of stakeholders with similar interests to include identifying opportunities for shared use across DOD entities.[1] In one case, GAO identified actions that the Army and Marine Corps took to achieve efficiencies and save costs by reducing the number of contracts for language training products. DOD could also take steps to achieve greater efficiencies and maximize the use of resources by identifying and reducing any unnecessary overlap and duplication in language and culture training products. Specifically, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the military services should

  • designate organizational responsibility and a supporting process to inventory and evaluate existing language and culture products and plans for additional investments, eliminate any unnecessary overlap and duplication, and adjust resources accordingly.
  • take steps to coordinate efforts to contract for future language and culture training products where possible and collaborate on the development of new products that support co-use by more than one military service.

Because multiple DOD organizations have responsibilities for planning and developing language- and culture-related training, and budget and cost information is not captured in a centralized manner, determining definitive costs in this area is challenging. GAO was able to determine that DOD is spending millions of dollars to develop and acquire language and culture training products and deliver related training, but cannot quantify the actual cost of the overlap within the language and culture training products GAO identified due to these data limitations. However, based on the level of investments that GAO could determine that DOD is making, it appears that DOD has opportunities to achieve significant cost savings if it implements the actions outlined above.



[1]Department of Defense, Strategic Plan for the Next Generation of Training for the Department of Defense (Sept. 23, 2010).

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products section as well as additional work GAO conducted. GAO examined language and culture training investments for general purpose forces; missions, roles, and responsibilities among key DOD organizations involved in language and culture training; and the content of language and culture training products. GAO reviewed key documents, such as directives and training programs of instruction; analyzed language and culture products used to train general purpose forces; and interviewed relevant DOD and service officials. GAO obtained and analyzed budgetary and contracting information, where available, for language and culture training support provided to DOD’s general purpose forces. For example, GAO estimated the costs for this training for fiscal years 2005 through 2011.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DOD for review and comment. DOD provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate. DOD officials generally agreed with the facts and findings of the analysis. Specifically, officials recognized that coordination is important and noted that DOD entities have, in some specific cases, collaborated on the development of language and culture training products. The officials agreed that departmentwide coordination efforts could be improved and noted that GAO’s analysis would be useful in targeting specific areas for improvement. DOD officials also noted that a certain degree of overlap among training products can serve to prevent gaps and accommodate the differing missions and training needs of the military services. However, DOD officials recognized that, to avoid duplication and maximize available resources, the department needs to evaluate its existing language and culture training products and plans for future investments to ensure that limited resources are being utilized on quality products. GAO recognizes that some overlap in training products may be warranted to meet the unique mission needs of the military services, but by establishing an integrated approach, the department would be better positioned to reach consensus with the military services on the language and culture skills needed by general purpose forces as well as the content of related training products. Such an approach would also assist the department in evaluating the overlap in existing language and culture training products and eliminating any unnecessary duplication. As part of its routine audit work, GAO will track the extent to which progress has been made to address the identified actions and report to Congress.

For additional information about this area, contact Sharon Pickup at (202) 512-9619 or pickups@gao.gov.

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