Intellect and innovation for warfighting capability.

Idea Pitch – All Eyes (Ears and Tongues) on the Not-So-Far-East

November 24th, 2016 by Jonathan Hibbert

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Force

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Force


  1. The figures used here are drawn from the most recent figures attained from education administrators, and the Manager Languages – Army.
  2. To limit the scope of this topic, the discussed niche is the Officer Corps, though the rationale used herein can be applied to all-corps and ranks.
  3. ‘Chinese’ refers to Chinese (Mandarin), the study of which is conducted at the Defence Force School of Languages (DFSL), Laverton, VIC.

BLUF: Military process and a generalised lack of understanding about the pathways by which to study languages in Defence, means that potential linguists fall through administrative cracks.  This needs to change if the Australian Army is to develop the linguistic skills we need for the future.

Articles and press releases herald the growing might of China, and the importance of building Sino-Australian ‘bridges’ is discussed at meetings and in messes country-wide. At present, only a small number of Australians are skilled in Chinese, and in the Australian Army there exists only a small pool of recognised linguists. This Pitch will contend that a number of barriers exist that preclude potentially suitable candidates from studying at the Defence Force School of Languages (DFSL). It will recommend changes to the career management, recruitment and training of linguists, and to the identification of linguistic talent.

Australians study languages – but we don’t do a great job

From a young age, many Australians are taught a continental language at primary school. In Victoria, for example, many schools offer Italian. This is reflective of the humanist desire of post-WWII educators to assist with integration and acceptance of European immigrants. I believe that the generalised introduction of languages such as Italian to many primary and secondary school syllabuses has been highly beneficial over time. One must only look to the northwestern corridor of metropolitan Melbourne to find a vibrant bustle of cultural cross-pollination.

Language trends, however, have not modernised.  In 2015 there were 172,878 students of Chinese across the country, but only 4402 studied it at a Year 12 level, with Victoria having almost four times as many students as any other state. Despite calls for a study of Asian languages to be compulsory, it appears the appetite for Asian-language study fades as students approach Year 12, and as you’ll soon see, the numbers we maintain in Defence are minimal. Bottom line, we don’t have many people studying Chinese across the country. Given the winds of regional change, this presents a geopolitical problem that should be a high-priority concern not only for business and government, but also for the military.

The Military selection process hinders language study – it’s the ‘vibe of the thing’

To study Chinese, in general, Army officers must fulfil the following criteria:

  1. Pass General Service Officer (GSO) training at the Royal Military College Duntroon (RMC-D) – 18 months, and a selection board
  2. Sit a Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) – conducted by local Mental Health and Psychology Sections (MHPS)
  3. Attain a Level 3 or 4 pass on the MLAT
  4. Be allocated a posting through close liaison with the relevant Careers Advisor (CA)
  5. Be promoted to Captain (generally)

While these points seem obvious, the barrier they pose is considerable. Although postings to DFSL on Strategic Engagement Courses are allocated as ‘all-corps’ – if one peruses the DOCM-A Gazette, and listens to accepted logic and pursues the ‘Command, Lead, Manage, Train’ career path – it appears at first glance that unless one falls into AUSTINT, RAInf or RASigs Corps, one is less likely to be considered competitive for a year at DFSL. There are no figures to back me up, and although I highly doubt anyone is being obstructionist, to quote the inimitable Dennis Denuto; ‘there is no one section, it’s just the vibe of the thing’.

Testing – the pass rate problem, and not everybody gets a go

From 2001-2013, the Army relied on the Defence Language Aptitude Battery test (DLAB) for the assessment of linguistic potential. This had a historical pass-rate for Chinese of 23.18%. In more recent years, the transition to the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) has seen an annual pass rate of 9.72% (figures from Directorate of Occupational Psychology and Health Analysis). Does this drop reflect a genuine decline in potential, or just a qualitative oddity? In its current form, it appears the MLAT may continue to filter 90% of all people who attempt it from accessing Chinese-language study. Less students equals less capability. Our trust in this test needs to be well founded.

Whilst almost 10% of personnel tested did achieve the required mark, we must also ask how many officers have never conducted the MLAT? Data on this appears minimal.  Apocryphal tales suggest that hesitant chains-of-command, and a generalised lack of understanding about the process required to conduct the MLAT and study at DFSL, result in minimal amounts of officers conducting the required testing.  This needs to be addressed.

Training – is it long enough?

Since 1990, Army has trained 3-5 members in Chinese annually, with this number expected to be five in 2017. The average home-speaker of Chinese at five years old is more fluent than a Year 12 ‘classroom learner’ after nearly ten years of study. Noting reports from DFSL attendees, the level of fluency following graduation is debatable, considering the complex tonal nature of Chinese. That isn’t to devalue the program at DFSL, the point is, that it’s a long time and a lot of money to dedicate to people who aren’t guaranteed to be fluent.

Each year, one graduate is afforded the opportunity to study for 12 months in China, and 1-2 students for about 20 weeks. This ongoing training is highly necessary, but it comes with a high cost; and without the guarantee of effective ongoing service from trainees, who may well choose to use their hard-earned skills in the corporate sector or in other government organisations. A two-year Return of Service Obligation is attached to a year-long course at DFSL, but what’s two years for someone who wants to get out and make a packet working as a consultant?

No explicit data exists for analysis, however; considerable skill-fade is noted in postings following training at DFSL. Maintenance of the language is considered an individual responsibility, though in a mainly Anglo, middle-class, male-dominated environment, where sub-unit and unit training levels have primacy over individual skills, degradation of language skills is inevitable.

Strategic environment – lagging behind

It could be argued that having English as a first language is a gift, but knowing only English is a poisoned chalice. Jane Orton’s 2016 study echoes Jimmy Haw’s article indicating ‘…our centres of Chinese Studies [need to] be training more Sinologists who think strategically, think about Australia-China relations, think about China’s relations with the world, so that in the future, institutions like the ONA [Office of National Assessment] or the Lowy Institute no longer lack a ready supply of China specialists with the mix of qualities and qualifications they require.’ It’s not just the ONA that need qualified linguists…

The 2016 White Paper makes a number of references to the central role of China in establishing a peaceful and stable North Asia and Indo-Pacific, and that Defence is ‘committed to continuing the development of Australia’s defence relations with China.’ There are, however, few gazetted spots for Army officers to learn to speak Chinese. Despite appearances, we are not organisationally disposed to have a sizeable and effective, consistently deployable cadre of appropriately ranked Chinese linguists.

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Force

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Force

How I think we could tackle this problem

Every officer conducts the MLAT. While this will create a significant burden on local MHPSs, this is an easy task to implement. The Manager Languages – Army (MLA) has indicated that students in II Class at RMC-D may soon be required to sit the MLAT – this is an effective way of capturing the enthusiasm and academic thrusting that exists at RMC-D.

Should this not eventuate, another opportunity is that all officers could complete the MLAT during the conduct of the All Corps Captains Course (ACCC). Considering imminent promotion from Lieutenant, and a posting to DFSL being appropriate for a junior Captain, this would ensure that all relevant ACOTC courses have been fulfilled before the commencement of a strategic engagement course. By not providing all officers the formal opportunity to sit this test, I believe Army is doing itself a disservice. By encouraging members to take the MLAT, the pool of talent from which to select suitable candidates from would markedly increase.

Recruit Linguists (SSOs). Army needs to provide career options for bright students emerging from Year 12 and University with an interest in Chinese. Taking into account the administrative requirements outlined previously, the best on offer is a protracted four-year (minimum) wait to enter DFSL and no guarantee of an exciting or relevant career. Apocryphal tales suggest that DFAT and other OGAs present much more attractive options. We have systems in place to recruit Physiotherapists, Doctors, Nurses, Accountants, Lawyers – the list goes on – as SSOs, so why not recruit linguists (or cultural specialists)? The counter-point is that Career Management Agencies will be affected, and a new employment manual needs to be raised – though this divergent change could be the impetus for a culturally-agile military workforce.

Establish LANGS North. With DFSL located in Laverton, VIC, satellite schools already exist in Perth, Canberra and Sydney. Funnily enough, these are nowhere near the Brigade Garrisons of Brisbane, Townsville, or Darwin. Army shoud consider the establishment of satellite schools in Brisbane, Townsville and Darwin to allow short, initial and refresher courses for personnel from the northern garrisons, and to service the ever-present need of 1 Int Bn. This could be integrated with local universities and could open pathways for further study of International Relations.

Establish online linguist modules accessible to everyone. The idea of using Rosetta Stone as a tool has been floated before. Could we once again offer language courses to Defence members free-of-charge through ADELE or Campus?

Final thoughts

The above recommendations are not outlandish, and similar schemes have been proposed in previous working groups and White Papers. The onus is on Army to take control of its linguist capability, and to begin recruiting from the deep pool of educated and effective civilian communicators. Whilst our war-fighting muscles have been exercised, our diplomatic and influence arm must not atrophy.

I do hope this doesn’t smack of sour grapes, because funnily enough, I’ve been lucky to get through all those administrative gates. The question is: do you want a middle-class, single-language speaking, Anglo, football-playing-male learning Chinese for a year and then forgetting it because he gets posted somewhere where he doesn’t use it?

How you can help me…

What are people’s experiences of the MLAT, and the process of accessing language training?

What experiences do people have following their posting to DFSL, and have they been able to maintain their language fluency and currency?

What other avenues are there for improving our linguist capability?

Organisationally, do we value linguist capability as highly as we purport to?

How feasible is it to introduce an SSO Linguist stream, and within what time-frame?

About the author:

Jonathan Hibbert is a junior officer posted to 1 ARMD, and is attending DFSL next year to study Chinese (Mandarin).


Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

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4 Comments on "Idea Pitch – All Eyes (Ears and Tongues) on the Not-So-Far-East"

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Jonathan, Great pitch mate! I agree with your point that the military is letting numerous people with the ability to learn a language ‘slip through the cracks’. Noting the prescriptive career path that officers are usually ‘forced’ to follow (and what’s happened to some of the recent GSOs who have completed the Chinese course at DFSL), have you considered whether officers or soldiers are most suited to becoming the personnel that we invest in to become our experts as Chinese linguists? I would offer that Army would potentially gain more from investing the opportunity in a soldier, or an SSO… Read more »
Good pitch, although all of your proposals have been formally presented previously, have been tried before, or are already under consideration-implementation. The MLAT is designed to assess aptitude for foreign language learning at an increased rate such as the training at DFSL, and can’t be compared to any other language training at any institution anywhere in Australia. There was, not too long ago, numerous domestic positions for linguists, both in Canberra and DFSL. Defence, in its wisdom has made a conscious decision to civilianise almost all of those positions. All officers undertaking MLAT is about to be implemented, hopefully within… Read more »
Brett Hartley
G’day Jonathon, Firstly, great to see this discussion being had and seeing people engage in the topic of how to improve the linguistic deficiencies of our organisation. I concur that selection for a course at langs is a massive decision for any Officer on the CLMT pathway. I was actively discouraged from doing Mandarin by my career advisor, who promised me a small dark office in Canberra and a career of doctrine writing should I choose to divert from the tried and tested pathway to Sub-Unit Command. This of course is not true, and I would suggest that this is… Read more »