Pentagon builds Putonghua into arsenal for new world

She may not know it, but 17-year-old student Bianca Del Carmen is on the cutting edge of the Pentagon's plans to tackle the linguistic challenges of a new world.

'I was planning to study German, but now I'm thinking about doing Chinese instead, or maybe both,' she said.

Bianca, who plans to study next year at Arizona State University, was among a group of 18 Washington high school students who showed off their Putonghua skills last week at a graduation ceremony after completing an intensive six-week summer study programme.

The Pentagon funded the US$1 million programme, which also included courses in Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Swahili. Students were paid a US$1,000 stipend to take the course, and competition for admission was fierce: Over 1,000 students applied for 69 places.

Bianca said she learned as much Putonghua in the six weeks, which was taught using the immersion method, as she did in 21/2 years of high school German.

Bianca and her summer study programme are among the first products of the 'National Security Language Initiative', announced in January by President George W. Bush. The initiative, which is being carried out by several agencies, including the Department of Defence, aims to boost American proficiency in various 'strategic languages', such as Putonghua.

The other languages involved skew heavily towards current or potential conflict spots: Arabic, Farsi (spoken in Iran) and Korean.

The initiative aims to direct US foreign language education away from European languages towards languages that are perceived to be more useful in the coming century. Anecdotal evidence suggests it may be happening.

Student T'Shael Tufford was already planning to study Chinese in university and took the summer course to get a head start. She has already studied Spanish, but 'I thought Chinese would make me more marketable', said the 18-year-old.

The Defence Department would like to expand beyond the Washington pilot programme, said Lieutenant-Colonel Jeremy Martin, a Pentagon spokesman.

'We want to develop a pool of linguists in strategic languages in which the US might have an interest ... but in the future it's a matter of funding,' he said.

The Pentagon already has helped to set up a Chinese-language programme in schools in Portland, Oregon.

The department is also trying to increase the number of speakers of Chinese and other strategic languages in the armed services. Earlier this year the department increased the bonuses it paid to foreign language speakers from $300 to a maximum of $1,000 a month.

At the US Military Academy, where future army officers are educated, the number of students taking introductory Chinese has been steadily rising, from 65 in 2000 to 94 in the coming academic year.

The Pentagon has identified about 5,000 service members who speak Chinese now, up from just 1,400 in 2000.

The White House is seeking US$114 million next year for the National Security Language Initiative. The Pentagon has also said it intends to spend US$750 million over five years to increase foreign language proficiency in the forces.