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Linguists harness hidden 'superpower'

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- Speaking another language is like having a hidden superpower.

By that definition, the Air Force Reserve linguists operating under the 16th Intelligence Squadron are full-on superheroes with a combined capability to speak more than 45 languages and dialects.

As part of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance enterprise, linguists provide a vital role in harnessing information and making it useful to commanders.

The day-to-day mission of a linguist focuses on translation, but their skills encompass a lot more than just interpreting documents. They also have an understanding of the subject from having studied the historical and political context of the culture.

“Many of our linguists hold advanced degrees, and almost all of them have prior operational experience,” said Senior Master Sgt. Jaimee. “Our linguists have a depth of understanding that comes from years of experience.”

Currently, the Air Force Reserve acts as a catcher’s mitt for linguists leaving active duty. Language learning is a long and intense process and has a high attrition rate. By catching those linguists who have previously served, the Reserve is then able to use the knowledge and skills that has already been invested in someone.

According to Col. John D. McKaye, 655th ISRG commander, the Air Force Reserve recognizes a savings of more than $1 million in training funds when they hire someone who is already fully equipped from active duty service.

“We reap the benefit of all the training that's been invested in people,” said Master Sgt. Amanda. “We get to continue developing them and help them become experts in their language through the unique opportunities we have here in both Air Force and national missions.”

The Reserve recognizes and specifically seeks out the nine big languages, which are the primary focus for the Air Force. However, many linguists are capable in multiple languages and/or dialects.

Most of the linguists aren’t native speakers of the languages they have been assigned or even from a family background, known as heritage speakers, in that language.

“Most linguists were assigned this job. Their language and their success is directly related to the effort they make to improve,” said Amanda. “The non-native linguists are some of the most dedicated professionals I know, and we are really proud of how hard they work to maintain and improve their language skills.”

Language proficiency is measured on a scale of one to five as developed by the Department of State. Level one is an elementary understanding of a language and level five is considered an educated, Ph.D. level, native speaker of the language.

Even native speakers of a language can struggle with the upper level (4/5) Defense Language Proficiency Test. The goal for most linguists is to hold a 3/3, a professional working proficiency, in both reading and writing. Linguists are tested every year by the DLPT to determine their rating.

“For people of this capability, language is like a superpower,” said Amanda. “They can do things that directly affect our nations policies, strategies and the way we negotiate with other countries.”

The Air Force Reserve invests in its people by helping them maintain their fluency. They have requirements to train in their primary language at least 45 days every 18 months.

“I think there's a misconception that once you reach a 3/3, you're good. You're done,” said Amanda. “But that's not the case, because you have to maintain it, and of course you want to improve as well, and get as close to native proficiency as possible.”

“Our people are motivated and passionate about their languages and they want to keep it up,” said Jaimee.