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Language as Weapon, Language as Skill, Language as Resource: U.S. Involvement in Language Training, 1941-1991

Military Japanese-language trainees dance with Twin Cities volunteers during World War II 
Wednesday, February 2, 2022, 11:00 am – 1:00 pm

In the contemporary United States, language training is often treated as an unnecessary burden on educational institutions and taxpayers, who are considered to be more efficiently served by machine translation when English proves less than global. But austerity and artificial intelligence have not always dominated American thinking about the learning and teaching of languages. During the 1940s, Washington institutionalized language training as a strategic weapon for gaining intelligence on U.S. adversaries and for sharing knowledge with U.S. allies. It also discreetly instrumentalized the language capabilities of marginalized groups, notably Japanese Americans, while publicly starting to advertise these capabilities as a learned skill that any American could develop. Then, in the era of decolonization, Americans sponsored language training as a mechanism of modernization for linguistically diverse states—a national-development resource rather than a microeconomic cost. This talk explores the mid-20th-century rise in U.S. federal involvement in language training and how it shaped institutions and the experiences of language learners both at home and abroad. It posits three conceptions of language capacities—language as weapon; language as skill; and language as resource—that assumed particular political and sociocultural significance for the United States during World War II and the Cold War, and suggests some of their legacies in the present.

Image: Military Japanese-language trainees dance with Twin Cities volunteers during World War II  (The MISLS [Military Intelligence Service Language School] Album, 1946 (U.S. National Archives, College Park, MD)