Through Airmen's Eyes -- Language Enabled Airman Builds Partnerships with Kazakh Military

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, TEXAS -- Kazakhstan. Until operations kicked off in Afghanistan in 2001, this country wasn't at the top of the locations of strategic importance to the United States.

Since that time, Kazakhstan has steadily grown in regional importance and as an international security player. They have evolved as a nation and have matured as a military.

As a participant in the Language Enabled Airman Program, I recently had the opportunity to escort a group of 14 military officers from Kazakhstan as they toured Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. LEAP is a career-long language and culture learning program that sustains, enhances and uses the existing language skills of Airmen. The program is operated by the Air Force Culture and Language Center. LEAP is designed to build a "bench" of cross-culturally competent foreign language speakers for the Air Force.

I attended the Defense Language Institute for one year on two separate occasions, both times to learn and enhance my Russian language abilities. The official state language of Kazakhstan is Kazakh, but the group of Air Force and Army officers visiting Maxwell all spoke Russian - the interethnic, business language of Kazakhstan. I was chosen to be a part of the visit not just as an escort, but also as one of the interpreters. As the visit progressed, I found myself filling the role of cultural guide.

The officers were either staff or students at the Kazakhstan National Defense University, and were at the top in their respective career fields. They came to Alabama to tour the schools and colleges under Air University to compare, contrast and take away best practices.

Escorting distinguished visitors is a time-consuming and exhausting activity. If you throw interpreting into the mix, it becomes that much more difficult. Adding to the challenge was the fact that most of the officers had never been to the United States. In addition to being their escort and interpreter, I was also their cultural guide. This part of the duties was the most entertaining and most demanding. It involved answering questions like "What is the size equivalent of this shoe in Kazakhstan?", "Can we go back to Walmart for three hours?" and "I saw this thing on the internet and I want you to take me to as many stores as possible until I find it?" However, the benefit of conversational engagement with native speakers far outweighed any challenges.

As an interpreter, knowing a language is only a part of proper translation. Knowing two cultures allows you to move beyond just words and interpret ideas. It's also useful in avoiding awkward situations, but what I've found to be the most important aspect of gaining expertise in both language and culture is the ability to gain the confidence of both sides, to bridge the cultural divide and help create the atmosphere for a strong working relationship.

Throughout my week with this group of officers, I never had the sense that I was helping advance international relations. Reflection on the experience several weeks later, however, I'm confident that we made a huge positive impression by displaying our military and academic strengths, and by showing genuine hospitality. This visit turned out to be a great experience for the many people involved and its success will hopefully open the doors for similar initiatives.