Special Forces students are learning Ukrainian in new language course

Photo of author

By Margaretd. Regina

The U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (SWCS) is currently testing a Ukrainian language and culture course, which concludes on April 29. The course is one of 14 languages offered by the Language, Regional Education, and Culture Program (LREC), the final phase of the Army’s Special Forces training pipeline.

The commanding general of SWCS, Brig. Gen. Guillaume Beaurpere said the Ukrainian language was not previously taught to Special Forces candidates. But, due to the demands of the modern battlefield, it’s an essential skill set for the U.S. Military to work with its Ukrainian partners.

“I just sat down and talked to one of our students the other day who’s going through it. Surprisingly, he’s assimilating pretty well. He said it was a little bit harder than he imagined,” Beaurpere said. “But I think it’s given him that rudimentary skill, where he’s going to probably within the next year have to deploy to the [European Theater of Operations] and very likely work with Ukrainian partners.”

During testimony to the House Committee on Appropriations today, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George confirmed as much, saying the U.S. Military has trained over 17,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Germany. 

Beaurpere said the timeframe from U.S. Special Operations Command’s request to the development and launch of the program took approximately six months, noting the condensed timeline speaks to the agility of their language program. Graduates of the Ukrainian language course will have a rating of at least 1+ on the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, which means they can speak at an “Elementary Proficiency, Plus”  level of fluency

“We teach it in a very conversational way. It’s intended to build cultural expertise and relationships,” Beaurpere said. “That’s not taught anywhere else in the department right now.”

Lt. Col. Benjamin Bringhurst, LREC director at SWCS, said the pilot group has six soldiers; five students have no experience with the language, and one is a more advanced student because of their fluency in Russian.

“We’re just finishing up our pilot course with Ukrainian and looking to expand the program as we move forward — to meet the operational needs that are obvious now,” Bringhurst said. “We’re also adding Japanese and European Portuguese, as distinguished from the South American version.”

The new language courses are based on the operational needs and plans of the various theater special operations commands. The class size was selected to evaluate the effectiveness of the course structure “to make sure it works.” The students will take their culminating oral proficiency interview (OPI) test sometime next week between April 15-22. 

“We simply know there’s a demand, right? So, now that we have a viable curriculum — well, we test in a couple of weeks, and we’ll know then if it’s viable — we will push that out to [Special Operations Command Europe] and to the proponents,” Bringhurst said. “So those who run the throughput for Special Forces, civil affairs, and PSYOP training, we’ll ask them, ‘Hey, how many of these speakers do you actually need now to fill your operational requirements?’”

They will not know the average class size until they hear back from the units. But, Bringhurst said it’s difficult to advise a partner force if you don’t speak their language or understand their culture. Understanding that allows military personnel to establish relationships through a strong foundation of rapport. 

Subscribe to Task & Purpose today. Get the latest military news and culture in your inbox daily.

However, the more tactical use of the language will be taught to service members when they arrive at their units, where they will receive more focused education on the use of the language and culture. 

An example is the Ukrainian posters all over Lviv, recommending locals to challenge a suspected Russian spy to say the Ukrainian word, “паляниця,” pronounced as ‘palyanytsia.’ Because of the way people learn their language in their respective countries, the Ukrainians believe a Russian speaker can’t say the word for bread without their native language giving them away. 

One of the many posters that were plastered throughout Lviv, Ukraine, on March 14, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Skovlund)

The students must learn the language from native speakers to avoid those mistakes. Alyona, a Russian and Ukrainian adjunct professor at SWCS, and Julia and Myla, both Ukrainian Language and Culture program adjunct professors, created the Ukrainian language course. 

“[Their] students have a unique opportunity to really understand from two of their teachers who directly fled the violence [in Ukraine] and went through incredible things to be here to do this for them,” said Kevin Morgan, LREC’s deputy director at SWCS. “So I have to imagine it’s extremely meaningful for them.” 

Julia and Myla escaped the war-torn areas of Ukraine before arriving in the U.S. in March 2022. They finished their master’s degrees at the University of Montana and, shortly after, dove headfirst into helping Alyona create an effective and efficient course for SWCS.

“So, all the essential skills they need are to communicate efficiently in the target region. And every single lesson contains authentic materials. We use a student-centered approach. […],” Alyona said. “There’s not a single university, school, or book that would fit our program, so we literally had to create everything in them.”

Ukrainian is a class three language and is considered one of the more challenging to learn. To add to the stress of creating a class three language course in a short timeframe, LREC’s deputy director at SWCS said the three professors had to adjust and adapt the curriculum as the pilot program progressed. 

“They’ve basically been building it in flight while they’re piloting this first course, and it’s been amazing,” Morgan said. “We expect great things going forward. We’re actually communicating to other units that we’re able to put 12 more students through in the next cycle.”

Students who graduate from the course walk away with 680 academic hours of instruction. They are in class Monday through Friday for six hours and have about two hours of homework that reinforces each day’s lessons. 

The students are taught about and participate in the culture they study. They make traditional Ukrainian dishes to share with each other and learn about Ukrainian customs. Morgan said it’s a vital part of their plan to train their Ukrainian partners and thanked the professors for their hard work.

“It’s not just six soldiers that you’re training. You’re potentially providing knowledge to the Ukrainian military that could touch thousands of soldiers and really increase the defensive capabilities of Ukraine,” Morgan said. “Most importantly, it’s a partnership that’s probably going to go on for many, many years — and you’re directly contributing to that partnership.”

The latest on Task & Purpose

Leave a Comment