Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton

Winning hearts and minds: Language is key to military success

Published: 17 March 2011

Showing a ‘friendly face’ is what our military is told to do. How though do you win hearts and minds without conversation, without talking, without opening up a dialogue with the people you meet?; And what happens to the men and women who talk for us? Three hundred and sixty interpreters and translators have died in Iraq since 2003.

The University of Southampton has played a major role in a study led by the University of Reading which found that poorly organised language provision can have a major effect on the success of military intervention.

The three-year project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and also undertaken with partners the Imperial War Museum, is the first study to examine the way war is ‘spoken’, and focus on the people who give a voice to the ‘friendly faces’.

The project analysed two case studies; Western Europe 1944-47 (University of Reading), and Bosnia, 1990s (University of Southampton).

In both case studies, linguists were not always seen as professionals with particular skills and knowledge. There was a tendency to use them for a variety of other tasks such as fixers and secretaries. At the beginning of deployments there was little professional structure for these people, which meant they could be treated with suspicion as 'aliens' by the military with whom they worked.

The University of Southampton's Professor Mike Kelly and Dr Catherine Baker investigated the policies and practice of language encounters in the Bosnian peacekeeping operation. They examined the various approaches which were in use for managing interpreters / translators, and the issues in training and preparing military personnel.

Professor Kelly, Director of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies at Southampton, who led the Bosnian research comments, "The issues we have discovered have really not gone away. The military did learn from the experiences of Bosnia, but there is a lot more to learn about managing language issues."

Dr Catherine Baker says, “Linguists produce the best results when they have the opportunity to develop as professionals and when everyone who works with them understands what their role entails.”

Professor Hilary Footitt from the University of Reading’s Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, who led the project, comments, “Our research project has highlighted the need for the military to see languages as a vital part of their operations and to plan for them accordingly. They need to respect locally recruited translators / interpreters and make sure that these men and women have the professional structures to do their jobs properly. Languages are not an optional ‘add-on’. They’re essential to winning hearts and minds.”

Experts from around the world are gathering at the Imperial War Museum, London, 7-9 April 2011 for a major conference which will conclude the Languages at War project.


For more information:

Imperial War Museum

Privacy Settings