What do ISIS, the CIA, and the Mormons have in common? Languages!

How do you reach her? recruit her? Do you speak her language?
How do you reach her? recruit her? Do you speak her language?

People use languages to spread their own ideas. If they have ideas they believe deeply in, they gravitate towards learning languages and recruiting speakers of all different languages to further their message more quickly to a broader audience.

ISIS, US defense agencies, and the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS, or “Mormons”) all look to spread ideas. I am not discussing the validity of their different ideas or overall tactics, but the post compares how they use language to reach their objectives. Most institutions with an important idea or object can learn from what each of these organizations is doing.


Michael Erard wrote a series of articles about the importance ISIS places on the languages spoken by its soldiers. They purposely decided to combine speakers of different languages into multilingual units rather than segregate by language. This policy allowed ISIS to create a more cohesive army rather than multiple ethnic units that would not communicate well with each other.

Polyglots fit the desire of ISIS to establish a multiethnic caliphate. The group actively recruits polyglots to work with and teach the foreign fighters coming to their territory. Erard describes a Russian whom ISIS recruited (who didn’t successfully arrive in ISIS territory), who could have worked well in ISIS territory with the large number of Russian-speaking fighters from the former Soviet Union.

While the languages in ISIS come from the mother tongues of foreign recruits, the one language that ISIS focuses on to teach is Arabic, not because of their location in the middle of the Arab world but in order to read and understand the Quran. Polyglots will often fill these roles as Arabic teachers.

US Defense

In 1963, the US Army Language School became the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC). This center still provides “linguists” to US government defense organizations, such as the Army and Navy, as well as the CIA. (In the US government a “linguist” is someone who specializes in language-based skills, not necessarily a student of the science of “linguistics.”)

Recruiting linguists can be difficult, and it’s not just about numbers of qualified candidates. First, the same organization trying to recruit members of a community engages in surveillance of the same community. An LA Times article cited such a problem in Detroit. Second, would-be recruits often have family members in countries with whom our government is experiencing problems. Thus these individuals experience delays in receiving security clearances.

US agencies are not detailed about their reasons for recruiting linguists. The CIA, for example, looks to recruit speakers of various languages, but they are vague as to why. On their language recruiting site, they say, “The ability to speak, translate, and interpret foreign languages, in addition to understanding cultural differences, is vital to the mission of the Central Intelligence Agency.” Similarly, the DLIFLC states, “Our mission is to provide culturally based foreign language education, training, evaluation and sustainment to enhance the security of the nation.”

Both significantly refer to “culture.” While this is a vague term, it points to the importance of language for the US government. We know that the defense of the US stands at the top of their mission. Language allows one to connect with people from other cultures. Polyglots always refer to this cliche, and it is true. The sociological scrutiny of how languages function in ISIS, though, has not been aimed at the US government. I can only imagine how the US believes language and culture help and in what areas.

Church of Latter Day Saints (aka, Mormons)

Several years ago, I posted about the amazing efficiency of the Church of LDS in training multi-lingual missionaries. Since then, NPR posted a story about the same process.

The Missionary Training Center (MTC) website does not explain the reasons why languages are important other than for missionaries “be prepared in all things” in their pursuits. The language, therefore, prepares them for a teaching capacity. This preparation can be narrow. A friend of mine, who was an LDS missionary, told me that they learned how to say, “God is life,” but couldn’t say, “Give me some bread.”

They find language teachers from among their own church members. Teachers come from among former missionaries to the country in question, and from church members native to that country.

All language-teaching institutions, including the US government agencies, draw from the amazing efficiency of the MTC language instruction. The NPR piece claimed that the level reached at nine weeks of Mandarin study at the MTC takes 64 weeks at the DLIFLC. Furthermore, the article claimed that the US military draws from the MTC; I have personally heard anecdotes that the CIA also recruits from among former missionaries.


Each of these organizations has populations they target in order to succeed at a mission. ISIS desires to attract people to live in a caliphate of a certain type of Muslims. US government agencies want to protect their country and understand the populations who would do us harm. Members of the Church of LDS look to spread their religious teaching to far-flung populations.

All three recruit native-speakers of many languages, but only the DLIFLC and MTC teach languages; ISIS seems to count exclusively on the native language skills of recruits. MTC is the gold standard in teaching languages.

I believe that the MTC succeeds at such a high level because of two foci: teaching and complete immersion. Their missionaries teach. The classes begin with the ability to focus on conveying a finite body of teaching. In contrast, the DLIFLC prepares linguists to face a much broader context of situations. The teaching of LDS missionaries aims at preparation for complete immersion. Missionaries spend seven or more hours per day knocking on doors, teaching and inviting people to their services and classes. I can’t imagine that CIA members are spending the entire day meeting and chatting with strangers among enemies of the US. ISIS members count on quiet contact via social media and not on one-on-one contact with potential recruits.

All these agencies want to reach out to people where they are. They count on languages to reach those people. The mission of each group differs, and they recruit and train linguists in their own way. As these institutions lead many others in the centrality of languages for their objectives, other institutions need to consider their own approach to language. Fortune 500 companies, media outlets, and educators need to learn from these organizations to examine critically the importance of language to reach their objectives.

How can organizations learn from these organizations to focus on language?

Photo credit: ariamiru via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND


One thought on “What do ISIS, the CIA, and the Mormons have in common? Languages!

  1. Pingback: The best articles on August 2016 about languages | Polyglot Nerd

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