Sharpening China Watch: Indian Army seeks to up language and knowledge expertise on China

The Indian Army’s notification in July 2022 inviting applications from persons fluent in Mandarin to properly communicate with the Chinese military along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a beginning in fulfilling a decades-long important requirement

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Aug 01, 2022
Sharpening China Watch (Photo: Twitter)

In three quarters of a century, most of the spoken communication in India-China relations has been conducted with the help of translators. There may have been few diplomats and armed forces officers qualified in Chinese, but how effective their communication was or how effective the translators’ communication has been is perhaps indicated by the course Sino-Indian relations have been on – with the Chinese most often having their way. 

There is no doubt that to get the better of the Chinese Communist Party/People's Liberation Army, of which there is a great need, our knowledge of Sino-Indian history must match theirs. We must also achieve mastery over their language, considered one of the toughest languages to learn. 

Chinese language 

The Indian Army’s notification in July 2022 inviting applications from persons fluent in Mandarin to properly communicate with the Chinese military along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a beginning in fulfilling a decades-long important requirement. At the corps commander level talks, which since China’s second major aggression in May 2020 onwards have lasted up to 16 hours, flag meetings, joint exercises and border personnel meetings, there has never been an absolute certainty whether the interpreter conveyed our statement and translated the Chinese statement effectively. 

The army’s notification, which aims to fill vacancies in the Territorial Army for Mandarin language experts, invites applications for six vacancies: five civilian candidates and one ex-service officer. The move will increase the number of Mandarin speakers and offer courses in Tibetology for officers posted along LAC to orient them in Tibetan culture and practices.

The School of Foreign Languages (SFL) was established by the Defence Ministry in 1948 with the purpose of imparting training in different foreign languages to the personnel of armed forces and government departments such as the Ministry of External Affairs, the Cabinet Secretariat and Central Police Organizations including the BSF, CRPF and ITBP. The government granted permanent status to the SFL in 1954.  

Foreign language proficiency

But May 4, 2017, the functional and administrative control of SFL was transferred from a Joint Secretary of the Defence Ministry to the HQ Integrated Defence Staff. The role of SFL is to meet the growing requirements of the government in general and armed forces in particular for qualified foreign language experts.  

The SFL is mandated to conduct interpreter and other courses in Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Tibetan, Persian, Sinhala, German, French, Spanish, Bahasha Indonesia, Japanese and Burmese. However, due to non-availability of certain permanent faculty, interpreter courses are presently being conducted only in Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Persian, Tibetan and Sinhala. 

Reportedly, inadequate faculty strength at SFL often resulted in soldiers learning Chinese but forgetting it by the time they were posted along the LAC. 

While various courses are run at Northern, Eastern and Central Commands besides at army training schools at Pachmarhi and SFL, the army has signed MoU with Rashtriya Raksha University, Central University of Gujarat and Shiv Nadar University for Mandarin courses. Tests are conducted at Langma School of Languages, New Delhi. 

Embracing new technology 

In November 2020, an end-to-end voice translation system using Automatic Speech Recognition, Machine Translation and Speech-to-Text to convert Mandarin to English to help the armed forces, intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities and the Indian defence forces was introduced., a global frontrunner in Conversational AI, announced the launch of this new integrated Speech Recognition based solution for the Indian defence establishment.  

The solution has a wide range of applications that includes cross border intelligence, voice surveillance, monitoring telephone/Internet conversations, intercepting radio/satellite communication and to bridge interactions during border meetings and joint exercises.  

Its unique features include noise reduction, dialect/accent detection and support for all audio file formats. This system is expected to be an asset for the armed forces deployed against China and intelligence agencies as it will make it possible for them to understand what is being communicated by the Chinese to each other and conversely a disadvantage to the Chinese, who may have to overcome it by further encryption of their communication. 

Identify talent

In the process of strengthening the existing system two issues that are required to be addressed are training of talents in native environments to ensure quality and outreach by training personnel on location. Both these measures will enhance quality, identify talent for higher training and create volume for operational readiness. The foremost problem has been inconsistent policy promulgation, which must be avoided in future. 

In addition to achieving fluency, studies in Chinese history and languages must be enhanced in Indian universities and think tanks. 

(The author is a former Indian Army and Defence Ministry spokesman. Views are personal)  

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