Linguists of the Intelligence Community – Guest Post with Joe Courtemanche

Photo by joako13

Photo by joako13

Guest Post by Joe Courtemanche

Last month we covered some of the military intelligence types and what they do, how they think. This month we pick up with the linguists.

There are a few levels of linguist. When you enter the military you take the DLAB link: to find out what your aptitude is (hence the eponymous Defense Language Aptitude Battery.) This test, which is really fun and non-stressful, gives you examples of a made-up language in both aural and written forms.

When I took it, it seemed to follow Arabic grammar rules, so I did pretty well. Many who have taken it in years gone by feel a strong need to drink immediately afterward. Once you’ve taken the test the smiling recruiter will let you know how you did compared to others.

Yes, like the rest of life, it’s graded on a curve.

Photo by lm913

Photo by lm913

The knuckle draggers will be given languages in the Romance group. This is not to say that being a Spanish speaker is easy, it’s just that the odds are better that you’ll succeed in this versus Korean.

The middle group will get languages like Norwegian, German, Greek, Portuguese, and so on. The final group, the profoundly damaged test-takers, will be accorded the right to take Korean, Chinese (several different language courses,) Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, and other languages that require an especially facile mind with elastic capabilities above most mortals. (Did I mention that I speak Arabic?)

In all seriousness, the linguists are a strange group. We’re kind of proud of it. In fact, it’s a point of perverse pride that we can do everyone else’s job in addition to translating. This makes us very versatile – or very annoying. I even learned Morse Code to get a radio license and make it official: I am a know-it-all. I think my comrades would have said that in 1988 but now it’s on paper.

Let me tell a linguist story and then we’ll finish this part of the series out today. When I was in language school there weren’t enough instructors or classrooms for the Arabic students. So we had a different class schedule than all the other languages. We shuffled in and out of different rooms and buildings throughout the day, as opposed to most languages that camped in the same classroom for 50 weeks (shorter for some, longer for others.)

Photo by foxumon

Photo by foxumon

We were nomadic, just like some of our language targets. Because our day was an hour longer than everyone else, the Navy put us into a separate part of the barracks so that we wouldn’t disrupt the other students.

Fast forward to just before I left the Defense Language Institute and you will see a failed experiment. Someone had the bright idea to integrate all of the Arab linguists into the rest of the barracks. Seems we were a bit “high-spirited” and having our own little club house on the third deck of the building was frowned upon.

That integration lasted about three months. At the end of that time, the powers-that-be realized that we were corrupting all of the other students. There was no change in the Arab linguist survival rate, but their roommates were dropping like flies. We, rather proudly, were a bad influence on all of the others.

When I shipped off to the next school, all of the Arabs were back in the ghetto at the rear of the building on top of the perch. Kind of like segregating gangs from the rest of the inmates in a prison. Sometimes certain things are best not scrutinized too closely.

Photo by flaivoloka

Photo by flaivoloka

Military linguists have two functions: interpretation and interrogation. Some go to schools where they learn how to break codes, figure out what’s happening on the radio the enemy is using, and be passive in their actions. No speaking (for the most part,)just listening.

The other group, the interrogators, were the guys that talked to prisoners, went along on patrols to talk to locals, sat with the commanders to fill in the local blanks after talking to the village elders. Very different ways to use the language, very different personalities.

Like most people from the intelligence world, I lied. I can’t finish up this month. I’ll be back next month with another installment about the other folks that work in the field.

Until then, keep these folks in your prayers.

If you were a linguist, what language would you want to learn?


Joseph Courtemanche

Joseph Courtemanche

Joseph Courtemanche is a former Police Officer and certified Middle East, North Africa analyst. He is a distinguished veteran of the Naval Security Group of the United States Navy and is an Arabic linguist with training at The University of Minnesota and The Defense Language Institute. His linguistic and intelligence experience include multiple deployments to surface, submarine, and land based intelligence collection platforms. Joseph holds several military awards including two flag letters of commendation for his work in providing real-time intelligence support to commanders in the field.

Joseph’s experience provides the background that’s crucial to his writing in the Thriller genre from a Christian perspective with the gritty realism that modern readers demand. His  Assault on Saint Agnes won Second Place in the prestigious Athanatos Christian Ministries 2013 Christian Novel Contest, and was a 2013 Final Five Finalist in the Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel.

His Facebook fans find him at  and he blogs several times a week at You can follow him on Twitter @joecourtemanche.


About Michelle Lim

Author Michelle Lim is the Brainstorming/Huddle Coach with My Book Therapy Press and the Midwest Zone Director for American Christian Fiction Writers. Michelle’s romantic suspense is represented by Karen Solem of Spencillhill Associates and has gained contest recognition in the Frasier, the Genesis, and the Phoenix Rattler, winning the Genesis in 2015 for her genre. Michelle writes devotionals for The Christian Pulse Online Magazine and Putting On The New. Since her nonfiction book release, Idea Sparking: How To Brainstorm Conflict In Your Novel, through public speaking and online chats Michelle helps writers discover the revolutionary power of brainstorming to bring new life to their stories.

4 thoughts on “Linguists of the Intelligence Community – Guest Post with Joe Courtemanche

  1. I would love to speak Russian or Chinese, but I’m pretty sure I’d end up in the group learning one of the Romance languages. Loved this!

  2. dtopliff says:

    You have a fascinating background and experience. I’d like to hear lots more and look forward to rdg. your books. Because of a current unique situation I’m in tutoring my Muslim physician’s young dtr., I’d like to learn Pakistani. The physician now wants to go to Israel w/ me because “so i much hist. is based there.”
    My initial response to your question, though, was I’d like to learn Russian–not quite sure why–we’ll see . . .

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