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  • Languages for Specific Purposes at the United States Military Academy: A Cumulative Learning Approach
  • William Sack, Sherry Maggin, and Zachary F Miller


The United States Military Academy at West Point is a four-year, undergraduate institution that educates and trains its students (cadets) to become future leaders in the US Army officer corps. The Department of Foreign Languages (DFL) at West Point plays an integral role in developing cadets’ cultural and linguistic competencies in preparation for potential overseas deployments while serving in the Army. DFL offers cadets the opportunity to major in eight different foreign languages. Among these are Spanish and Portuguese, two robust second language (L2) programs whose current annual enrollments are 487 and 393 cadets, respectively (out of a total population of 4,000 cadets). Besides language instruction for general proficiency, the Spanish and Portuguese curricula also offer embedded training modules, independent courses, and immersion programs centered on how to negotiate specific military tasks within the target languages. These L2 touchpoints fall under the umbrella of Languages for Specific Purposes (LSP) and are designed to prepare our cadets for future interactions with foreign militaries and cultures in a variety of global regions, including Latin America, Europe, and Africa. This essay details West Point’s Spanish and Portuguese LSP models, focusing on their phased, cumulative design and overall effectiveness as specialty curricula within DFL.

Literature Review

Trace et al. (2015) define LSP courses as “those in which the methodology, the content, the objective, the materials, the teaching, and the assessment practices all stem from specific, target language uses based on an identified set of specialized needs” (2). Pushing beyond mere proficiency instruction, LSP curricula are designed to prepare students for certain contexts or tasks in the target language (Swales 2000: 60). Examples include English for business or Spanish for medicine. Because LSP courses are narrowly focused, they must strike a proper balance of language, culture, and the current state of the professional domain to maintain viability (Long 2017: 2). English, considered a global lingua franca, has primarily dominated the linguistic direction of LSP courses internationally, especially in the realm of commerce, technology, and aviation (Paltridge and Starfield 2013: 2). Within American universities, however, LSP courses are expanding within certain foreign language learning programs. In response to the increasing interconnectedness of the global landscape and a greater focus on occupational fields that encompass both language and culture, specialized courses (e.g., business, medicine, etc.) for [End Page 31] Spanish, French, German, and Chinese learners are on the rise (Long and Uscinski 2012: 176; Risner and Egúsquiza 2013: 22). Across universities and community colleges in the United States, a more instrumental approach to foreign language instruction, especially in Spanish and some Portuguese programs, is now in direct competition with traditional fields, such as literature and cultural studies (Fechter 2017). The majority of Spanish and Portuguese LSP curricula, however, is mainly rooted in civilian applications.

At present, literature exploring LSP curricula for occupational usage in military settings is limited (see Likaj 2015; Orna-Montesinos 2013). Such contexts, however, merit a modicum of inquiry as specialized soldiers and sailors within the US Armed Forces commonly utilize foreign languages in a variety of military-purposed activities (e.g., the training of foreign militaries, humanitarian operations, and joint combat missions). To prepare soldiers for these events, varying degrees of LSP content are introduced within the broader spectrum of foreign language learning at military academies and armed forces training centers (e.g., West Point, the US Defense Language Institute, etc.). This essay expands upon this unique area by presenting examples of military- related LSP instruction at one specific institute, West Point, and how the academy prepares its cadets for interactions within military-focused, Spanish and Portuguese-language contexts.

LSP at West Point: A Historical Perspective

Over the past two hundred years, West Point has predicated its selection of foreign languages for instruction on military engagements. The academy authorized its first teacher of French in 1803, due in large part to the burgeoning military relationship between the United States and France, post-Revolutionary War (McCormick 1970: 319). At the time, many of the mathematics, engineering, and military fortifications textbooks were written in French, requiring...