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BYU Hosts NATO Conference

BYU becomes the first university ever to host a NATO BILC conference.

Imagine this scenario: military personnel from two nations come together for a strategic mission. They must work together, relaying information in real time to successfully coordinate their movements and attack the enemy. There’s just one problem: they don’t speak the same language. Without accurate and efficient tactical communication, a mission like this would be incredibly difficult to pull off. English serves as the bridge language (or lingua franca) for these situations within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and NATO partnership nations. Hence the importance of the recent NATO language seminar.

From staff offices at NATO headquarters, where nuanced language skills are needed to write clear policies, to joint military operations, NATO personnel need to be proficient in English. These are just a few of many reasons the NATO Bureau for International Language Coordination (BILC) holds professional development seminars to help NATO countries share language learning techniques. Due to BYU’s reputation as the “Language University,” the bureau welcomed the opportunity to hold its Professional Development Seminar in Provo. The seminar ran from October 16 to 21, 2022, and was the first time ever that a BILC conference has been held at a university campus.

NATO BILC table decorations
Photo by Ellie Smith

Representatives from 25 different countries attended the seminar. Most NATO countries sent representatives as did the partner nations of Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Egypt, Georgia, and Sweden.

Most NATO countries have some form of language learning program for military personnel. Every country needs people with English skills, so every national language school teaches English classes. Teachers and administrators from these programs attended the week-long conference hosted by BYU to learn more about how to implement language learning and testing in their own countries. The conference improved not only these skills but also relations between NATO countries and faculty at BYU. For example, one participant commented that they had never envisioned sending their child to an American university before, but after touring BYU they now considered it an appealing option.

Lectures at the conference discussed the theory and practice of language learning as well as testing language proficiency to determine if military personnel are fluent in a second language. Every NATO position requires a designated minimum language proficiency level to ensure personnel can complete their assignments and to avoid potential communication blunders. The lectures focused primarily on teaching language through experience-based learning, motivating adult learners in a military environment, and assessing language proficiency. Speakers included Mitt Romney (US senator and BYU alumnus), Renata Forste (BYU international vice president), J. Scott Miller (dean, BYU College of Humanities), Irena Prpić Đurić (BILC chair), 10 BYU professors, and 22 representatives from the attending countries.

Group Photo from NATO BILC
Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Being able to understand one another is an ongoing international issue. The event organizer, Associate Dean Ray Clifford observed that “for these people, teaching language can be a matter of life or death.” He added that by holding such conferences, BILC continues to fulfill its responsibility to share information on developments in the field of language learning across all NATO countries and is thereby ensuring that “progress made by one is shared by all.”