OSI's 'France 101': Two-week course into French language, culture

  • Published
  • By Thomas Brading
  • OSI Public Affairs

In Paris, OSI Special Agents and French law enforcement services embarked on a groundbreaking training initiative, marking a significant step in bolstering U.S.-France relations through cultural and linguistic immersion.

The two-week initiative, dubbed France 101, was tailored to blend language education with cultural understanding, said Special Agent Aaron Yardley, OSI Paris, Special Agent-in-Charge.

"The France 101 course reinforced the linguistic skills of some of OSI’s finest, while also deepening our cultural understanding in France,” said Col. Laura Dejong, OSI 5th Field Investigations Region commander. “This course represents a significant advancement in our global capabilities and demonstrates the importance of language and cultural awareness in strengthening international relations.”

"Understanding the culture and attempting to speak the language of our partners increases OSI’s opportunities for success, along with building lasting relationships," said Special Agent W. Taylor McCormick, an attendee from the 13th Field Investigations Squadron, which provides OSI support across the Indo-Pacific region where France is also present. 

As the week went on, the program delved deeper into their study of the French language, which highlights critical communication skills required for their roles as Special Agents. 

"Our primary function [in Paris] involves enabling global liaison at the national level with French law enforcement and counterintelligence services," Yardley said. 

"Understanding French cultural norms is critical,” Yardley continued. “A simple 'bonjour' opens doors and allows for more leeway in interactions.” 

Echoing Yardley's sentiments, Special Agent Brian Watson, 25th Expeditionary Field Investigations Squadron, pointed out a common misstep among Americans in France. 

“The problem is that many Americans come to France and immediately start speaking English without any attempt to use French,” he said. “This can be perceived as disrespectful to France's rich history and culture.”

This nuanced understanding of cultural interaction is more than a formality --- it's a pivotal element in the success of their missions, they said. 

“The course was an incredible opportunity to work with our French partners,” McCormick said. “The program was expertly lead with the perfect combination of culture and language immersion. It also highlighted the significant history between our two nations and how important it is for our two nations to continue to grow together côte à côte [French for: side by side].” 

Unique backgrounds

The concept of preparing OSI personnel for foreign language encounters in their areas of responsibility isn't new, but the approach of bringing them together for an intensive language course with the combination of non-speakers and speakers for an operational immersion led by Foreign Government entity is a novel development. Dalia Khair, OSI’s Language and Culture Program Manager, played a pivotal role in this process.

“My job is to track and equip field personnel with the necessary language skills to excel in their roles,” she said. 

Traditionally, Khair would individually tailor language training plans for OSI members based on their upcoming assignments. However, France 101 revolutionized this approach by providing immersive introductory language and cultural awareness training for multiple members at once.

“This training required participants to quickly adapt to a new environment and a foreign language -- a real test of their ability to apply their knowledge without prior preparation,” she said. 

Which is why France 101 was a testbed for the efficacy of intensive language training, Khair said. Attendees were carefully selected for their diverse backgrounds and language proficiency — some already fluent in French, others positioned in areas where French is crucial. 

For example, Watson, a recent Defense Language Institute graduate, who currently serves at the 25th Expeditionary Field Investigations Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, has been part of many investigations and real-world missions in Africa, where much of the continent speaks French to various degrees.  

“[25 EFIS] is responsible for OSI operations down in Africa, particularly focusing on missions like force protection and counterintelligence,” Watson said, who studied national security affairs with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa at the Naval Postgraduate School before attending the DLI for the French basic language course.

Watson's connection with the French language dates to a deployment in Africa a decade ago, “That [deployment] is what initially kind of struck my interest for the position that I'm in now,” he said. “The education and language that comes along with it in preparation for it.” 

The course's diverse group, ranging from French speakers like Watson, to those with little prior exposure to French culture, benefited from tailored instruction. 

"It took my language capabilities to another level, allowing for discussions on a range of geopolitical topics with our French partners," Watson said, adding that the training helped with deeper cultural immersion, advanced language skills and will help him work seamlessly with French counterparts. 

Special Agent Timothee van den Berg, OSI Det. 211, may have held the deepest resonance for the training. Born and raised in France, his return to the country through this program was more than just professional development.

"I was born in Paris, of American parents, and we moved to Eastern France when I was three years old,” said van den Berg, who later moved to America when he was 20. “I attended regular French school and graduated with a French Baccalaureat. For all intents and purposes, I was raised as a Frenchman with very little exposure to English or American culture.”

On hallowed ground 

The weekend between weeks one and two, OSI members left Paris to a place deeply ingrained in American history – the beaches of Normandy, France. There, OSI participants and their French counterparts explored the historic sites of Normandy. 

They stood on the same sands where, on June 6, 1944, the Allied forces launched the largest amphibious invasion in military history.

"Walking the hallowed ground of Normandy deepened our understanding of the bond between our nations," Yardley said. 

On D-Day alone, 4,414 Allied troops died, including 2,501 Americans, with over 5,000 wounded. The extended battle claimed the lives of 73,000 Allied forces and wounded 153,000.

"Experiencing Normandy, alongside French military partners and guided by a retired French officer, brought a new perspective," Watson said. "It shed light not only on the official narratives, but also on the deep gratitude of the Normandy locals toward Americans. This visit was a powerful testament to our shared history and the mutual respect between our cultures.” 

Looking ahead

Feedback from the course was overwhelmingly positive, with students appreciating the immersive experience and the opportunity to work closely with host nation partners, Yardley said. 

"This course was a paradigm shift, offering a comprehensive learning experience and fostering a deeper understanding of the importance of language and culture in international relations," he added. 

In the end, the 'France 101' course, blending language training with cultural immersion, represented a step forward in strengthening OSI's global capabilities and fostering deeper international partnerships. 

“This course was an absolute must-go for a native speaker,” van den Berg said. “It furthered my understanding of French military and law enforcement and equipped me with the tools to efficiently create liaison with French forces around the globe and facilitate a seamless interaction between countries to achieve mission objectives.”