Lodz, Poland, 7 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In a language lab in Lodz, Poland, Polish army officers are practicing their English skills, fully aware that their future careers may depend in large part on their knowledge of the language.
With Poland poised to enter NATO next spring, it has become more crucial than ever for the army to have a large cadre of officers who speak English fluently.
Thanks to its heritage as part of the Soviet Bloc, the Polish army entered the post-Communist world with hundreds of officers who spoke fluent Russian, but few who spoke English or other Western languages.
This is a problem in all three Central European countries that are scheduled to enter NATO by April -- Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Both NATO and U.S. military officials have repeatedly told the three countries' armed forces that language training is more important right now than buying the latest high-tech military hardware. But indications are that the three countries are behind schedule in training officers to speak English, NATO's joint official language along with French.
"It's a real problem," Philip Gordon of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London recently told AFP. "It just takes time," he added. "When you are dealing with, say, a 50-year-old officer who has only ever spoken his own language and Russian, it's not going to be easy."
But Major Jakub Grabiszewski, Commander of the Military Institute for the Teaching of Languages in Lodz, says the need for English is obvious, without NATO's hammering home the message.
"No one had to tell us. We simply know it, from the general to the lowest level of army member. Nowadays since borders are open, everyone needs languages, not just military people. We think that today a man who does not speak languages is disabled, blind even."
So the military language school in Lodz, 100 km. west of Warsaw, switched its emphasis from Russian: today 65 percent of its military students are learning English, 20 percent German and 10 percent French.
Capt. Jerzy Krawczyk finished the language school seven years ago and has since studied in the United States and Britain before coming back to the school to head its English department. He says that of the Western languages military people could learn, they by far prefer English.
"It's obvious. I would say it goes without saying. Because we are just about to join NATO and in NATO everybody knows or communicates in English. If you know French, German, Danish but don't know English, it's like you know little." At the Lodz school, students -- who actually range from sergeants up to a general -- receive 550 hours of intensive language training spread over five months. Besides classroom teaching and conversational practice, students have a high-tech computerized language lab to practice what they're learning.
At higher levels, students use actual NATO documents and manuals to make sure their command of military English is up to standard.
Mark Crossey, a British Council employee attached to the British Ministry of Defense who is working with the language school on curriculum and exams, says the military students' motivation is very high.
"It's absolutely 100 percent throughout the Polish armed forces, I'd say. Absolutely . . . It's very important for their career. But there is a great desire to learn English. It is seen as the way forward into NATO and the future."
Crossey and some NATO planners see one drawback in the rush to learn English, however. They worry that the Polish army has totally turned its back on Russian -- a language that will be important once again in NATO's future relations with Russia.