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The Linguistic and Cultural Skills of Sleeper Agents

Deep cover agents as special bicultural bilinguals

Post written by François Grosjean.

We are all intrigued by the story of sleeper agents, that is spies who have been infiltrated into a target country and who "go to sleep" before being activated. In 2010, we read about Anna Chapman and some ten other members of her spy ring who were expelled back to Russia. But before them, there were others.

George Koval, for example, in the middle of the last century, took part in the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge. Having grown up in the United States, he spoke fluent American English. His family emigrated to the Soviet Union during the Great Depression and that is where he was recruited by their largest foreign intelligence agency, the G.R.U. He then came back to the United States and managed to spy for the Soviet Union for close to ten years.

Sleeper agents such as Koval appear to be ordinary citizens but they are in fact very special bicultural bilinguals. Their language fluency must be similar to that of native speakers in every way and they must have no trace of a foreign accent. This is quite exceptional as the majority of bilinguals have an accent in at least one of their languages (see here).

Sleeper agents must also restrict themselves to using just one language in all situations (English in our case). This is quite different from regular bilinguals who use their two or more languages for different purposes, in different domains of life, and with different people. Sleeper agents cannot revert to their other, hidden, language and so they have to acquire the vocabulary, the expressions, and the levels of language for every domain of life in just one language.

These agents have to avoid code-switching and borrowing even when they are with other bilinguals and the situation is conducive to intermingling languages (see here). And when they are with monolinguals, they have to carefully monitor what they are saying and avoid false friends (similar words with different meanings) as well as other language traps (e.g. translating something literally from their other language).

The kind of permanent monitoring they have to do on their language output is extremely demanding and it becomes even more so during moments of stress and emotion when regular bilinguals might well slip into their other language.

On the cultural side, sleeper agents are trained to behave fully as nationals of the country they are spying on. They must put aside every aspect of their other culture and behave monoculturally in their "host" culture. For example, Koval played baseball and was very good at it.

Unlike regular biculturals who combine and blend aspects of their two or more cultures, sleeper agents must be "pure" members of the culture they are living in. At no time must the attitudes, beliefs, values and behaviors of their other culture filter through.

As for their cultural identity, they have to pretend to identify fully with the culture they are living in, and they have to show this in their everyday behavior. Regular biculturals can choose to identify solely with culture A, solely with culture B, with neither A nor B, or with both A and B (see here). Sleeper agents do not have this choice overtly even though, covertly, they continue to identify fully with their original culture.

With time, though, and despite the strict instructions they have received, some sleeper agents do start identifying, in part at least, with their host culture. And some few actually shift from being sleeper agents to becoming double agents. If used correctly by the intelligence services of the "host" country, they can do incredible damage to their original country. But here we leave the domain of language and culture and enter the very murky waters of counter-espionage.


A longer and slightly different version of this post appeared in The Guardian on July 13, 2010:

Grosjean, F. Special bilinguals. Chapter 13 of Grosjean, F. (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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