Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Parlez Vous Pushtu? Foreign Languages and Counter-terrorism

In my current reading I’ve been reminded of the importance of foreign languages in fighting the War on Terror. After September 11th, it suddenly became a very useful skill to be able to talk any of the languages spoken in the Third World, particularly in Central Asia and the Middle East. Before then, most young people would learn languages as means of conducting future business, or to better meet the needs of immigrants, particularly of Latino origin. For others learning a language would be instrumental towards making their travel easier, while some hoped that a new tongue would be their ticket from everyday reality to another world they had dreamed about all their lives.

Now that unfolding events have led American military forces to station themselves in places that speak languages Americans know the least, there are new reasons to learn a foreign language: national security. Counter-terrorism requires greater human to human contact in order to obtain valuable intelligence which is only made possible by speaking the language from the people that can provide such information. The author of the current book I’m reading laments repeatedly about the inability of army specialists to talk competently with the native population. He cites it as the Achilles heel to the admirable effectiveness of our most elite warriors on the front. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute adds more fuel to the fire by revealing the absolute failure of universities in the U.S. in producing useful linguistic talent for the armed forces:

As the need for those with Middle East language and regional skills reaches a historic high, universities--and particularly the Title VI-supported international studies centers--are failing spectacularly to meet that need.

  1. The FBI has such a serious shortfall in the number of available Arabic translators that it has 120,000 hours of pre-September 11 “chatter” still undeciphered.[2]

  2. The dearth of Americans trained in relevant regional languages is so acute that law-enforcement and intelligence communities have been forced to “outsource” the work to foreign nationals, some of which are of uncertain reliability. One FBI whistleblower raised an alarm about the translation of critical wiretaps of organizations with suspected ties to Islamist terrorists: foreign nationals, relied on for these translations, were failing to translate accurately and expeditiously.[3]
In an effort to remedy this dangerous lack of American expertise, Congress allocated additional funding of $20 million to the Title VI centers after September 11, 2001--a 26 percent increase. The legislators wrote this substantial check in good faith, with the understanding that these centers would promote language study, particularly in regard to “Islamic and/or Muslim culture, politics, religion and economy.”[4]
The increased spending, however, has not increased the output of the academic pipeline as intended. Dr. Martin Kramer, a recognized authority on regional studies centers, cited this representative example: “[Berkeley] has been continuously subsidized under Title VI for the last forty years. So you have to shake your head at reports that Berkeley has actually been cutting its introductory Arabic offerings for four years running, regularly leaving more than a hundred undergrads stuck on a waiting list.”[5]
The problems of international studies centers and American academia run deeper than funding allocations. The most serious of such problems arise, instead, from the radical politicization of universities that has been precipitated by academics and characterized by the routine abuse of their roles as educators and the quiet but consistent suppression of professorial dissent.

Rubin then cites examples where politics diverts promising recruits away from a career in defense in order to muck up their brains with anti-American orientalist doctrine. It’s a shame, because many lives are needless lost and many terrorists are still on the loose because this deficiency. Reading about the daily lives of soldiers who mingle regularly with the locals to catch the bad guys and save the lives of his comrades almost make me want to enlist, it’s that exciting. But do I have it in me to learn Pushtu (Afghan language)?

I speak four languages fluently (English, French, German and Spanish) and have studied several semesters’ worth of Chinese and once breezed through an Italian language tape before losing interest. I regret to this day to have once made a rather snobbish remark that my college professor enthusiastically repeated to a auditorium full of students and their parents, that went: “In today’s world where globalization shrinks the distance between cultures, being mono-lingual is akin to being illiterate.” I was very active as an undergraduate in promoting multi-cultural activities in the form of presenting foreign films, helping out foreign students, and small parties commemorating feast-days around the world. I led a Model Arab League team for a couple of years that represented countries like Somalia, Qatar, and the U.A.E. My background screams “We are the World”. Through all that multi-culti activity, I was careful not to reveal my disagreements with particular cultures in order to avoid the wrath of the campus moral relativists. My experience allowed me to observe how students’ attempt to absorb foreign culture. In addition to Rubin’ points on why foreign language and area studies departments fail to provide useful translators, I argue that the desire to assimilate lead many students to mindlessly adopt the bad ideas of the culture they are studying.

I’m part of a minority of foreign language speakers who can make the distinction between learning the language and evaluating ideas commonly held by those speaking that language. Although I was a tad more idealistic back in college than I am now, I observed many classmates who uncritically absorbed all the decadent ideas associated with a language’s supposed prestige. For instance, most college students who majored in French were obviously enamored with the picturesque yet cool and chic image commonly associated with France (the French at times are extremely masterful in public relations beyond their borders). They were especially smitten with the New Wave film directors, the image of the “flanneur” like their existentialist philosopher heroes, and the groovy tunes of Serge Gainsbourg. Eventually they adopted their platitudes hook, line and sinker and attempted to live the life once they got to France in their travel. Most of them came back disappointed, discovering that the place that inspired most of their fantasies is beset with the mundane problems that affect any modern society: crime, economic inequality, Americanization of the native culture, and fact that only small minority actually likes their avant-garde heroes.

Likewise, I can imagine that most of those who choose to study Arabic do so with in interest and an actual admiration for the cultures that speak it. Especially for languages spoken in places that are extremely poor and chaotic, the student must embrace a rationale that excuses such limitations. Therefore they turn to those Arab cultures’ intellectual elites for an explanation, most of them of Marxist or Islamist persuasion. Their worldview restores a respect and dignity to an impoverished people, and softens American students’ apprehension about wanting to study a culture that’s difficult to actually respect. But more simply, adopting prevailing attitudes, however wrongheaded, engenders total cultural assimilation. If one doesn’t, it’s quite difficult to motivate oneself to learn the language of a culture that you disagree fundamentally with.

The best reason to learn a foreign language is that it helps one to better understand the world. Language is fundamental in constructing a reality and expressing one’s perception of it. Acquiring a new language is therefore acquiring a new reality. The languages I’ve learned allow me to compare these realities, revealing new overriding truths and eliminating parochial beliefs. Soldiers who interact regularly in the local language of fellow Iraqis, Afghanis or Bosnians receive a high degree of understanding of the reality that surrounds them, and comprehend what makes the civilians tick at a far more profound level than academics who devote their studies to the abstract interpretation of the output of cultural elites.

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