The Critical Language Gap

A little problem with language in the pastIn 2006, President Bush delivered a speech unveiling the National Security Language Initiative. Delivering the speech to a crowd that included then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, President Bush began in a lighthearted manner. “I’ve had a little problem with the language in the past,” he joked, “so—if you’ve got room in the initiative for me, let me know.” Had President Bush changed that first “I” to “we,” he would have made an equally true but infinitely more powerful statement.

Americans certainly have had problems with language in the past—any language other than English, that is. Since the first major wave of immigrants arrived in the late 1800s, speaking anything but English in the United States has been disdained. During the days of the Industrial Revolution, language was used as a way to cheat immigrants out of the few dollars they had earned in the factories. In the south, literacy tests were administered to bar African Americans from voting. Despite the fact that over 300 languages are spoken in the United States, two-thirds of all high school students graduate without studying a foreign language. The United States has no official language, but speaking English has consistently been at the core of the “American” identity.

A gesture of interest While working for CNN a few years ago, Laura Weinberg covered a story about the lack of Arabic speakers in the United States. She was “shocked and saddened” to report that, according to the Iraq Study Group Report, only six people at the American embassy in Baghdad spoke Arabic fluently. At the time, 1,000 people were employed, though the ISG Report also noted that the embassy employed 33 non-fluent Arabic speakers.

The story about the American Embassy in Baghdad may be consistent with Americans’ attitude towards languages. But while the number of people who speak Arabic fluently is extraordinarily low, the number of new students taking on the challenging language has surged. In fact, Weinberg’s response to her own reportage may be characteristic of these new, politically invested Arabic students: “Since I wanted to work in facilitating Middle Eastern-US relations,” she says, “it was incredibly important that I learn the language of the region.”

At George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, students are required to take a language. When faced with the task of choosing one, freshman Mara Leff saw Arabic as an opportunity to break with the Romance languages she had studied in high school. Yet she also felt that “As an American, and a Jewish American in particular, studying Arabic in today’s world is imperative to shrinking the vast cultural, religious and ethnic divides between the different cultures that have been the root of devastating conflict.”

In 2006, the Modern Language Association estimated that 20,000 Americans were studying Arabic, and the numbers have only risen since. That is a 127% increase from 2002, making Arabic one of the top ten most-studied languages in the United States.

Columbia University is no stranger to this trend. According to Professor Taoufik Ben Amor in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department, in 2000, the University invested enough in the Arabic program to employ two full-time professors and three adjunct faculty members; as of next fall, the program will have eight full-time professors. Though the growth in number of students is not as extreme at Columbia as at many other universities, the program has expanded significantly in recent years.

Students from a wide array of ethnic backgrounds choose the Arabic program at Columbia University, but Ben Amor notes a few consistent types among students. The ones who appear in his classes, he says, “are generally students who speak Hebrew, heritage students, SIPA students, graduate students.” He also mentions, of course, those who are interested in politics. Students who take Arabic seem to consistently do so for reasons other than filling a language requirement.

The marriage between post-September 11th events and rising numbers of Arabic students is hard to miss. And because interest in Arabic has escalated in light of controversial political events, the reasons that students are learning the language are crucial to examine. While the current administration’s actions in the Middle East have been deplorable, the reality is that the United States has made an enormous mark on the region; the need for Americans to learn Arabic is undeniable. The question, then, is not whether American students should take Arabic, but rather how to approach the language. Defense of the country, the diplomacy of the country, the intelligence to defense our country, and the education of our people.

Around the same time that Laura Weinberg reported her story, President Bush received a pamphlet from the Iraq Study Group that, among other suggestions, stressed the importance of training Arabic speakers. Under an umbrella program—The National Language Security Initiative—the Bush administration launched a series of language training programs designed to send undergraduates to the Middle East and other “critical” regions. According to Bush, the program stresses education and security as “a broad-gauged initiative that deals with the defense of the country, the diplomacy of the country, the intelligence to defend our country, and the education of our people.”

Though they offer incredible opportunities to study abroad, the programs’ ultimate intentions may eerily distort the value of learning Arabic. The National Security Education Program (NSEP) is a language initiative that provides scholarships to students studying languages “critical to U.S. interests.” These languages unsurprisingly hail from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East. While most initiatives of the same genre require only that the recipient continue studying the language, NSEP actually involves a year of government service upon graduation.

Christopher Powers, the director of the Education Abroad Programs, views the service requirement as a way to repay the government for the scholarship. “Fellows commit to a year of public service in exchange for their scholarship,” he writes by email. Arguably, many students who study “critical” languages do desire a career in politics anyway. Yet the connection that NSEP draws between learning Arabic and national security is so direct that the two objectives are difficult to separate.

There is no doubt that for Americans, Arabic is closely tied to politics. Even students’ idealistic intentions have been shaped by the current events. But Powers notes, “not only is foreign language proficiency important for national security and international business, but also in order to deal effectively with global health and environmental issues and many other issues that affect the entire planet.” There is something missing in both Power’s and Bush’s statements: the notion of culture. There might be value in learning another language—and reading magazines, watching television, and listening to the radio in another language—for reasons that are not instrumental to current American political aims. Currently, federally run Arabic language programs disregard those reasons in a terrifying way.

People need to be convinced President Bush’s mission for the National Language Security Initiative was clear: to spread democracy. “You see, we got to convince people of the benefits of a free society. I believe everybody desires to be free. But I also know people need to be convincing—convinced.” While the programs do expose Americans to other cultures, they do so only because those cultures pose a threat to the United States. NSLI does not hide this fact: “NSEP was designed to provide Americans with the resources and encouragement they need to acquire skills and experiences in areas of the world critical to the future security of our national Security,” asserts the program’s home page. The suggestion is that these “critical” cultures need to change, and that by learning the language, Americans can help them to do so.

Teaching our kids how to speak important languages When Professor Ben Amor looks to the future of the Arabic language program at Columbia University, a single question persists: “With such rapid expansion, how do you [as a department] plan ahead?” Inevitably, interest in learning Arabic will fall. Perhaps not in the foreseeable future, but the War on Terror will end, our troops will leave Iraq, headlines will turn their attention to other parts of the world, and the United States government will have little need for Arabic speakers.

Once Arabic is no longer a “critical language,” will those who wish to study in Egypt be able to apply for a Critical Language Scholarship? The answer is obvious. According to Foreign Policy magazine, NSLI has a budget of 24 million dollars. Not bad, but miniscule compared to $206 million Foreign Policy reports Bush requested for his abstinence-only programs. The program is intended to be short-lived.

The value of learning Arabic is fleeting in the eyes of the Bush administration. But though it may be easy to blame the current administration for distorting the significance of learning the language, the American people are not entirely innocent either. As a student of Arabic myself, I do not intend to suggest that those who take Arabic do so only to “spread democracy”—or that spreading democracy is an innocent practice. Two semesters in the program has debunked that notion in the best of ways. But we cannot ignore that Arabic has been popularized at the government level in the aftermath of 9/11.

Admittedly, learning a language at the height of its political importance is exciting. Arabic has pierced our daily life, and being intrigued by its complexity is only natural. However, being excited about a language only because it is “critical” is troubling. Current American interest in foreign languages is directly related to their significance in relation to the United States. But foreign relations are fluid; our interests are constantly changing. That gives us little time to understand the history and the culture of a region – perhaps the very thing that can prevent our misinterpretation of the world.