Still wanting: Arabic speakers
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Nov 23 19:51:02 UTC 2003
>>From the Philadelphia Enquirer, Posted on Sun, Nov. 23, 2003
Still wanting: Arabic speakers
"It's easier to train someone to fly an F-14," a translator says. For the
U.S., the need is critical.
By Darlene Superville Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Despite catch-up efforts, the government suffers from a
shortage of Arabic speakers, which is gravely hampering military,
diplomatic and intelligence operations across the Middle East. In Iraq,
the language gap makes it more difficult for soldiers to protect
themselves. At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it has jeopardized interrogations of
suspected al-Qaeda terrorists. And on Arab television stations, it has
left almost no one defending U.S. policies.
Correcting the problem hasn't proved simple in the two years since the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Arabic and other Middle East languages are
radically different from English, and it can take English speakers several
years to use them comfortably. "It's easier to train someone to fly an
F-14 than it is to speak Arabic," said Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the
American Translators Association. Critics contend the United States simply
hasn't put adequate emphasis on closing the deficiency. Britain, for
example, gives extensive training to a higher percentage of the soldiers
it sends to Iraq.
"This is such a critical challenge that we have, this battle for the minds
of this very important part of the world," said Edward P. Djerejian, a
former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel. "We're simply not there."
Aggressive recruiting of Arabic speakers didn't begin until after the
Sept. 11 attacks, carried out by Arab extremists from the al-Qaeda
network. A report by Congress' Intelligence Committees criticized all
major U.S. terrorism-fighting agencies for missing the growing threat of a
terror attack. Although many problems stemmed from agencies' not having
shared information about the threat, the shortage of Arab speakers might
have played a role also.
In spite of the shortage, six soldiers trained to speak Arabic were among
nine Army linguists dismissed from the service for homosexuality within
six months of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March. Two said they sought
federal jobs to use their language skills in the war on terror but were
rejected. The FBI has acknowledged that it needs more and better
translators of all languages, especially Middle Eastern tongues.
Similarly, the armed forces need Arabic speakers who also understand
military jargon and are in good enough shape to keep up with troops.
Instead, U.S. troops in Iraq often speak little, if any, Arabic, and so
instead resort to shouting in English or trying to gesture their way
through dangerous confrontations. At Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of
suspected terrorists are in U.S. custody, the arrests of three
translators on spying charges forced the military to reevaluate some
"If somebody from Syria comes in and says, 'I want to join the FBI,'
you've got to think twice about that," said James Carafano, who studies
defense issues at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. A
surge in student interest since the Sept. 11 attacks may offer some
relief. More than 10,000 college students were taking Arabic classes in
autumn 2002, compared with about 5,500 four years earlier, according to
the Modern Language Association. Before the attacks, more American
students - nearly 7,000 in 1998 - were signed up to learn Portuguese.
Meanwhile, the State Department, the agency whose primary task is the
United States' diplomatic relations worldwide, has fewer than 60 employees
fluent in Arabic, of a total of 279 Arabic speakers. Only five of the
fluent employees have the polish and skills to go toe-to-toe with
commentators on Middle Eastern television programs, according to an
advisory commission Djerejian headed. The panel recommended hiring 300
fluent Arabic speakers within two years and another 300 by 2008. It
suggested incentives to diplomats to maintain and improve their fluency.
To make up some of the gap, the government is turning to private
translators to handle documents and tapes through secure electronic
connections. "The work we have right now, we measure by the truckload,"
said Everette Jordan, director of the new National Virtual Translation
Center. The government also is trying to increase the number of its own
The Army has about 1,300 active-duty soldiers who can speak or read some
Arabic, and 100 more being trained at a defense language school in
California. U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq also take a cultural-awareness
class and receive a "green book" that describes cultures, customs and
phrases, including Arabic greetings, according to Army public-affairs
In contrast, several members of each British military regiment sent to
Iraq receive 10 weeks of schooling in Arabic language and culture. Nearly
200 soldiers have attended since January, according to Col. Anthony
Rabbitt, the school's commanding officer. In addition, all British
soldiers sent to Iraq must have attended a daylong course on Middle
Eastern culture and the Arabic language.
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