Language Gap at US Embassy in Iraq

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jan 8 14:29:28 UTC 2007
Monday, January 8, 2007

Language Gap at Embassy in Iraq Figures in Call for More Support for


The eye-catching ad begins with a giant numeral six, then continues:
"Number of fluent Arabic speakers in the United States Embassy in Iraq."
Solutions for Our Future, a coalition of higher-education and other
organizations, is using that startling fact to encourage increased federal
spending on foreign-language programs. The full-page ad, which appears
today in Roll Call, a newspaper that is widely read on Capitol Hill, goes
on to say: "It's hard to represent America's interests abroad when we
can't speak the language. While the U.S. has a number of programs that are
ideally suited to increasing America's foreign-language competency ...
federal support for them has lagged for years. Increased investment in
these programs today will yield big and lasting dividends."

The organization pulled the embassy data from the recent report of the
Iraq Study Group, which noted that of the 1,000 people who work at the
embassy, only 33 speak Arabic, and only six of them speak it fluently.
"Sometimes you find a statistic that so perfectly illustrates a broader
point, you'd be foolish not to draw attention to it," said Terry W.
Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the
American Council on Education. The council manages Solutions for Our
Future, which was created last year to enhance higher education's image
with the public.

According to the organization, the amount of money spent on key
foreign-language and area-studies programs by the U.S. Department of
Education has dropped 30 percent, in real dollars, over the past 40 years.
The relatively small number of college students who graduate each year
fluent in a second language, particularly one deemed critical to the
country's economic and political interests, such as Mandarin or Arabic, is
widely recognized to be a problem. Last January, President Bush announced
a new National Security Language Initiative, which was to provide
$114-million to train students in these critical languages, from
kindergarten through college.

Mr. Hartle said on Sunday that the ad was timed to run at the start of the
new Democrat-controlled Congress but that he believes both parties are
equally receptive to its message. "I think the problem we've had is that
the last two years have been exceptionally partisan," he said. "So we're
hoping in a new Congress, with a broader commitment to bipartisanship, it
might be possible to pick up on this issue, where Democrats and
Republicans alike see this as an urgent national theme." "Foreign-language
expertise is one of those things that if the government invests a dollar,"
he added, "they will get a definable product out in a few years' time."
Mr. Hartle said that there are no immediate plans to run the ad again but
that it would be made available to colleges and universities to use as
they wish.

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