[lg policy] Why Language Matters

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Jul 12 17:36:03 UTC 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009
Why Language Matters

Why should American military officers learn foreign languages? For
that matter, why should Foreign Service Officers or any other
representatives of the American government? The answer is more complex
than I used to think. Conventional wisdom, especially in the wake of
September 11th, points to the appalling rates of foreign language
acquisition among Americans and warns that we're facing a crisis. We
consistently seem to be behind the power curve training up speakers
for the current war (let alone the next war). Congress, the military
services, the intelligence agencies, and the State Department are
constantly cooking up new ideas to improve our country's foreign
language capacity.

This conventional wisdom has its critics, however. Some wonder why we
should bother training new foreign language speakers at all, rather
than just recruiting more native speakers. Others claim that the US
government should rely primarily on short-term trained interpreters,
rather than trying to squeeze foreign language into the crowded
careers of its employees. I've also encountered the idea of
consolidating foreign language speakers in reachback cells. If you are
in the middle of rural Afghanistan and need someone who speaks Pashto,
you dial up the reachback cell on your satellite radio. Much more
efficient than providing every unit on the ground with its own
interpreter. Right? Still others question the need for foreign
language acquisition at all, especially in the staff world. Senior
military officers have told me that if an officer works in a US
embassy abroad or on a policy desk somewhere, foreign language really
isn't necessary. Translators are available when necessary, but most
information that an officer needs for analysis is available in
English. I was surprised to find this logic at work within the US
embassy here in Jordan. While I have met some FAOs and State FSOs who
are keeping up their Arabic, I've met others who have let their
language atrophy because they don't need it--and don't consider it
that important. Language has enough skeptics that I've had to
carefully think through why I believe language is so important.

The questions surrounding foreign language are becoming even more
complicated for two reasons. First, knowledge of the English language
continues to grow even in unlikely developing countries. When I
arrived in Jordan I was shocked how many people speak English. I do
not consider myself "immersed" here and have to make a proactive,
daily effort to find environments where I can practice my Arabic.
Second, automatic translation technology is getting so good. Google's
translating engine is remarkable for written text; on many subjects it
translates far better than I can after a year of full-time Arabic
study. Automatic translation of speech is progressing slower, but it
is progressing. DARPA is "aiming to get an affordable iPod-size
interpreter on the chest of every American warrior, foreshadowing the
day such devices will be as common as music players" (full article
here). With such technology in the pipeline, why does learning a
foreign language matter anymore? It's a good question.

My view on all this is rather complicated. A common fallacy about
foreign language is that it's one-size-fits-all; in fact, this fallacy
is codified in the DLPT tests we use to assess foreign language
ability, which reduce a person's skills to two numbers. Language is
NOT one-size-fits-all, so I support a balanced plan to improve our
country's foreign language capacity. I believe recruiting more native
speakers is vital, think that reachback cells could certainly have a
role when field interpreters are scarce, and welcome better automatic
translation technology. It will be an exciting and revolutionary day
when automatic speech translation is commonplace. With that said, I
still believe learning human languages the old fashioned way is
important. Why? This is the crux: foreign language ability is not just
about converting information from one format to another. It's about
human relationships.

If you view language skills merely as tools to convert information, I
can understand why they seems redundant. The curriculum at DLI is
focused almost entirely on reading and listening to the news. It's a
disheartening exercise to spend an entire year learning to translate
something that Google can do better. And with the abundance of English
newspapers and the availability of translations, a lot of the
information an analyst might want is indeed available in English
(although certainly not all of it). As technology improves, the need
for translation services will probably decrease.

But language is more than a mechanism for converting information; it's
a means of building relationships. A few years ago, while General
Abizaid was still CENTCOM commander, I flew a C-17 into Cairo to pick
him up after a meeting. While I sat on the parking ramp with my
engines running, knocking out checklists for the next takeoff, I
looked out the window and saw General Abizaid moving among a circle of
grinning Egyptian military officers. He was shaking hands, talking,
doing the kinds of things a combatant commander is supposed to do:
keeping our alliances strong at a time when the situation in Iraq was
critical. Because he is fluent in Arabic, I presume he was doing at
least some of this in Arabic. I remember thinking, Wow. This is why
language matters. Last summer I met a former Olmsted scholar who lived
in Germany, and ended her military career by running the White House
Situation Room. After the invasion of Iraq she participated in a
meeting between newly-minted US general officers and senior Germany
military officers. At the time, the tension between the US and Germany
("Old Europe") was extraordinary. During the question and answer
session, she astonished the audience by asking--in perfect
German--what they as young general officers could do to repair the
relationship between their two militaries. She said she could hear a
pin drop in the room.

That is why language matters. It builds relationships and wins trust.
That's also why language speakers shouldn't simply be rerouted to
policy desks or in hidden cubicles watching Al Jazeera; we need
commanders who can speak foreign languages as well. That is the unique
vision behind the Olmsted program (of which General Abizaid is a
product). Here in Jordan, I've found that being a decent Arabic
speaker has opened doors and invited trust in unlikely ways. I have to
think that a US soldier who walks into an Afghan or Iraqi village
speaking the language will have more trust than a soldier who calls up
a translator on his satellite radio. If he slaps the DARPA voicebox on
his chest and lets a synthesized voice do all his speaking, I imagine
it would just scare the hell out of everybody. That's certainly a
useful technology in the absence of human translators, but how much
more Darth Vader can we get?

Language is extremely hard. We need as many language solutions as we
can get, and technology certainly can and should help fill the gap.
But no matter how good the technology gets, no matter how prevalent
English becomes, old-fashioned speaking of a foreign language still

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