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Re: Language Skills and Counterterrorism

Yesterday Steve commented on one particularly specialized area of concern, Language Skills and Counterterrorism, noting that the U.S. seems to be so short of qualified linguists that it hasn't even been able to monitor the mail of incarcerated terrorists. This in spite of the fact that it has been documented that individuals in custody have written to active terrorists on the outside (discussed in the link). Languages of special need include Arabic, Farsi and Urdu most prominently, with Arabic being the most important. There is really no excuse for this now. I know that Arabic is hard and extremely time consuming, but agencies with multi-billion dollar budgets can easily send people abroad for as long as necessary for them to learn the language. Proficiency in Arabic - the most difficult of the above - takes a minimum of two to three years, depending on the degree of immersion and program of study, and assuming that most of that is in-country (otherwise, it takes anywhere from several years to the rest of your life). So time was an excuse up until 2003 or 2004, but certainly not in 2006.

For those thinking of learning Arabic or other non-European language, either on their own or as part of a government career at some point, here are a few tips:

- I suggest having 4-5 semesters of study stateside, followed by either two years of full-time study or one year of full-time study supplemented by time in-country working.

- Be realistic; Arabic is not like French or German in which you can take two or three semesters and then read the newspaper and engage in general conversations. Having attended one of the more highly-regarded Arabic programs in the country, I observed that even after four semesters most students had negligible functional ability in the language, either reading or speaking. Personally, it took me six months of full-time study in country after five semesters in the states just to be able to read the newspaper with sufficient facility to actually read it for news, and that was faster than average.

- Have at least a couple of semesters under your belt before going to an Arab country. I do not believe in the "sink or swim" approach of just moving there and being immersed without any language background, because you need a critical mass from which to work. I had five semesters when I first arrived in an Arab country, and was able to use it from day one, but I knew people who arrived there with no background and then just ended up speaking English to their expat friends. If you can afford to pay a private tutor a few hours a day to teach you to speak, perhaps that might work, but it is better to know some beforehand.

- If you have already begun your career and do not have the option of studying a foreign language along with your undergraduate or graduate focus, there are some intensive summer programs in which one can get a year of Arabic - and sometimes Turkish or Farsi - in about ten weeks. If you are doing this on your own, you could then move to a country of the target language.

- You may hear that standard Arabic, or fusha, is vastly different from what people actually speak, and that it should be downplayed. It is true that spoken dialects differ widely from both the written language and from each other, but standard is the basis for everything, and because Arabic is much harder to learn to read than to speak, it is better to have at least a moderate grasp of it before tackling a dialect.

- The best way to study abroad is through a scholarship, but remember that native speakers of North American English can get jobs teaching English in most Arab countries simply by showing up at a school the right time of the year, with or without a teaching certificate (although jobs requiring a certificate pay more). You can do this on your own.

- The best countries for studying Arabic are generally considered to be Jordan and Egypt due to political conditions, low cost of living, the fact that both have programs designed for foreigners and the nature of their dialects. The Egyptian dialect is widely known, and the Jordanian and Palestinian dialects are similar to others in the Levant, and much more "mainstream" than learning the dialects of countries to the west of Libya, whose spoken languages are not fully intelligible to even most native Arabs. The Persian Gulf dialects also tend to be similar to one another, so learning one well will allow you to understand them all.

- If you are learning Arabic specifically for use in the counterterrorism context, stay in just one country until you are completely fluent, don't move around. One of the main problems in this regard is that much of the material is spoken, and finding someone who knows, say, Yemeni colloquial (who can pass a background check) is very hard. Once you are fluent in one dialect, you can more easily expose yourself to others and gain comprehension ability in them without getting them confused. Extensive exposure to three dialects will most likely give you a smattering knowledge of three dialects, and nothing more.

- Of the other Islamic languages - Farsi, Urdu, Pashtu, the Turkic languages - they all fall between Arabic and West European languages in terms of difficulty for a native speaker of English. Most (and all of the aforementioned except Turkish) are Indo-European, and so even though most have adopted the Arabic script, they are easier than Arabic to learn. But this does not mean that they are easy.



Kirk, might I add that although these languages may be learned fairly rapidly, the nuances or insinuations "in meaning" of what is actually being said/written are less easy to pick up as fast.
These nuances would be critical to the task at hand and to what you allude to.
Unfortunately, over the past few years, security related issues are less conducive for many people travelling from the US to the wider ME and who would want to learn 'in country'.
Never the less, I think you are directly 'hitting the nail on the head' in what you say.


Certainly agreed on the nuances point. I get them if fusha is used, but in the dialects that people actually speak in non-formal situations I'm completely lost. And a lot of Americans don't want to spend two to three years living in Yemen, or wherever. But that is what it takes.

I am puzzled by your comment that "these languages may be learned fairly rapidly." I assume, especially with Arabic, that you mean the spoken dialects. Arabic really isn't that hard to speak in you live in country for a while, it is reading that is most difficult. I suspect the same is true with the others, although a friend who studied Turkish told me that learning to speak it was harder than Arabic because of the sentence structure.

Kirk, yes, to a degree the spoken dialects...along with the basics of the rest.

The colloquial and the written can be very different in 'texture' (no pun intended!).

Also, I was referring to the basic concept of the language, alphabet and reading being 'fairly' easy to learn.

Yes, in that sense Turkish is relatively difficult, but being the latin alphabet and phonetic I would assume one could become "familiar" with it a bit easier...the sentence structure tho' is awkward for the beginner.


Kirk -
You for get the security clearance problem...
If the government sends you overseas to learn Arabic (which is of course the best way to learn) it can lengthen the security clearance process for 2-3 years. Believe me, I know from personal experience as well as from dozens of friends.
For employees who already posess security clearances, many get denied permission to study in the middle east because it will cause problems with their current security status, and they are therefore forced to attend sub-standard courses contracted out by the government locally.

Just for your info - of the roughly 11 million students studying right now in the US, less than 1 million are learning a foreign language, and 80% of those languages being learned are spanish, french, and german. Of the remaining 20%, only about 3% are learning Arabic. The problem in the US in general is interest in learning to speak a foreign language.


I've heard a good number of "horror stories" myself. The situation is an indefensible mess. From how I have heard the process described, I doubt that it would keep out a careful spy, but it clearly discourages a lot of Americans who can't afford to have their professional lives hang in limbo.

And yes, the lack of interest from the public is a problem.