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The Danger of Being Tongue Tied
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
World Trade Center buildings burning while people on Brooklyn Bridgee are vacuating the area in Yew York. September 11, 2001. Courtesy Ultradio

"Tomorrow is zero hour" and "The match is about to begin" were two Al Quaeda messages sent on September 10, 2001. The messages were intercepted by The National Security Agency but were translated after the tragedy of 9/11.

Of course, these were not the only "dots" governmental officials were unable to connect in the fight against terrorism. Yet, they reflect the importance of information and the critical need for language skills to access it and make us secure.

Although we have spent billions to fight terrorism, not enough resources have been put in intelligence. And that means the ability to have enough personnel who understand the languages used by terrorists.

To be sure, some efforts have been made. The FBI has 1,214 linguists now, up from 883 in 2001. Many of the increases are in the critical languages of Arabic, Farsi, and other vital languages.

Yet, the government collects plenty of data which goes untranslated. In some cases, no one looks at it because storage limitations push some data out of the system to make room for new information.

According to governmental policies, data related to Al Quaeda (Al Qaeda) is supposed to be reviewed within 12 hours of interception. That is often not done, according to the inspector general.

The problem is serious and is compounded by the fact that Americans have serious misconceptions about the value of languages in the world.

Fundamentally, Americans suffer from monolingualism. You see in education. While foreign languages are a basic subject in many industrialized nations, in the U.S. foreign languages are considered a frill. Indeed, it is possible to graduate from an American college without being able to communicate in a language other than English.

Although the U.S. is arguably the most powerful country in the world, our educational system is ethno-centric. In spite of our political, economic, and also military connections with many countries around the world, we view things from an English-speaking window.

To a certain extent, this can be justified by the importance of the English language in the world. It is possible to do well economically without knowing a second language.

One can travel and enjoy the sights with just English. But to really understand people around the world you need to be able to know their language.

Languages also mean an understanding of foreign cultures because they involve much more than just a way to communicate. Languages reflect history and how people see the world around them.

By letting others learning our language and not learning theirs, we end up in a weak position. We only see a part of the picture.

What's amazing is that many people keep insisting on English only. Twenty-seven American states have passed laws declaring English their official language. It sounds innocuous enough, but these laws reflect misguided notions about languages. The message is for immigrants who need to learn English and expect no services from government except in English.

Unfortunately, these laws also send a message to Americans. English alone is enough. Just like you need not make any effort to understand new immigrants and their language, you need not learn other languages spoken around the world.

These laws reflect a fear of languages and create a dangerous environment which forces us to bury our head in the sand. We don't want to know things unless they are available in English. Until it's too late. Then we struggle and we can't find enough people who understand the terrorists' words.

If we can't understand the terrorists' words, we have no chance of understanding their motivation as to why they want to hurt us. We don't understand why some people would give their lives and die in a suicide mission. We simply dismiss them as crazy. But there is more to the story. To unlock the story, we need a key which is not available in the English only philosophy. The English only philosophy represents a danger to our security.

Other Articles by Domenico Maceri
    Julián Castro's Monolingualism: a ...
    Biden's Immigration Plan: Between Trump and ...
    Legal and Illegal Immigration: A Winning ...
    World Cup: Beyond the Soccer Field
    John Kelly's Fails English and History

Domenico Maceri, Ph.D., UC Santa Barbara, teaches foreign languages at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers including Los Angeles Times, Washington Times, Japan Times, and The Seoul Times. Some of his stories won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.






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