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When Language Knowledge Means Security
Special Contribution
By Domenico Maceri
CIA Director Porter J. Goss

More than 10,584 American college students were enrolled in Arabic language courses in 2002, according to data from the Modern Language Association. That's twice the number before 9-11.

In spite of that, the US government's need for Arabic-speaking personnel is far from being met. To address this shortage of linguists, a new facility was opened by the government, which aims to produce Arabic speakers fast.

Located at the University of Maryland Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL), the facility aims to find innovative ways to make people bilingual rapidly. It's the largest language-research center in the US.

The importance of the new facility to eliminate the shortage of linguists was made evident by the presence of CIA Director
Porter J. Goss, who gave the introductory speech. He stated that he was glad to be part of something "that is a very big problem."

The facility includes researchers who will try to find out why some students learn faster than others and the role memory plays in learning languages.

The time it takes Americans to learn a foreign language varies. Languages that have much in common with English take a lot less than those which are very different and have a different alphabet. It takes about 24 weeks of full-time study to learn French or Spanish, considered "easy" languages. In the case of Arabic it takes 88 weeks.

Learning Arabic is made difficult because it has little similarity to English. In addition, it has 20 dialects, which add to the complexity, forcing teachers to choose which version to focus on. In essence, the 20 dialects of Arabic make it more than "one" language.

Although the new facility is certainly welcome, learning languages takes a long time, and beginning the study as adults is not a wise choice.

Language study in the US needs to become part of the curriculum in the early grades as is typically the case in other countries. It matters little what languages are taught in elementary school since being bilingual is definitely an asset in learning a third or fourth language.

Just like learning to play a second or third musical instrument is easier for a musician, the same applies to language learning. Learning Arabic is a lot easier for someone who already knows English and Spanish or English and French.

The US language "problem" will not be solved fast no matter what the research manages to find. In the short run, a temporary solution is to focus on people who already have language skills among the immigrant community.

Soon after 9-11 many Arabic speaking people were hired to work for the government. The FBI even held a job fair in a New Jersey mosque. In 2001, it had 70 Arabic-speaking employees, but now it has 216. That is certainly a positive development.

In addition, the number of students studying Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute, which teaches languages to government employees, is up to 441.

Yet, stronger links with the Arabic-speaking community need to be established.

That means in a broader sense projecting a sense that government officials can be trusted.

Unfortunately, some of the actions by US government agencies and personnel have proven to be totally counterproductive.

The torture revelations in Abu Ghraib and the reports of abusing the Koran in the detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba, discourage many Muslim immigrants to get involved in government. In fact, these actions tend to reinforce whatever little credence terrorists might have within the Muslim community.

Learning languages is very valuable because, as Poter Goss said, it will explain why some nations are hostile to us and ultimately make us more secure in the world.

Knowledge of languages, however, is also valuable because it breaks down barriers and shows the humanity we all share regardless of the language we might speak.

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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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