October 27, 2001

America Doesn't Know What the World Is Saying


URBANA, Ill. -- America has a problem of linguistic security: We don't understand the languages of our attackers. Just a week after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was offering $38 an hour for translators of Arabic or of Pashto, the language of about 35 percent of the people of Afghanistan, including the Taliban. Many in Afghanistan, where bilingualism is widespread, understand both.

But bilingualism is not widespread in the F.B.I. or in the Central Intelligence Agency. Admittedly, there are only 25 million speakers of Pashto around the world, and there may be few opportunities to learn it. But Arabic is the fifth-most widely spoken language in the world; our government should not need to place help-wanted ads for Arabic speakers.

The weakness is not new. The F.B.I. acknowledges that before the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 it had tapes, notebooks and phone taps that might have provided warning signs but it hadn't been able to decipher them because they were in Arabic.

There are perhaps a million people in this country of Arab descent, but many don't speak Arabic. Bilingualism, considered normal not only in Afghanistan but in most parts of the world, is not valued in American culture and has sometimes been actively discouraged in schools and workplaces. Of those who do maintain their Arabic, many who apply for jobs with the security agencies are likely to be rejected as potential security risks. To translate Arabic or Pashto for the F.B.I., you must be an American citizen who has spent three of the last five years in this country and you must renounce dual citizenship.

What about training our native speakers of English to speak Arabic? Overall, foreign language study is in decline in the United States. In 1998, only 6 percent of students enrolled in American colleges were taking foreign languages. Enrollment in Arabic was on the rise even before Sept. 11, but the numbers are still small: in 1998, only 5,505 American college students were taking Arabic.

Even if many more students enroll in Arabic, they could graduate without the ability to understand the kinds of communications our security agencies want to monitor. The Arabic taught in classrooms is formal Arabic, the shared language used in newspapers and books. But many varieties of colloquial Arabic are spoken around the world, and even many Arabic speakers have to learn modern standard Arabic in school as a second language.

The first step in addressing our language deficiencies is a national recognition that they exist. For now, federal security agencies should realize that in recruiting native speakers of strategic languages they may have to rely more on background checks and less on rigid rules about citizenship and residence. In the long run, much more needs to be done.

Colleges that have dropped the once common foreign language requirement should consider reinstating it. Many more should offer Arabic, and those that already do so should concentrate more of their resources on building up their Arabic programs. Within those programs, we must emphasize not just literature or schoolbook language, but the living, spoken forms as well.

The federal government might give financial help to colleges trying to improve their programs in Arabic and other strategically important languages. Congress could offer subsidies to students at accredited four-year colleges who choose to study these languages.

If we really want to understand the words of our enemies not to mention those of our friends we need to put more emphasis on learning languages and show more respect for the bilingual people in our schools and communities.

Dennis Baron is a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company