“America has a problem of linguistic security: We don”t understand the languages of our attackers.”
So begins Dennis Baron”s Oct. 27 New York Times op/ed contribution, “America doesn”t understand what the world is saying”.
Fair enough. We don”t understand the languages of our attackers. But we don”t understand the languages of our allies, either. Eighteen languages are spoken natively in Pakistan alone. And I don”t know one of them.
It is important to be equally bothered by a collective inability to understand the languages of enemies and friends or equally unbothered. Language literacy should not be considered a weapon of war.
Through de facto discouragement of bilingualism and educational policy, the U.S. continues to build our language barriers. Granted, it is unreasonable to expect Pashtun departments to spring up across the country. But dialectical differences aside, Arabic (the most common forms of which are Egyptian and Algerian) is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and is the dominant language in what is arguably the most volatile area.
Baron”s column elicited a large response from the Times” readership. In one of the three letters the Times printed, “The language weapon,” C. D. Anandasegar of Brick, N.J. writes, “Dennis Baron”s reminder of our weak foreign-language knowledge in an era of complex global politics is an eye-opener. Our enemies have the advantage of conducting their “business” in their native language as long as we don”t understand.”
They”re tricky, those enemies of ours. Sneaky. Devious. Underhanded. And clearly not playing by the rules.
The FBI, the CIA and a hundred other acronymed government organizations, looking for new recruits, are approaching Middle Eastern studies departments at universities across the country. They”re clambering to find speakers of Arabic. Speakers, at least, who can get through security clearance and background checks.
What these government organizations don”t seem to get is that it”s not a game or a contest. And if it”s a contest, it”s completely one-sided. The “they” has got our language figured out. And so does the rest of the world. But back in our hemisphere, we need to realize that it”s not World War II and we”re not looking for cryptanalysts in a scramble to break German Baudot Code. Arabic is not a secret.
I can”t help but imagine George Tenet, Director of Central Intelligence at the CIA, as Ralphie Parker from the 1983 film “A Christmas Story” harassing the mailman day after day, waiting for his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring to come.
Learning a language is not about beating terrorists at their own game. They haven”t written their notes or captioned their diagrams in Arabic just to be tricky. But it”s been a fun side effect.
As much as we like to fool ourselves English, has not been lingua franca-fied enough yet for us to sit back and expect the world to come to us. And it shouldn”t take terrorist attacks to wake us up to the realization that for six percent of American college students to be currently enrolled in language class is abysmal and embarrassing. It”s just another indication that for too long we”ve been living the un-examined life.
At this point, the argument goes beyond the intrinsic benefits of learning a foreign language, beaten to death in recent months by academics and members of the media. It”s not just for personal edification anymore it”s about being an informed and contributing citizen of the world.
Native speakers of English have an incredible advantage. Our first words were spoken in the language of business and academia, modern diplomacy and even entertainment. And the majority of us decide to waste that advantage with complacency and ignorance.
But concurrent with the solemn head nodding in response to calls for more foreign language education is the persistent expectation that everyone speak English in that television-anchor middle Ohio dialect. In a Nov. 2 letter to The Daily (“When has GEO ever cared about students?”), University alumnus David Taub writes, “I doubt I”m the only who had a hard time understanding a word of foreign GSIs in their pathetic attempt to speak English when conducting a discussion section.”
Taub”s unappraised argument, besides being constructed with pure class, is merely indicative of the outlook that has gotten us into so much trouble already. The double standard once again rears it”s ugly head.
Johanna Hanink can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com