Lack of Arabic speakers spurs U.S. into action - Yahoo! News

Hmmm... Not true according to Sibel Edmonds, there are lots of speakers, they just don't have any "goodfather" in Bush's crony piramid.. -- law

Four years into the war on terrorism, the intelligence community admits it is still short of fluent speakers of critical languages, particularly Arabic.

Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government didn't consider Arabic language skills a national security concern. Now officials are encountering myriad obstacles in trying to close the gap rapidly.

Arabic differs greatly from English and other Western languages. Arabic reads from right to left. One letter may take on three or four shapes, depending on where it appears in a word, and it has more than 20 dialects. Attaining the proficiency required by the government can take nearly four times longer than learning Spanish or French.

Many people who already knew Arabic were hired by the government and private-sector companies in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, but the government is seeking to hire thousands more such translators.

With that in mind, the government on Thursday opened a new facility at the University of Maryland's Center for Advanced Study of Language to find innovative ways of producing more Arabic speakers quickly.
CIA Director Porter Goss gave the introductory speech, lending a sort of imprimatur to the government's quest.

"I'm glad to be a small part in something that is a very, very big problem for me," Goss said.

Mission for language center

While the facility will not offer language instruction, researchers will examine ways to speed up the learning process.

"The government is investing significant resources in training in Arabic," said Richard Brecht, the center's executive director. "But we need major breakthroughs to cut the time it takes to learn Arabic. We need major cognitive research."

That research will include examining why some students learn faster, how different people learn and how short- and long-term memory contribute to learning language.

State Department programs to teach languages such as Spanish and French take 24 weeks, but the Arabic program takes 88 weeks and requires a commitment in the second year to studying in an Arabic-speaking country.

Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association and a former White House translator, said the CIA,
FBI, State Department, military intelligence and private companies with interests in the Middle East quickly hired the few American Arabic speakers who existed before Sept. 11.

Hendzel said the U.S. faces a situation similar to the Cold War.

"It took a generation to train all the Russian teachers and then train all of us who became linguists," he said. "It took us about 20 years to get caught up on Russian, and it may take that long again."

Ron Marks, a former CIA official who is a senior fellow at George Washington University's
Homeland Security Policy Institute, said the government should be able to learn from the Cold War response to language needs.

"We need to rethink how we do this," he said. "This isn't the first time around."

`Reinventing wheel' wasteful

The language center at Maryland is funded by the Defense Department but is independent of the department. Marks said the intelligence community needs more private-sector research to find solutions.

"There's a little bit of a feeling that, if it ain't invented [in the intelligence community], we don't want anything to do with it," he said. "Hundreds of multinational corporations in the private sector deal with this stuff all the time. You've got to take advantage of that. You can't keep reinventing the wheel."

Despite the difficulties of learning Arabic, U.S. colleges and universities are producing more such speakers than ever. According to the Modern Language Association's latest survey, 10,584 students studied Arabic in 2002, nearly double the number who studied it in 1998.

More of those graduates are taking government jobs. The FBI had 216 Arabic-speaking employees and contract linguists in April 2004, up from 70 on Sept. 11, 2001. At the State Department's Foreign Service Institute, 441 students are studying Arabic this year, nearly four times the number in 2001. Specific numbers are not available from the CIA, but officials there say the numbers have increased.

"Those numbers are so paltry, it can keep doubling, and we'll still be well short of what we need," Brecht said. "There are more than 85 government agencies and offices with language requirements."

The intelligence community's language needs don't end with translators. Brecht said the lack of proficient Arabic speakers also has limited the United States' ability to spread its message and participate in debate in the Arab world.

The State Department "is desperate to have diplomats to perform at the very highest levels on Arabic media," Brecht said. "How can you do `Crossfire' on Al-Arabiya without those language skills?"

Lack of Arabic speakers spurs U.S. into action - Yahoo! News


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