Column: Nation needs multilingual intelligence

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 2, 2007

by Jose de la Isla

Hispanic Link News Service

HOUSTON — “All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handicapped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding,” says the Iraq Study Group report.

The commission, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, further notes, “Our embassy of 1,000 (in Baghdad) has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency.”

One strategy alternative now under consideration to get our soldiers out, as a consequence to the report, is to imbed about 20,000 U.S. military advisors with Iraqi soldiers. That way U.S. troops diminish their role and the Iraqi army takes over security of its own country.

But how are U.S. troops going to talk with Iraqis?

That’s the rub. How many U.S. soldiers speak the languages of Iraq well enough to help get us out?

The 25 million Iraqis mainly speak standard Arabic. Portions speak Kurdish. At least 100,000 also speak Egyptian Arabic and Turkmen.

Language and culture skills, like body armor during the early stages of the war, were not standard intelligence and nation-building issues. No deep thinking went into those logistics.

That’s not to say nothing has been going on. In January of this year, President Bush launched the National Security Language Initiative through the State Department. The idea was to increase, from kindergarten through university, the number of U.S. students learning critical foreign languages. These include Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi and others.

Since 2003, the National Defense University has explored ways to obtain such skills. A pilot project called The Language Corps is expected to begin in 2007.

All this lightning and thunder might sound like a storm of activity but it isn’t. It is too little, too late. Already in 2001, before 9/11, more than 80 federal agencies alone were known to lack the foreign language proficiency to execute their responsibilities effectively. Meeting at the University of Maryland in 2004, language experts tried to stir up interest in “A Call to Action for National Foreign Language Capabilities.” They thought — incorrectly — the 9/11 attack would affect language studies the way the Soviet’s Sputnik prompted the National Defense Education Act in 1957.

Now we have a jumbled response to immediate needs. James Crawford, president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, brings sobering context as to why we don’t get it.

He notes intelligence leaders have been concerned since the 1980s. “But nothing seems to be done about it. The U.S. government does not have a real language policy of any kind.”

The administration has tried every year to cut and even to eliminate foreign language programs, particularly at the elementary and secondary level. “We haven’t gotten serious about it yet,” says Crawford about a comprehensive and sustained approach.

Historically, speakers of foreign languages were plentiful here. In 1900, 13.6 percent of the population was immigrant. But that proportion dipped to 4.8 percent by 1970. We became accustomed to a more homogenous population.

Our foreign-born population now stands at about 12 percent. However, the insular years gave rise to values that are a drag on national foreign-language capacity. It explains why the strongest opponents of local dual and bilingual policies, mainly directed at Spanish, are mostly past their 50s.

In the last 20 years, says Crawford, “I have seen a real attitude change. But it’s a relatively small number who see the advantages of bilingualism.”

Counting body bags is too big a price to pay because we lack the will to provide our military with foreign-language capability.


Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. Contact him at