Saturday, April 09, 2005
military seeks linguists to fight terrorism
Fri April 8, 2005 2:05 AM GMT+05:30
By Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military needs a new corps of linguists for the war on terrorism who can catch hidden meanings in a mix of dialects, even over a crackling cell phone line, a senior Pentagon official said on Thursday.
The "Defense Language Transformation Roadmap" announced last week is seeking to forge such language skills as well as greater regional knowledge, along with more basic language abilities among a broader section of the military, said David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
"The secretary (of defense Donald Rumsfeld) for some time has been concerned that the department's linguistic capacity is not what it used to be," said Chu, referring to the Cold War when the military felt it had the skills it needed.
Chu told a small group of reporters at the Pentagon that during the Cold War, the military generally needed to be able to translate or understand fairly straightforward "order-of-battle information," such as military documents or commands spoken in standard dialects.
"What we recognize in the war on terror ... is (that) at least for some of our linguists, that's not good enough," he said. "If you're dealing with people speaking on cell phones, who are deliberately camouflaging what they have to say ... boy, you've got to be at a different (skill) level."
"It's not just straightforward 'where is the power station' kind of stuff," he added.
The Pentagon, CIA and other agencies have often bemoaned a shortage of linguists in Arabic and other "exotic languages" and said there was a backlog of material obtained by satellites, bugging and spies that needed translation.
Memories are still fresh of two messages intercepted from suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network on Sept. 10, 2001, that said, "Tomorrow is zero hour," and "The match begins tomorrow." They were translated on Sept. 11 and only given to policy-makers on Sept. 12.
ARABIC SPEAKERS WANTED
The Cold War focus on Russian and other Eastern European languages has given way to a need for speakers of Arabic, Persian, Pashto and other languages spoken in countries linked to the war on terrorism. Chinese and Korean are also gaining prominence.
As part of its efforts to beef up language skills, the Pentagon increased the budget of its language school by about $50 million in fiscal 2005 to $153 million. The 2006 budget requests an additional $45 million, with a further increase of $330 million projected from 2007 to 2010.
The military is also planning to offer incentive pay of up to $12,000 a year for language skills, link those skills to promotion and make them a requirement for officers, Chu said.
Announcing the major shift in its language training and recruitment policy last Thursday, the military said languages were now being considered as important as weapons systems.
The military is seeking to recruit staff from immigrant communities within the United States that speak the needed languages, while hiring and training non-native speakers to reach greater proficiency.
Chu said an Army program had already recruited about 200 people from Arabic, Pashto and Dari-speaking communities in the United States over the past two years, adding that 50 of the recruits were already deployed in the field.
Friday, March 25, 2005
Foreseeing a career in journalism, Forgues, 20, hopes expertise in what he calls an "obscure" language will boost his marketability in a competitive industry.
To get there, he's mastering a new alphabet and lots of unfamiliar sounds alongside similarly ambitious students, from South Asian Muslims to Indiana natives in ROTC who often come to class in fatigues. To meet the demand, Purdue's program has ballooned from just two courses to 12 since fall 2003.
"As long as Purdue keeps adding Arabic classes, I'll keep taking them," Forgues says. "Everybody who's in this (Arabic 102) class now has an exact purpose in why they're taking it and how it will apply to their careers."
Across the USA, a surge of student curiosity about Arabic after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, is maturing into a demand for more courses, especially upper-level classes as novices resolve to master the language. A full 73% of 640 Arabic-language students surveyed at 37 institutions in 2004 said they were "determined to achieve a level of proficiency in Arabic that would allow me to function in it comfortably in my professional activities," according to the National Middle East Language Resource Center at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Only a minority of students reach proficiency. One in four first-year students in the best programs eventually reach the third-year level, says center director R. Kirk Belnap. In weaker programs, he says, the dropout rate is even higher.
To meet the demand, schools that already offer Arabic are expanding old programs, creating new ones and scrambling, sometimes in vain, to find qualified teachers. Purdue relies on six grad students to teach its courses. Vermont's Middlebury College recruits from Syria and Egypt to staff its summer language program. Yet even with extra efforts, various constraints are making it a challenge for schools to keep up.
"More students have begun to realize they have to study it for a number of years to be really proficient," says William Mayers, coordinator of the Arabic Language School at Middlebury College's Sunderland Language Center.
"We get enough good applicants from the really high-caliber schools — and these are straight-A students — and a lot of them we're turning down because of limited space."
The numbers help show how interest in Arabic keeps growing. Enrollment in Arabic courses nationwide jumped from 5,500 to 10,600, a 92% increase, from 1998 to 2002, according to the most recent data from the Modern Language Association. Only American Sign Language boosted enrollments by a larger percentage in that time period. Since 2002, enrollments have climbed again by an estimated 15% to 25%, the Middle East language center says.
To keep pace, some institutions are beefing up what they offer on an advanced level. The Center for Advanced Proficiency in Arabic, the nation's first intensive program offered for a full academic year, opens this fall at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Middlebury College is expanding its summer program by about 10% this year and is planning to start offering third-year Arabic during the academic year as soon as this fall.
Yet with fewer than 10% of U.S. colleges offering any Arabic courses, some fear that higher-learning institutions on the whole aren't doing enough to adjust.
"Demand is there, but they're not offering (courses) because of budgetary constraints or whatever," Belnap says. "These are very curious things in a time when your country is clamoring for more foreign-language expertise."
Though many people study Arabic to enhance careers in business or government, a good 20% are "heritage speakers" with a purely cultural or personal interest, says Mahmoud al-Batal, director of the Center for Arabic Study Abroad and an Arabic professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
As Muslim-Americans who pray and read their holy scriptures in Arabic, Batal says, they sometimes bring a sense of purpose that goes beyond any economic quest.
"They see themselves as a bridge to connect people and cultures of the Arab world with the American public," Batal says. "And they see the language piece as critical to achieve this goal."