Going Native

Ogged recommends enthusiastically an article by Alif Sikkiin which argues at great length that learning Arabic isn’t quite as hard as it’s cracked up to be. He argues that, instead, the reason we don’t have more fluent speakers working for the U.S. government is our foreign policy itself:

The thing is, it’s not like there aren’t a good number of Arabic speakers in the US. They do exist, both among people of Arab heritage and those who started learning as adults. The elephant in the room in these discussions about Middle Eastern languages is the fact that most people who feel positively about Arabic culture generally speaking, and who like Arabs as people, are not going to want to be associated with this country’s putrid foreign policy. In the course of my studies I’ve met a lot of people (and not heritage students, either) with fantastic Arabic. Not a single one of them wants to enter government service or the military. The dilemma for the US government is that the only way people become really good at a language is by spending a lot of time in contact with the culture and its people, and this is incompatible with the foreign policy view of the peoples of the Middle East as objects to be manipulated to suit US interests.

There’s an old term for this: “going native.”

To be successful as a diplomat or soldier-ambassador requires a certain degree of empathy and respect for the people and culture of the other society. At the same time, however, one needs to have sense of “us” and “them” that prioritizes the interests of one’s country over those of others. Those who lack the latter mindset are of little use in the service of their government, regardless of their other skills.

To some extent, the United States views the peoples of all countries as “objects to be manipulated to suit US interests” — and the peoples (or at least governments) of those countries have that view of the United States and all other countries. Otherwise, why have borders?

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. davod says:

    Going native is the prime term here. The language schools and teachers of Middle-East studies came out against the US as soon as it became apparent that th US was going to strike back at the rat bags.

    Your last paragraph contains the basic elements of truth, all countries approach relations with other countries in terms of their own interests.

    What country doesn’t?

    The US is no different.

  2. Tano says:

    “all countries approach relations with other countries in terms of their own interests”

    Yes, but sometimes all countries are capable of doing so stupidly.

    I don’t think the issue here is that the translators are going native, but rather that they don’t want to be vehicles for the propagation of idiotic policies.

  3. mrbill says:

    This is why the entire State Dept and most of the CIA have needed either shut down or purged for some time and reloaded with all new people. When these folks actively get out and try to thwart or work against an administrations policy, they have all gone “native” and should be left there in place and allowed to find their own best place to live.

  4. Excellent point. I usually put it like this; the State Department doesn’t want xenophobes, you have to be interested in other cultures and not be afraid to leave your home state, but grounded enough that you don’t go native and/or forget who you work for.

    I’ve quoted you and linked to you here.