Learning Arabic

Pat Lang points out that it takes years for an American to learn to read and write Arabic and therefore sending soldiers to crash programs in the hopes that it will help is “illusory.” Still, while that explains why most of the troops we send to Iraq can’t speak the language, it doesn’t explain why more don’t.

It’s been obvious to me — and thus presumably to many people who make public policy on such matters — since 1992 or so that the Middle East was going to be the hot zone for American military and diplomatic activity for years, if not decades, to come. Yet we’ve made no appreciable progress in the subsequent fifteen years.

Yes, it’s unrealistic to think we can train and retain a critical mass of infantrymen with Arabic fluency. But, surely, we can do so with special forces and civil affairs. Or, hell, the CIA and FBI, which recruit people with graduate degrees and retain them for much longer than the military.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, , , , , , ,
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. Dave Schuler says:

    I think there are lots of reasons why more people aren’t learning Arabic. Besides the difficulty (mentioned above) two that I suggested in John Burgess’s post form earlier this week were a gatekeeper mentality among current Arabists and the reality that job opportunities for Arabic speakers as a primary credential are pretty limited.

    I think that demographics is a reason, too, and that will become an even more significant reason in coming years.

    Forty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, there were federal government programs that sponsored the learning of Russian at the high school and college level. Are there comparable programs for Arabic today? I have no idea. I suspect not.

  2. ob1 says:

    I vaguely remember that DLI in Monterrey almost got closed down in the late 90’s. Can anyone confirm? I realize it is still open, but I believe that there was a big push to close it to save money.

  3. James Joyner says:

    BRAC considered that it be relocated to a cheaper-to-run base in 1993 but ultimately rejected that move. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why other than politics. It’s a ridiculously expensive place to live and you could put that thing on Fort Benning or Fort Bragg and nobody would notice .

  4. LaurenceB says:

    Our best hope for finding willing Arabic speakers to help in this fight was dashed shortly after 9/11 when the truly awful decision was made to round up, interrogate, intimidate, alienate, and deport or incarcerate large numbers of arabic–speaking immigrants in the U.S.

    The fruit of that decision was not one single terrorist conviction. Not even one.

    The fact is that secondary language acquisition to a native or near-native level without an extended period of immersion is very rare.

    Originally posted on wrong comment thread. Moved. -ed.

  5. ob1 says:

    Re: moving it to Bragg or Benning – yeah but that would take away much of the appeal for the SF types that attend DLI. They want to get as far away as possible from from the flag pole. I’ve never been but I’ve heard from buddies that Monterrey is incredibly beautiful and has lots of non-military type women available. That is a mighty powerful draw. 🙂

    I bet the civilian language instructors also look at the location as an added perk. I bet it would be much harder to lure them to Bragg or Benning. Columbus and Fayetteville aren’t exactly equal to Monterrey.

  6. Boyd says:

    While you have a point about the DLI instructors, ob1, the students who attend DLI are by and large poorly paid kids who can barely afford to live there. Thankfully, most of them live in the barracks, but for those who are married and are junior enlisted, Monterey is a very tough place to live (I attended DLI in 1975-76 as an E-2, base pay $343.10, with rations and housing allowance my gross was probably about $500, $150 went to rent for my then-wife and me. Number 1 son went there in 2002-2003, and conditions were comparatively the same).

    People who aren’t closely involved really can’t understand how hard it is for a native English speaker to learn Arabic. In the military, at least, we test folks for foreign language aptitude, and only the best of the best are selected for Arabic training. Then we send them to DLI for a year and a half, and in the cryptology field, another 6 months in more specialized language training. When they finally hit the field, they’ve been in the military for over two years, and still aren’t yet competent with the language, at least in a traditional sense.

    Arabic is tough, folks, tougher even than James or John Burgess have indicated. It’s a tough nut to crack, and immersion programs in New England or even Tunisia don’t help a lot, and that’s for folks whose primary job is using Arabic.

    Grunts on the line with their fingers on the trigger? Ain’t gonna happen, folks.