State’s Arab Language Barrier

Building from Spencer Ackerman‘s work, Foreign Policy‘s Blake Hounshell argues that, “The State Department’s Arabic problem is worse than you think.”

Ackerman noted recently a State Department mention that, “We currently have ten Foreign Service Officers (including the Ambassador) at Embassy Baghdad at or above the 3 reading / 3 speaking level in Arabic. An additional five personnel at Embassy Baghdad have tested at or above the 3 level in speaking.”

As bad as that sounds, Hounshell argues, “This is actually more alarming than it sounds.”

A 3/3 level of proficiency is virtually useless for conducting serious business in Arabic. The use of the word “fluency” here is deeply misleading: Someone with a 3/3 would not be able, for instance, to do simultaneous translation of a meeting, and would struggle to translate complicated documents. Anything technical, legal, or politically sensitive would not be something you’d want a 3/3 to handle. For that, you’d need someone closer to a 5 or better yet, a native speaker with a large vocabulary and superior writing skills in two languages. Such people are rare, because the amount of investment and time it takes to reach such rarified heights is more lucratively deployed elsewhere.

What’s more, I would assume that the proficiency scale refers to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is what most students of Arabic learn and is the language used in most newspapers and for Al Jazeera’s broadcasts. The dialect spoken by Iraqis is very different from MSA and from other Arabic dialects. So different, in fact, that in the early days of the war, a unit of U.S. troops had to fire their struggling Egyptian translator and go with an Iraqi who once worked for Saddam’s Ministry of Information.

Lovely, no?

UPDATE: John Burgess, who spent 25 years as Foreign Service Officer, mostly in the Arab Middle East, argues in the comments that Hounshell vastly overstates the case.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ugh says:

    I seem to recally a story where being fluent in arabic was actually a detriment to someone getting hired by the CPA and/or the State Department in Iraq.

  2. Triumph says:

    I think if you just speak in American loudly and slowly most foreigners will understand you–there is no reason for Americans to learn their stupid language.

    Unlike secondary languages like Spanish or French, Arabic doesn’t even use a proper alphabet. Until they get rid of the Jackson Pollack script and write left-to-right, there is no chance anyone will waste their time learning Arabic.

  3. Any idea how many Romans ever managed to learn to speak one of the many Celtic dialects of the lands they marched through?

  4. Andy says:

    Come on now, it’s not like we’ve had 4 or 5 years to get everyone up to speed on Arabic.

  5. John Burgess says:

    I’ll dispute Hounshell’s assessment of what a 3/3 in Arabic enables one to do.

    When I had a 3/3 (late a 3/3+), I was completely able to translate classified and complicated documents from Arabic to English. From English to Arabic is much harder and lacks both grace and, well, fluency.

    What Hounshell is forgetting is dictionaries. Not only are there many standard Arabic-English-Arabic dictionaries, but there are also specialized dictionaries covering such things as diplomatic usage, military terminology, and the like.

    It is true that for translating things like treaties, a native speaker (i.e., a 5/5) will do the better job. He will also take weeks to produce that translation. Rush translations will not be letter perfect; even rush transcriptions in the same language are not flawless.

    Interpreting is something else. Professional interpreters are exactly that. They have degrees in Languages with course emphasis on interpretation, not simply native fluency.

    I’ve a couple of friends who interpret for the UN. Simultaneous interpretation skills are in high demand, with commensurately high salaries (well above most State salaries, BTW). One, a Latin American, is qualified to translate Spanish-English-Spanish. The other, French, is only qualified to do French-English. Her native language skills are inadequate to translate back into French because she’s lived in the US too long, including getting her university degree.

    State has a very small handful of official Arabic interpreters with security clearances. These guys also do the interpretation for the President or VP on request. Most embassy translators are locally hired and do not have security clearances. But the State officers that I know who have both clearances and at least a 3/3 fluency are more than capable of interpreting and translating within their subject areas.

    Hounshell has a somewhat more valid point when he discusses local dialects. Yes, State focuses primarily on Modern Standard Arabic. But it also has focused courses on Maghrebi Arabic (N. Africa), Egyptian Arabic, Levantine Arabic (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine), Gulf Arabic, and Iraqi Arabic.

    Not everyone studying Arabic gets trained in all the dialects, that’s true. But most officers pick up more than one dialect during their careers in the Arab world. In my career, I’ve had to learn to use Maghrebi, Egyptian, Levantine, and Gulf dialects. Would that leave me at a loss in Iraq?

    No, not at all. You can quickly enough figure out how pronunciations change. Some vocabulary–mostly for things like everyday basics–differs. But higher level concepts tend to use the same words across dialects, the result of education which, in Arabic universities is conducted in Modern Standard, if not English. It’s also amazing what a phrase like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that word. Could you rephrase it, please?” can do. Arabic, as English, has a lot of different ways of saying the same thing. Most conversation in English does not require nuance decipherable only with the OED. The same with Arabic. It’s people talking, for crying out loud. They want to be understood!

    Triumph: are you playing Wonder Dog here? That last comment suggests canine-level intelligence.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    I think that Triumph was being sardonic, John.

    Perhaps we need to join a sense of urgency with patience and a sense of humility. Fluency in a difficult language like Arabic can’t be achieved in a handful of years without intensive study and, honestly, I don’t think that everybody has the skills or the inclination.

    Should we have been educating Americans in Arab 20 years ago? Probably. But the low rate of development in much of the Arabic-speaking world isn’t much of an incentive.

  7. Andy says:

    Should we have been educating Americans in Arab 20 years ago? Probably. But the low rate of development in much of the Arabic-speaking world isn’t much of an incentive.

    We have millions of Americans who speak Arabic quite fluently. Why haven’t we recruited them?

    We had Japanese-Americans translating for us during WW2.

  8. Michael says:

    Any idea how many Romans ever managed to learn to speak one of the many Celtic dialects of the lands they marched through?

    All of them that came to liberate the Celts instead of rule them.

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    We have millions of Americans who speak Arabic quite fluently. Why haven’t we recruited them?

    You might want to look into the actual numbers. IIRC it’s significantly lower than that. Lower yet when you add literacy in Arabic into the mix.

  10. Michael, my point exactly. If we were there to rule over them or just take their oil, we wouldn’t even be making an effort.

  11. John Burgess says:

    Dave: It’s not just literacy in Arabic, it’s also the ability to get a security clearance. DOD can go with a lesser clearance for interpreters who are working with the ground pounders as what they’re doing is generally not of a classified nature.

    DOD Intell interpreters and translators, though, probably need higher level clearances. Getting those takes time, particularly as native speakers will have come from abroad. Tracking down their histories is simply time consuming.

    State FSO have Top Secret clearances at a minimum. No Top Secret clearance; no job. Lose the clearance; lose the job.

    Again, those with high language scores probably got them living abroad, either in or before service. If before, see above about time consuming background investigations. If they got Arabic skills before joining, then they were most likely living in an Arab country. That raises its own red flags that have to be lowered.

    Compromises work in some things. They don’t for security clearances, nor should they.

    If I misconstrued Triumph, my apologies. It’s a touchy topic and the humor detector gets warped.

  12. Michael says:

    Michael, my point exactly. If we were there to rule over them or just take their oil, we wouldn’t even be making an effort.

    We’re firing adequate translators because they won’t swear that they’re not gay. One could easily argue that we aren’t making an effort.

  13. Well, sure it’s easy, but also wrong.

  14. John Burgess says:

    Coincidentally, State Dept. is looking to hire three new Arabic language instructors for its school at the Foreign Service Institute, in Arlington, VA.

    Salary range is 30,386.00 – 48,933.00

    JOB SUMMARY:
    This position is located in the School of Language Studies, Foreign Service Institute, (FSI/SLS) in the Department of Near East, Central and South Asian Language (NEA.) The School of Language Studies consists of approximately 400 Language and Culture Instructors and supervisory-level personnel and provides training and testing services amounting to more than 1,000,000 student hours annually in 70 languages.

  15. James Joyner says:

    Salary range is 30,386.00 – 48,933.00

    That might be the problem right there. That’s less than janitors make in Arlington.

  16. just me says:

    Salary range is 30,386.00 – 48,933.00

    I am willing to bet private companies that need language experts pay far more than this.

    That is the problem with government funded service oriented jobs-they generally don’t pay much, and the private sector more often than not can beat them.

  17. John Burgess says:

    That is the problem with government funded service oriented jobs-they generally don’t pay much, and the private sector more often than not can beat them.

    You’ve got that right! I included the pay range intentionally.

    The government bureaucracy does not have flexibility to change pay scales for General Service employees to meet emergency demands.

    Private industry can do that and does do that. Were State to try to do that, it’d have to contend with unions, other employees, and of course Congress. It’d also have to ask Congress for an increase in budget or at least a supplemental.

  18. Of course, part of the problem is trying to place anyone in Arlington where real estate and the cost of living are so damned high. Set up shop here in flyover country where you can still buy a house for $100,000 and those salaries suddenly become a lot more reasonable. Surely there is little or no correlation between translation and interpretation skills and proximity to the Washington Monument.

  19. Jason says:

    I completely agree with John Burgess. A Level 3/3 is certainly able to translate a complex document — that’s how you become a 3/3, you translate a complex document.

    I’ve seen native speakers, with earlier versions of tests, fail a 3/3 test. And I don’t know of a single person who is a 5/5 in any language. A 5/5 would be someone who constantly talks like Shakespeare and ties in colloquialisms in every sentence, in other words, no one that you know either.

    Sure, ten 3/3 Arabic linguists isn’t all that much, but isn’t that why we hire Iraqis?