Uphill Battle to Develop Arabic Speakers in US
Christian Science Monitor has a good piece on the difficulties in developing a pool of Arabic speakers who can help develop and support US foreign policy in the Middle East. The article, Why the pool of Arabic speakers is still a puddle, notes that Arabic is a difficult language, taking at least triple the time and effort involved in learning French or Spanish. High levels of student frustration in learning the language lead to high levels of dropping out of Arabic programs. More important, the article says, the demand for Arabic is outstripping the language teaching capabilities of good programs. This leads to even greater frustration for the students.
Arabic grammar, surprisingly, is not all that difficult. It is almost mathematical in its regularity, although as is the case with any language, there are always exceptions to those tidy grammatical rules. There’s a small learning hump in developing the facility to pronounce a few letters for which no English counterparts exist, and learning a new alphabet takes a little time. When I started learning Arabic, it took me one evening of concentrated work to get the alphabet down, even with the complication of four potential forms of each letter, depending on its position in a word or if it stands alone.
The hardest part of Arabic, at least for me, was the massive vocabulary. Unlike English which discards words over time, Arabic tends to keep the vast pool of vocabulary active perpetually. Even native speakers of Arabic suffer from this abundance. When they pick up a newspaper, they will scan an article first to see which ‘register’ of vocabulary is being used. Will the piece have a lot of words and phrases from ‘classical Arabic’? Will it be using religious terminology? Will the rhetoric be filled with literary flourishes and allusions to history and folklore? Will it, perhaps, be written in a local dialect with its own shifts of meaning and idiom?
The US State Department, through its Foreign Service Institute (FSI), teaches Arabic in an ‘total immersion’ program, as it does with all its language training. Students have six hours of classes daily, with about four hours of homework, five days per week. Students are not permitted to take leave—except for emergencies—during their training. One afternoon per week is dedicated to ‘Area Studies’, to familiarize the students with the history and culture(s) of the region.
The length of training depends on the difficulty of the language. Spanish might take six months; Turkish, a year. ‘Hard Languages’, including Arabic and Chinese, need a second year of study to reach ‘Professional Competence’. That second year is usually spent at an FSI school in a country in which the subject language is the native language. For Arabic, that means the FSI school in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. For speaking purposes, that location is less than ideal as the Tunisian dialect is very different from other dialects. But it’s the best that can be done for political, security, and economic reasons.
Language competence is measured on a scale of 0-5 for both reading and speaking, with a 5 indicating full fluency at a university-educated level. Very few non-native speakers ever reach this level. One is considered to have ‘Professional Competence’ at the R-3/S-3 level. [The ability to write languages is not measured or graded for most of the ‘hard languages’: that’s what translators do.]
Languages are taught at several levels of competence.
The lowest level, ‘Courtesy level’, is intended for State employees who will have little contact with the local population abroad beyond casual, day-to-day contact in restaurants, markets, taxis, and the like. Those who are assigned to this level are primarily support personnel or those who work exclusively within the embassy itself.
‘Professional Competence’ means that the student is able to perform his/her job in the language. This, however, is a far cry from full fluency. If one is an Economics Officer, for example, s/he will have a lot of economic vocabulary, but not much in the way of political vocabulary and almost none in cultural vocabulary. Public Diplomacy Officers, on the other hand, need to be conversant on many issues, spanning the range of USG interests. The R-3/S-3 rating is really not adequate to performing the job well. An R-4/S-4 rating is what’s truly needed, but there are not formal programs to accomplish this. My understanding is that State is now considering, on a case-by-case basis, additional training for particularly apt officers.
As noted above, ‘Full Fluency’ is exceptionally difficult to obtain, in any language. It implies not only intimate knowledge of a country or region and its cultures, but having studied in a university in that language. For a non-native speaker—excepting the rare language marvel—this would require at least three years of intensive study. That’s a long time to have an officer out of service, so to speak. Not only does the Department not receive any immediate value for its investment, but the officer runs the risk of falling outside the view of promotion boards. State, like the US military, has an ‘up or out’ system of promotion. Besides, three or more years of intensive study is excruciatingly fatiguing.
State tries to break up long-term language training. After the first year, an officer will be posted to a two-year assignment where the language will be of use. If the officer finds s/he’s interested in continuing study—and if the Department determines that it likes the officer’s performance—then a second year of advanced study might be offered. This certainly makes sense on several levels. But it does not lead to the quick development of language-capable officers.
Programs to support the learning and teaching of Arabic outside government are worth supporting. As the article notes, many students will drop out somewhere along the way. Those who remain, though, do form a pool that can be used as a source of new language-capable officers. But as the article also notes, there are other impediments, ranging from disagreement with policy to non-competitive salaries, that will ensure that the USG never has enough officers available to do the necessary work.