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.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Education, Intelligence, Middle East, Political Theory, World Politics, , , , , , ,
John Burgess
About John Burgess
John Burgess retired after 25 years as a US Foreign Service Officer, serving predominantly in the Middle East. He contributed 35 pieces to OTB between February 2006 and April 2014. He was the proprietor of the influential Crossroads Arabia until his death in February 2016.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    When I was in college (when dinosaurs ruled the earth), I petitioned to be allowed to take Arabic. Its study was restricted to graduate students in linguistics.

    I thought that, since I had already studied French, Latin, Greek, Russian, and Chinese and had gained some facility with all of them that I might be allowed take Arabic, too. I was turned down. I’ve never known the reason—I suspect that they just wanted to keep it the province of linguistics graduates.

    My point is that there are reasons other than difficulty for the small number of American Arabic speakers. There’s also a gatekeeper function in place and, in whatever numbers, it contributes as well.

  2. Tlaloc says:

    Interesting post, Mr. Burgess.

  3. John Burgess says:

    I can sympathize. When I started university, I wanted to continue my study of Thai. Of course, the community college I first attended had absolutely not facility to do that. But even transferring to Georgetown, noted for its language programs, led to no joy. There was simply not enough demand to create a program and not enough money to send me for individualized study. So I ended up in a brilliant French program. Seven years after leaving GU, I only needed a six-week FSI refresher to reach an R-4/S-3 rating.

    I can’t speak to the motivations of the university for excluding you from its Arabic program, but I’d definitely look at the financial aspects for a non-malicious reason.

  4. Anderson says:

    We should be investing big gov’t $$$ in Arabic departments, new and existing, around the country.

    But we’re not — I suspect b/c we fear that LIBERAL PROFESSORS would infiltrate same.

    So, IIRC, the biggest gov’t investor in Arabic departments in the U.S. is … Saudi Arabia. TNR had an article years ago on how they fund Wahabist-friendly scholarship and squelch what they find unattractive.

  5. John Burgess says:

    If we’re going to get into arguments over the politics of education, well… There’s simply no end to that discussion!

    Individual Saudis, like Pr. Al-Waleed bin Talal, have given large donations to both Harvard and Georgetown for the expansion of their existing Middle East Studies programs. Those donations, $10 million each, did not come with strings attached by Al-Waleed. Whether the universities decide to tack with particular winds is another matter.

  6. Andy says:

    If the government valued Arabic speakers, it would increase pay until we had enough of them. It doesn’t, so their value is clear. And this is to say nothing of dismissing qualifed Arabic translators for having the gay.

  7. John Burgess says:

    The dismissal or rejection of gay interpretors is its own issue, though I note that this has not been an issue at State. State, in fact, has very few translators/interpreters in Washington. They operate out of the Office of Language Services, a very separate entity from FSI—or Public Diplomacy, for that matter. Language Services does official translations of things like treaties and provides interpretors for the President, VP, SecState, and the like.

    State does pay bonuses for competence in hard languages, at least for officers in ‘language designated positions’. These range from 5% of base salary for R-3/S-3 competence to 10% for R-4/S-4 competence. These language bonuses only apply while the officer is abroad, in a position that requires the daily use of the language.

    Other federal agencies have slightly different rules. There’s an informative USG website, Foreign Languages Jobs in the Federal Government, that’s worth a look, though it’s not detailed at all.

    There are equity, structural, and bureaucratic problems in paying speakers of one language more than speakers of another.

  8. legion says:

    These language bonuses only apply while the officer is abroad, in a position that requires the daily use of the language.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t really encourage the attainment/maintenance of the skills outside of those positions and, I suspect, tends to ‘career-track’ those that are skilled. The military (at least the AF) has recently started trying to evaluate & offer incentives to people with certain language skills, regardless of position, which I think is a much better (tho, of course, more expensive) way to manage the skill pool…

  9. Andy says:

    The dismissal or rejection of gay interpretors is its own issue, though I note that this has not been an issue at State.

    Indeed, I believe the state department at least mode overtures towards hiring some of the dismissed DIA translators.

    The point is that throughout government, Arabic speakers are rare because they are undervalued or run out for silly reasons.

    I’m sure there are problems paying certain language speakers more than others. On the other hand, real leadership would deal with the issue.

  10. Anjin-San says:

    Years out from 9/11 and here is another critical security need that the Bush admin has left unaddressed. Well maybe somehow we are safer because of all the people who have been slaughtered in Iraq…

  11. John Burgess says:

    Anjin-San: I know you’ve your issues with the current administration, but I assure you that these problems pre-date Bush by about a quarter century at least.

    These are structural problems within a bureaucracy, not with a policy. State, among the more unsympathetic agencies toward Bush policies by the way, has been trying to deal with the problem of long lead times for language training, rapidly changing demand, inconsistent ability to bring in new officers, a short-sighted Congress, and most of all tight budgets crossed with growing demand for new services for a very long time.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    In support of John’s point above, whatever the gripes with the Bush Administration, it takes a certain amount of time to achieve fluency in a language whatever the motivations, however hard the effort. Although it seems like an eternity it’s only five and a half years since there we gained an intensive interest in Arabic speakers. That’s not enough to achieve great fluency. John’s “professional competence”, perhaps, but as John pointed out the FSI’s program is a fulltime job.

    Further, the administrations leeway was limited. They can’t just offer whatever pay they want for the jobs they care to offer them to however they may want to. There are pay schedules. It’s a bureaucracy.

    To be contrarian I think it’s worth pointing out that the opportunities for native speakers of English who achieve fluency in Arabic are pretty limited. There are plenty of Arabic native speakers who speak English in competition with them.

    And there aren’t vast business opportunities. The total GDP of the MENA is something like that of Spain’s.

    I wanted to learn Arabic because I like languages, find them fun to learn, and think that knowing another of the great languages of the world would contribute to my understanding of human beings. I didn’t think it would be a great credential.