focuses on learning Arabic fast
Oct. 6, 2005
WASHINGTON - Four years into the war on terror, the intelligence community
admits it is still woefully short of fluent speakers of critical languages,
Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government didn't consider
Arabic language skills a national security concern. Now officials are
encountering myriad obstacles in trying to rapidly close the gap.
Arabic differs greatly from English and other Western languages. Attaining
proficiency levels required by the government can take nearly four times longer
than learning Spanish or French. Many who already knew Arabic were hired by the
government and private-sector firms in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, but
the government is seeking to hire several thousand more such linguists.
With that in mind, the government today is opening a new facility at the
University of Maryland's Center for the Advanced Study of Language to find
innovative ways of producing more Arabic speakers quickly. CIA Director Porter
Goss is giving the introductory speech, lending a sort of imprimatur to the
"The government is investing significant resources in training in Arabic,"
said Richard Brecht, the center's executive director. "But we need major
breakthroughs to cut the time it takes to learn Arabic. We need major cognitive
That research will include examining why some students learn faster, how
different people learn and how short- and long-term memory functions contribute
to learning a new language. There won't be any Arabic instruction itself.
Arabic reads from right to left. One letter may take on three or four shapes,
depending on where it appears in a word. And it has more than 20 dialects that
can vary widely.
State Department programs to teach languages such as Spanish and French take
24 weeks, but the Arabic program takes 88 weeks and requires a commitment in the
second year to studying in an Arabic-speaking country.
Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association and a former
White House translator, said the CIA, FBI, State Department, military
intelligence and private firms with interests in the Middle East quickly hired
the few American Arabic speakers who existed before the terrorist attacks.
"The demand sucked all the oxygen out of the room," Hendzel said. He said now
the United States faces a similar situation as it did during the Cold War.
"It took a generation to train all the Russian teachers and then train all of us
who became linguists," he said. "It took us about 20 years to get caught up on
Russian, and it may take that long again."
But Ron Marks, a former CIA official who is now a senior fellow at George
Washington University's homeland security program, said the government should be
able to learn from the Cold War response to language needs.
"We need to rethink how we do this," he said. "This isn't the first time
The language center at Maryland is funded by the Defense Department but is
independent of the department.