A few months ago on my other blog, I made a point about how the costs of multilingualism have to be set against the costs of monolingualism. It seems certain quarters of the CIA and the American Republican party agree with me, according to today’s New York Times.
C.I.A. Needs to Learn Arabic, House Committee Leader Says
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee [Rep. Porter Goss] said Tuesday that prewar American intelligence about Iraq had been hampered by significant shortcomings, including what he called the C.I.A.’s unsatisfactory response to Congressional directives to improve its foreign language capacity. […]
“Our capabilities were not what they should have been,” Mr. Goss said in an hourlong interview. He said there had been “way too many gaps” in American intelligence gathering, including information about Iraq’s conventional military power and any illicit weapons programs.
Congressional officials have long expressed concern that intelligence agencies do not have nearly enough officers who speak Arabic, Persian or Pashto, languages needed to gain access to information in Arab nations, Iran and Afghanistan. […]
On the issue of language training for intelligence officers, a senior Republican Congressional official said a significant amount of money allocated by Congress for the foreign language training of C.I.A. officers, particularly in Arabic, Persian and Pashto, had been redirected by the agency for other purposes during the last fiscal year.
An agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity said he understood that some of the money had been spent on computer-driven document translation rather than on training for individual officers.
“Our view is that we need both,” the official said, but he defended the computerized capacity as one that would prove useful, for example, in translating the reams of Arabic-language documents being accumulated by the American investigators in Iraq who are working under David Kay, a special adviser to Mr. Tenet.
“We’ve been working on language capability for a number of years,” said the C.I.A. official, who added that the agency had increased hiring bonuses and other inducements.
But Mr. Goss was sharply critical, saying the agency sometimes seemed hamstrung by uncertainty over which languages it might need most in the future, when “the answer is we need them all.”
First, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind our pro-war readers that this is why you needed to get France and Russia on board, and why you still do, even if the price is completely disenfranchising Iraq’s American admistrators. Having had a colonial empire can mean having to deal with headaches like Gibraltar, but it has distinct advantages. I note that the DGSE doesn’t seem to have Arabic language recruiting issues.
The troubles the US is having are a part of the cost of undermining immigrant languages. When schools focus on English fluency to the exclusion of native language skills, you get a second generation with poor literacy in their parent’s languages, and a third generation with no skills at all. Furthermore, by demanding that everyone speak the same language, students learning foreign languages are denied the real communication opportunities they need to become genuinely fluent.
And, as this Mr Goss points out, you don’t know in advance which languages you’re going to wish you’d planned on having. The long lead time it takes to gain adequate literacy – a couple years at best, a decade at worst – means you can’t decide to just support some small set of languages and hope for the best. Hiring bonuses and other inducements will not bring you employees who don’t exist.
Americans tend to place a great deal of faith in their collective ability to solve problems with engineering. I know the American intelligence community has been throwing a lot of money at Arabic machine translation lately. Since I probably stand to make money off of this situation, albeit indirectly, I suppose I shouldn’t complain. However, the best automated solution likely to actually be developped will still not improve matters very much. This problem can’t be made to go away by tossing money at it.