Tuesday, December 12, 2006

No Arabic please, we're American

If you haven't already seen it, the Baker report brought to light a piece of epic stupidity in Iraq:
All of our efforts in Iraq, military and civilian, are handi-
capped by Americans’ lack of language and cultural understanding. Our embassy of 1,000 has 33 Arabic speakers, just six of whom are at the level of fluency. In a conflict that demands effective and efficient communication with Iraqis, we are often at a disadvantage. There are still far too few Arab language–proficient military and civilian officers in Iraq, to the detriment of the U.S. mission.

Why make such an easily fixable mistake? I suspect because they view most of America's large population of fluent Arabic speakers as security risks - although apparently other factors play a role too...

(Hat tip: Aqoul.)


Anonymous said...

Americans tend to view Arabic as being "hard". This is enough for many to give up on it entirely. I have tried to get friends to take Arabic coures with me (they are offered for free with extra credit points at the university here) and their response is usually that its alphabet is "so different" or something of the like.

Most Americans, if they "learn" another langauge, learn Spanish, French, German or some other European language. These are not "strategic languages" but are sexy and/or useful (Spanish, because of the large number of people from Spanish speaking countries that are not as fluent in English). There aren't many Arabic teachers either. You'd think the demand would be higher in the lower grades (secondary especially), but it is mostly restricted to private schools or schools with large Middle Eastern populations (as in Michigan). I'm not trying to make excuses, but I don't think that this should be a surprise. It is a very American thing. It was the case in Viet Nam, and is the case in many places. It is a characteristic of American diplomacy according to a book called "The Ugly American," (from the 1970's no less).

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that the number of Arabic-speakers in U.S. government positions is wretchedly low, but I disbelieve these particular statistics. The Slate article says that of 1000 employees of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, only 33 speak Arabic; the Homeland Stupidity article says that of 12,000 FBI agents -- only 33 speak Arabic! The numerical coincidence is too much to swallow.

Paul Davidson said...

Not meaning to drag politics in, but isn't that a clear sign that the "embassy" is just there to occupy the country and control US interests, rather than actual diplomatic relations and exchange? I don't imagine many of the Russians at their embassy in Kabul during the seventies spoke Persian or Pashto (but maybe I'm wrong).

KNL, in spite of the typical American's abject fear of hard languages (meaning all of them, more or less), there must still be thousands of hireable Arabic speakers (L1 or L2) among the US citizenry.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

John: That is rather suspicious. If you follow up the Washingto Post article, it gives a breakdown of the FBI report (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/10/AR2006101001388.html). And guess what - the number of "advanced professional" speakers comes out to be 6, just like the supposed number of fluent Arabic speakers in Baghdad! Something funny's going on, certainly - either one branch of the government is plagiarising and misusing a statistic from another, or it's a quite remarkable coincidence.

Anonymous said...

Lameen, you should check out this site, another English language Algerian blog, which is quite good.




Anonymous said...

I suspect the true number of Americans fluent in Arabic is much lower than these (dismal) figures: in my experience, many Americans will claim to be "fluent" in a language which in fact they speak very poorly (much too poorly to be able to communicate effectively): this has been my experience with Americans claiming to be "fluent" in French, and I strongly suspect the same is true of Americans claiming fluency in Arabic.