The Necessity of Language Education

by Joshua Foust on 9/2/2011 · 11 comments

Sad news from Washington’s budget battles:

National Resource Centers, so designated by the Education Department to teach foreign languages and culture at universities around the country, lost 47 percent of their budget for fiscal year 2011 in the last-minute deal to avert a government shutdown in April — a surprise to observers who had not thought the program was especially vulnerable. Since relatively few students opt for Bengali or Burmese over Spanish or French, federal funding was often the factor that made such courses financially feasible. The cut was across-the-board, so every center is facing the loss of half its federal funds.

“Many of these are in security sensitive areas, and this is exactly where we need to put resources instead of cutting,” said Richard Flores, senior associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts. Many students who took the classes now at risk were on their way to careers with the military, the Defense Department or the State Department, he said. “When you’re cutting resources to sensitive areas, it has an impact.”

This piece is worth reading in full, as it gets at one of the biggest challenges facing U.S. foreign policy in future (apart from a refusal to plan strategically!). In the long term, reducing the amount of language education available to college students — especially in languages like Urdu, Russian, and Arabic — will result in less informed decision-making and analysis in national security. Even the pidgin Russian I can speak, and the relatively larger but still small amount I can read without a dictionary or help translating, is an enormous advantage in understanding what happens in Russian-speaking countries. When I was in Afghanistan, being able to hold a very basic, polite, introductory conversation in Dari/Persian gave me an enormous leg-up in developing rapport with Afghans and learning how to start understanding their struggles and concerns. The like four phrases I knew in Pashto? Pure gold.

Developing formal education in these languages — which allow you to read not just their newspapers but also their literature, poetry, and history — is how you develop the institutional familiarity with societies. For a government that must maintain contact with and understand these societies, even somewhat familiar ones like Russia and China, it is inexcusable that they are cutting language. That they’re also cutting language education for Kazakh, Tajik, and Uzbek — all places where there will be something important happening with U.S. foreign policy in the next decade — is inexplicable.

We keep repeating it here, but Central Asia is important! Sadly, that message just doesn’t seem to filter up to the budgeteers in Congress or the White House.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dan September 2, 2011 at 11:51 am

Giving the current recently reported shift in CIA’s focus to targeting vs. actual I dunno, intelligence, there’s no need to understand cultural nuances and other big words that sound good on paper when all you’re looking for is your next target package for the drones. We don’t like to get our hands dirty, and since we’re not planning on getting our feet dirty or try to get into the complexities of things, a push-button war doesn’t need language skills.

AJK September 2, 2011 at 11:55 am

I find it darkly amusing that there’s a shift back to SIGINT nowadays. It’s like all of the post-9/11 teeth-gnashing about “Hey! HUMINT is really really important you guys!” has fallen upon well, if not deaf ears, than the ears of people eating paste out of the jar.

Don Bacon September 2, 2011 at 12:34 pm

And the army’s shift from COIN to CT.

But COIN was always a farce anyhow. In was an artificial construct of helping a legitimate government combat an insurgency, when in fact it was defending a US-installed puppet government against the locals.

So the solution is to just kill the locals. The GI saying in Vietnam applies: Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.

Kamaangir September 2, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Sorry, but your ideas range from simplistic to simply wrong. Most targeting is based off of HUMINT. Even SIGINT needs to be processed by linguists. The sad fact here is that there are DOD linguists. They are, however, rarely placed in an appropriate billet, and contract linguists are usually the rule.

That being said, HUMINT is always misunderstood, and rarely used appropriately. Good HUMINT would save lives. As would real language skills. Poor training, utilization of available resources, and the underfunding and misapplication of linguists will always dog an entity as ponderous as the US Army.

I’ve always said that we could have bought every general officer in the whole damned Iraqi Army for less than the price of one month of Iraqi occupation.

“… Just kill the locals”? Is this intelligent discourse? “We don’t like to get our hands dirty?” To which unit are you referring? I know plenty of dudes who love talking to locals AND shooting bad guys in the face.

Don Bacon September 2, 2011 at 3:03 pm

The latest wikileaks dump has revealed the details of a 2006 massacre carried out by US troops in Iraq where ten members of the Al-Majma’ee family were summarily murdered outside the city of Balad. Among those killed were Mr. Faiz Hratt Khalaf, (age 28), his wife Sumay’ya Abdul Razzaq Khuther (age 24), their three children Hawra’a (age 5) Aisha ( age 3) and Husam (5 months old), Faiz’s mother Ms. Turkiya Majeed Ali (age 74), Faiz’s sister (name unknown), Faiz’s nieces Asma’a Yousif Ma’arouf (age 5), and Usama Yousif Ma’arouf (age 3), and a visiting relative Ms. Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi (aged 23).

Don Bacon September 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm

In President Obama’s foreword to the 2010 National Security Strategy he says: “In all that we do, we will advocate for and advance the basic rights upon which our Nation was founded,. .”

So there’s no interest in “learning how to start understanding their struggles and concerns” rather the priority is to make them like us ‘cuz we are exceptional don’t you know. That includes speaking English. Muslims in particular are basically wrong and need to change, it’s said.

Grant September 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm

You’re actually blaming a speech that wasn’t intended to be the overarching strategy for why the Centers are getting budget cuts? That’s really reaching.

John Matrix September 2, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Nice, once again another exponential tangent on Registan. Let’s get back to the issue…Central Asia is important, depending on what your values are and how they relate to America’s foreign policies (or lack thereof). CNAS is big level…Europe, China, India. Most of these environments are English friendly and I bet those exact words came out of the budget cutters mouth, whoever they may be. The argument can definitely be made, however, that the effects we have the ability to make in less-civilized (for lack of a better word, please don’t crucify me) regions can do us better than the posturing that is made in bigger, most establised countries.

TJM September 2, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Isn’t there still a financial incentive to learn these languages? I know guys who earn buckets of money because they have intermediate skills speaking and translating spoken Arabic. They know little about the culture and have terrible accents, but it’s enough to make them valuable. And they only learned it for the money.

M Shannon September 5, 2011 at 5:28 pm

From a national security point of view the answer would seem to be to direct that all ROTC and service academy students take and pass a target language class every semester regardless of major.
Students would have to take a “new” language to prevent already bilingual cadets from attempting to skate.

I’d suggest Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic, Farsi , Pashto and Urdu. The key is are the target languages prevalent somewhere where we can be expected to conduct long term operations. That is why Japanese, German, Chinese and Hindi are absent.

Students studying a language that doesn’t use Latin script would get some sort of reward. I’d expect lots of Hispanic students would take the easy road and wish take Portuguese or French so a ratio would have to be set to ensure most students were taking Arabic and Farsi. Perhaps 2-1-1-1-4-4-2-2.

After graduation achieving and maintaining a certain level of proficiency would count as a graduate degree for promotion with very high skill levels counting as a Phd.

As soon as second language proficiency is tied to promotion the number of linguists will sky rocket.

John Matrix September 15, 2011 at 3:20 am

Alas…not only is army giving up on Rosetta Stone (…but latest DODFORSCOM change is basically nixing all DOD language opportunities…#givingup

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