The Marine Corp News recently reported on the success of one of its own as an onsite interpreter for the troops in Iraq. Lance Corporal Brian Youssef, who learned Aarbic from his Egyptian father, is apparently a talented and driven individual. Unfortunately, such people are few and far between, leaving a language gap that begs to be bridged.
Last November Wired Magazine reported on a handheld translator for soldiers in Iraq. The device provides standardized questions and answers, spoken and written in English and Iraqi Arabic, to allow coalition soldiers to communicate with the local population. How well it works remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, PC Magazine had an article about IBM, in partnership with several firms, developing a system that would understand any person's voice under real-world conditions. I wonder how robust this system is: in other words, can it handle the background noise of a battlefield, or the varied accents of angry, anxious people in uncertain situations.
What has been lacking is a concerted effort on the part of the United States government to groom linguists for current and future national security needs. So enter the National Security Language Initiative, announced by President Bush on January 5, 2005, a $114 million program for the 2007 budget to increase the number of Americans learning vital languages like Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, and Korean. The program has three major components: expanding the number of Americans learning "critical need" languages and start at a younger age, increase the number of people with a strong command of these languages, and increase the number of foreign language teachers and resources available to them.
The goals are lofty, and the timing appropriate, if a little bit late given that 9/11 happened in 2001. Unfortunate in this Initiative is the apparent lack of understanding in what it takes to produce a fluent speaker of a foreign language, particularly one as dissimilar to English as the critical need languages all are. Five years is an extreme minimum, and that assumes a highly gifted, motivated student. Ten years is more realistic. Then comes the final problem: people who master foreign languages do so by living and working where the language is used, in other words immersing themselves in the culture and society, often to such an extent that upon return to the United States they cannot obtain a security clearance from any of the agencies that so desperately need their services now.
It will be interesting to see how this Initiative develops, how the obvious problems are addressed, and what happens when the problems that cannot currently be foreseen finally arise. As suggested above, technology may fill in some gaps today, and will likely fill in more as the years pass, but we still need people to do this work, and training and educating them is such a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that we won't see the results for years.