America's Language Problem
"Tomorrow is zero hour."
"The match is about to begin."
Al-Qaeda operatives issued these words in a communication on September 10, 2001. The messages, spoken in Arabic on taped phone conversations, were intercepted successfully by U.S. intelligence on the same day. Unfortunately, they were not translated until September 12, the day after the terrorist attacks.
Obviously, messages such as these go through a process of qualification before they are considered a credible threat. So it would be an overstatement to blame the 9/11 attacks entirely on a lack of translation. Or would it? It is a well-known fact that the government struggled with enormous backlogs of in-language documents awaiting translation. For example, from 2006 to 2008, the CIA collected forty-six million files but left one third of these untouched, due in great part to the lack of translation resources.
In the years that followed 9/11, the U.S. government made many attempts to correct America's increasingly visible language problem. It issued numerous multibillion-dollar contracts to defense contractors who provided interpreters and translators in places like Guantanamo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It spent enormous sums to improve multilingual intelligence gathering in languages that were deemed critical for intelligence and defense purposes.
Most agencies that fall under the Department of Defense (DOD) launched exhaustive campaigns to recruit the necessary linguistic resources. The United States invested in better technologies to improve data mining and translate information automatically. Various agencies issued large contracts for services like multilingual media monitoring, and suddenly major contractors in the DC area began hiring full-time language staff for languages like Arabic, Pashto, and Kurdish. The sole job of these individuals is to scan news items and listen to local radio reports in other languages and produce English-language summaries of what is happening on the ground. But all of these efforts were insufficient. Government reports continue to show that America is far behind its optimal levels of linguistic preparedness. Why?
First, American students are not exactly known for their passion for foreign language studies. Add to that a lack of investment in foreign language learning by the government over the past few decades, and what do you get? A major shortage of people with proficiency in critical languages. Of course, some university programs teach foreign languages that are needed by the U.S. government, but there are not enough to produce the numbers of graduates required.
When it comes to linguistic preparedness, one saving grace of the United States could be its linguistic diversity. After all, one out of five people speaks a language other than English at home. Many of these individuals speak exactly the same languages that the government needs, and some are even refugees from places of military importance, like Afghanistan and Iraq. But many of them are not proficient enough in both languages (especially English) to carry out the kind of high-level tasks required for most full-time government translation positions. In other words, even if immigrants and refugees help address the lack of people proficient in critical languages, their lack of English proficiency is often a barrier.
When candidates do have good language skills, though, there's another problem preventing the government from hiring some of them: the image problem. Not everyone wants to work for the FBI or the CIA. Some see it as morally ambiguous work, especially if they'll be doing things like, say, listening to wiretapped conversations of people living in their home country. Even native-born Americans who study languages abroad often develop close relationships with individuals in those countries that may make them ambivalent about collaborating with the U.S. government's intelligence activities.
And there is yet another major barrier in the way. Many of the translation tasks that are carried out by government employees require the highest-level security clearances. This leaves a tiny pool of candidates. What's more, government contractors receive billions of dollars from Uncle Sam to do all kinds of different language-related tasks that require lower-level clearances. They also happen to pay more. What can be done? Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been an advocate for foreign-language training throughout his career, dating back to the Carter administration. However, while Panetta's support for language training is crucial, that alone will not fill the gaping language chasm facing the United States. It takes years to become fully fluent in a foreign language. Simply investing more in foreign language education might have worked for America back in cold war times, but not anymore.
There are several things that the U.S. government can do to address its lack of linguistic preparedness. For example, it can reevaluate its translation technology to intelligently separate diverse types of information. It also can and should identify all of the language resources that exist in the country, so that they cannot be hoarded by contractors.
Still, a more difficult task is to get the American society to see language not as something strange or un-American but rather as a valuable asset. To use a term more common in the capitalist parlance of this society, we need to see it as a competitive advantage. Government support for a new attitude toward language would encourage more people to become bilingual. We don't just mean the Anglos who are the typical targets of government funds for foreign language education but also the heritage speakers who remain at risk of losing their bilingualism. For these folks, such languages are not foreign but already familiar.
From Found In Translation by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. Copyright 2012 by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche. Excerpted by permission of Perigee Trade, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.