Pentagon Pays for Students to Learn Foreign Languages

Howard University in Washington, D.C., is one institution where the Defense Department is paying for students to learn less-commonly taught languages, like Korean and Arabic. It's part of a government effort to prepare the U.S. for global security challenges.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Take a moment, if you would, and consider how you would answer this question.

Unidentified Woman #1: Can you say hello in five different languages?

INSKEEP: Sixty-seven students accepted that challenge.

Unidentified Woman #1: You can use the easy ones.

INSKEEP: They turn to each other saying things like hola, and dove into a six-week introduction to not so easy languages like Arabic.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Peace be upon you, says an American student, who adds, in a role-playing game, I'm from Iraq.

Unidentified Woman #4: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of group)

INSKEEP: Other students study Chinese or practice Korean with computers.

Unidentified Woman #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #5: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Compare those languages to news headlines, and you notice something: many of these young people are learning to say hello...

Unidentified Woman #6: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of group)

Unidentified Woman #6: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: ...in the languages of nations that are seen as a threat to the United States.

The Pentagon pays the bills for this program at Howard University in Washington.

Mr. JAMES DAVIS (Director of Language Studies at Howard University): Naturally when I considered that it was the Department of Defense, there was some skepticism on my part.

INSKEEP: James Davis directs language studies at the historically black college. It relies heavily on funding from the U.S. Education Department. But he briefly hesitated when he heard of a million dollar grant from the military.

Mr. DAVIS: Knowing what some people are feeling about the war, about Iraq, that kind of thing, you know, you had to think about that.

INSKEEP: Davis eventually welcomed the money and sent out applications. High school and college students responded, though one of them, Jasmine Frazier(ph), is still thinking.

Ms. JASMINE FRAZIER (Student, Howard University: The whole thing with the DoD being in charge was definitely an eyebrow raiser. It's like, okay, why exactly do you want me to learn these languages where our military personnel are stationed? I thought that was very ironic. Because they didn't teach Spanish or something, you know, where you could go to Mexico.

INSKEEP: This is one of several Pentagon programs designed to increase American skills in critical languages. During a break in Arabic class, five students agreed to talk about the conflicts that overshadow their youth, and maybe their future.

Does anybody here know people who've served overseas? Three of the five of you are raising, four of the five of you are raising your hands. Do you want to each - five, five of the five of you are raising your hands. And in each case it's been people that've been to the Persian Gulf, been to the, been to Iraq?

Unidentified Woman #7: My God-sister was in Iraq.

INSKEEP: You're God-sister was in Iraq?

Unidentified Woman #7: Yeah.

INSKEEP: The students attend a classroom where the walls are covered with maps and pictures. They learn Arab language and culture, which immediately interested 15-year-old Gaylen Mancino.

Mr. GAYLEN MANCINO (Student, Howard University): Our teacher, we asked him what religion he was, and he said he was Muslim. We asked, well, do you pray five times a day, and he was like, well, I mean, sometimes I can't because I'm teaching a class and I explain to God that I can't pray because I'm teaching these kids. And he said God forgives him for that.

INSKEEP: Just looking around your classroom, I notice some things that seem kind of politically edgy. Just a little poster that said Marriage in the Muslim World. Have you been running into things already in the first few days in this class that have made you think?

Mr. MANCINO: Yeah.

Unidentified Woman #8: Oh, yeah, definitely.

Mr. MANCINO: Yeah, like the fact that they never said there was an Israel on the map.

Unidentified Woman #8: Exactly. Right.

Mr. MANCINO: I mean, I was like, wait, wait. Is Philistine Israel? No, no, no, that's Palestine. So wait, where's Israel?

Unidentified Woman #8: Yeah, I was so confused.

Mr. MANCINO: And I'm like, I mean, but I didn't really understand at first. But I kind of like checked it out on my own.

Ms. FRAZIER: More so like trying to figure out whether or not this really is extremism, because...

INSKEEP: That's 16-year-old Jasmine Frazier.

Ms. FRAZIER: ...and they're saying, oh, these extremists are running out and you know, blowing things up and all that stuff. But I don't think that. And I want to find what it is that's deep inside them that makes them that dedicated. Because obviously it makes them a very strong people if they're not afraid to die and kill other people with them. I mean, it seems bad, but the motivation to do that is kind of amazing. And to think, if you put that kind of motivation to something besides killing people, how much you could get accomplished.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that maybe that's not too extreme, or are you saying you just don't understand what the motivation is?

Ms. FRAZIER: I'm saying that extremism always carries a negative connotation. And maybe that's not right.

Mr. HASSAN CARROLL(ph) (Student, Howard University): I just want to say that, me personally, coming from a military school, I have a lot of friends whose parents or relatives are in the military...

INSKEEP: Sixteen year old Hassan Carroll came to class in a U.S. Army T-shirt. He's not so sure about reinterpreting terrorists.

Mr. CARROLL: I think it would be a whole lot different if you had relatives that were fighting this war over there, and I would think you would turn on to BBC every day and see, you know, another suicide bomber kills however many people and think, oh, he's really dedicated.

INSKEEP: Despite his name, Hassan Carroll says he's not Muslim. He says his parents wanted a name with meaning. Hassan means handsome. He attends a military school. He might someday join the military, which makes him different from some of his classmates.

Mr. MANCINO: I feel like we're scamming the government.

INSKEEP: Like the others, 15-year-old Gaylen Mancino accepted a $1,000 stipend to attend these summer classes.

Mr. MANCINO: I want to learn. And then there's the government, which kind of wants to put you to use. Like this is an investment for the government. But the thing is, there's no contract I signed that I'm going to join the Army or I'm going to join the FBI or something like, so it's kind of like they think this is, you know, good for their purposes, but what they don't know is that I'm going to develop my own opinions, and, you know, probably I'll change what their agendas are.

INSKEEP: The Pentagon is subsidizing language teaching across the country to children as young as kindergarten age. The Bush administration wants more funding, though it is not clear how much Congress will provide. Nor is it clear what the government gets for its money. Officials have to wait and see if students enter government service with the kind of skills they learn performing an Arabic skit.

Mr. MANCINO: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: These students give a mock weather forecast as though it were on the TV channel Al-Jazeera, and for now, they only pretend they can hear the wind blowing across the sands of the Middle East.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Woman #9: (Foreign language spoken)

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