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January 05, 2006

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the aardvark

Greg Gause of the University of Vermont, who was referenced in this post, has agreed to let me post this response on his behalf. Thanks, Greg!
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You hit the nail on the head. Everybody who has half a brain would prefer that these programs be run through Dept. of Ed. -- they are about Education, after all. But in this country, where we even had to use "national defense" as the justification to build our interstate highway system, you just can't squeeze enough money out of the mountebanks, charlatans, ideologues and goobers who represent us in Congress to fund these programs unless they can be sold as "national defense" (or now, "homeland security")...

There are two kinds of funding here, I think. One is for the student him/herself, like the NSEP grants. There, I don't have a big problem in the government requiring some kind of service (I would hope broader than military, but military would satisfy) in return for funding. Everything is up front and the student knows what the deal is, much like ROTC, which I have no problem with at all. As a teacher, you have no idea that the student in front of you in class is having his/her tuition paid by NSEP, so there really is no academic effect of those kinds of individual grants at all, I think. The problems in the field, for graduate students, are as you say, and that is a really good reason to funnel all this NSEP money through Dept. of Education, but it is a manageable situation, I think.

The second, which I think is what you are talking about, is institutional funding. If you are going to introduce Arabic instruction in a small or medium sized-place, you need that institutional funding. I have no problem if that money comes from the government -- again, preferably through Dept. of Education like Title VI money is now. But, if it comes through an ad hoc thing like NSEP with some military/intelligence component, I am also fine with it, as long as there are no strings. If there is money to hire an Arabic teacher, fine, let the college or university hire such teacher by their own methods. Once the teacher is there, s/he will teach all the students at the institution who want the courses. In some ways, this is less messy than the money going directly to students, because the students have no connection to the government. They are just taking courses.

I sympathize with university administrators who are looking at a big upsurge in student interest in Arabic and are wondering how long it will last. I wonder what the rate of students taking Russian is these days, compared to earlier decades? I bet lots of places are locked into tenured Russian lines that are now underutilized. Administrators rightly fear that with Arabic (Turkish, Persian). My dean is struggling with this one. My suggestion was that, instead of a tenure-track line for what might not be that many students, the University offer to fund summer Arabic student for any student who wants it -- no charge to the student, University picks up the tab. It would only appeal to those who are already very committed to the language, to be sure. You would miss those who might sign up on a lark and develop into very good students of the language. But it does not require the kind of outlay that a tenure-track hire would (not to mention the very tight market now for hiring people who are qualified to teach Arabic).

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UPDATE: for the benefit of those who have linked directly to this comment, and might not go further to look at later comments, I am inserting Greg Gause's elaboration:
I was intemperate in using the phrase "the mountebanks, charlatans, ideologues and goobers who represent us in Congress" in my previous post. Some folks, friends and not-so-friendly, have called me on it. Chalk it up to my immediate revulsion at what I am reading about Jack Abramoff. Clearly, not everyone in Congress is any or all of those things, though some (as Mr. Abramoff will be testifying) certainly are. I apologize to all members of Congress who are not any of those things, and they are legion. I hope that they, on the very small chance that they actually read postings of this sort, will think about funneling language study money through the Department of Education rather than through the national security bureaucracy. As far as I see it, the American public would get the same result in terms of language instruction -- which is the key element that the academy can provide in terms of our national security -- if this money were not administered through the national security bureaucracy, and some students who want to use the money for language study overseas might be marginally more secure in doing so.

**
My own personal note: I would have thought that the fact that two Middle East studies professors were arguing in favor of increased government funding of language training even if the money came from the DoD would have been the takeaway message of this post. Quoting the "goobers" soundbyte might be fun, but seems a fundamentally unserious response. But that's just me - I'm not speaking for Greg there.

Abu Sinan

The language school run by the US government in California is a joke. If the government, through the Pentagon or anyone else gets involved they are sure to mess it up.

The current course is 18 months plus, 40 hour a week intensive language program. The problem, the people that the military and State Department qualified through this course were COMPLETELY useless in Iraq.

I guess they failed to point out that classroom Arabic does not really help you on the "Arab street."

I dont think they provide enough, currently, in the various Arabic dialects. Iraqi Arabic is different enough from other Arabic that there are actually "Iraqi Arabic" dictionaries. I am sure the differences are greater when dealing with the less educated Iraqis who would be less likely to know fus7a, or classical, media usage Arabic.

I have known a few people who went through this course. They operated at about a 5 year old level in class room Arabic, and not as good in the various dialects, if they could operate in any dialect at all. In the State Department classifications for translators they would rate the lowest level. I dont think I have ever met a government translator, not a native speaker, who rated above a 3.

For the military translators it is compounded by the fact that not only are the class not long enough, not comprehensive enough, more often than not the translators are required to learn a "back-up" language, in the case of Arabic translators, usually Hebrew.

Nur al-Cubicle

After having engaged a lifetime in the pursuit of studying, translating and even living Romance languages, it is my opinion that four years at Uni do not a linguist make. It is a long road. And I merely deal with Western European languages...I imagine the challenge of Arabic (one must enter the society, the religion, the history, dialects, etc. to *really* know to language) is a quantum jump in difficulty and only the most talented and driven survive. It is a scholar's pursuit.

During the Vietnam War, the strategic interest of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese lay in interrogating prisoners and gathering and interpreting intelligence. And even hypothetically to prepare for a larger war involving China--coupled with the fantasy of a US military occupation! There were also ambitious projects, like the University of Michigan's Pentagon contract to structure the South Vietnam police and security forces.

A friend who has read the report of the 9-11 Commission says it underscored that United States barely turns out 6 PhDs in Arabic Studies per year. This represents an enormous gap given the aim of the Greater Middle East Initiative and its warfare addendum.

I doubt that military service will be extracted from scholars studying under the program. More likely, due will be paid by institutions through the creation of centers for study and DoD-funded security projects such as that run by U-Mich in the 60s.

Digression: We had an demo in voice-actived translation software Engligh to Spanish at the IT college. The phrases were limited to the domain of Criminial Justice: Remove your clothing and put it on the counter. Step back from the counter. Place your hands on your head.... No joke! English to Arabic is next!

Nur al-Cubicle

"back-up" language, in the case of Arabic translators, usually Hebrew.

Oh, Hebrew?? This suggests that the translators are recruited from Jesuit theological seminaries or yeshivas. I see that the mosque is not among the nurseries. Could that be that Arabic speakers are not sufficiently ideologically honed if they come from elsewhere. And what ever happened to those Aramco brats? Hmm...they've gone native and cannot be trusted?

Schwa-Schwa

In reference to the concerns about the limited lifespan of such courses, Arabic is not like Russian in respect of the fact that Arabic countries can be studied, not just for reasons of defence, but for trade, tourism, and (golly gosh) just because we like them. The recent death of the UAE prime minister led to small news reports commenting that the UAE is a major trade partner of Australia and that Australian business do not need to panic over their UAE business. Emirates Airlines is the major sponsor of the Collingwood Football Team, and my town (Melbourne) has a large Arabic community from different parts of the Arab world as well as Iranians and many Turks, making it very easy to get Arab language materials (just buy a can of chickpeas at any major shopping centre!). Russia, in contrast, is not a nation that immediately springs to mind when I think of trading partners.

I guess my point is that if, happy day, we stop having major security conflagrations throughout the Middle East, we can always go and work for Shell.

Would you like to comment on self-teaching materials? I recently bought a copy of Teach Yourself Arabic by Smart and Altorfer, and while I'm aware of the limitations of Modern Standard, all I'm really interested in at this stage is understanding newspapers and TV news. They also do Gulf Arabic, and if all else fails I can always practice on my local kebab shop.

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