Jun 8, 2005

Linguistics and Loyalty

Michelle Malkin links to a recent article in the New York Times entitled "C.I.A. Is Reviewing Its Security Policy for Recruiting Translators" and asks the legitimate question as to why the CIA and DoD don't simply train more native-born Americans. She links to a book by a former DoD translator who claimed that he was trained to read and write Arabic in two years.

There are really two issues I wanted to address here. The first is that I would agree with Mrs. Malkin that our intelligence agencies should train more native-born Americans and resist the temptation to hire foreigners or first and second generation Americans when our nation's national security interests are at stake.

The second issue I wanted to address was the misconception that an individual can be trained in Arabic or any language for that matter, in two short years. I do believe that it is possible to train the individual in two years to read and write in a foreign language, but I think it needs to be understood that the individual's comprehension of what they read and write would be sorely lacking.

I have blogged about this subject before in two previous posts that can be found here and here.

Living in Southeast Asia, I have had a keen interest in the subject because almost twenty years ago I set out to become fluent in two of the local languages, Malay and Indonesian and eventually came to see the harsh reality that one's fluency in a language is entirely subjective.

There are several different colloquial varieties of Arabic, Malay and Indonesian that are spoken and many that differ so significantly almost to the point of mutual non-intelligibility at times that I wonder whether or not it is justified to consider them the mere dialects of the root language. Combine that with the regional dialects and then add to the mix an ever changing array of idioms and you can begin to see how difficult a task it is to master or become fluent in any language.

Im of the opinion that the word "fluency" is simply bantered around to the point where it has lost it's significance. For myself, Im able to comprehend and communicate in a few different languages and dialects now and even create my own idioms and jokes "on the fly" but I'm still not sure if I'm fluent.

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