Program focuses on learning Arabic fast
Chicago Tribune
Oct. 6, 2005

Steve Ivey
WASHINGTON - Four years into the war on terror, the intelligence community admits it is still woefully short of fluent speakers of critical languages, particularly Arabic.

Until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the government didn't consider Arabic language skills a national security concern. Now officials are encountering myriad obstacles in trying to rapidly close the gap.

Arabic differs greatly from English and other Western languages. Attaining proficiency levels required by the government can take nearly four times longer than learning Spanish or French. Many who already knew Arabic were hired by the government and private-sector firms in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, but the government is seeking to hire several thousand more such linguists.

With that in mind, the government today is opening a new facility at the University of Maryland's Center for the Advanced Study of Language to find innovative ways of producing more Arabic speakers quickly. CIA Director Porter Goss is giving the introductory speech, lending a sort of imprimatur to the government's quest.

"The government is investing significant resources in training in Arabic,"
said Richard Brecht, the center's executive director. "But we need major breakthroughs to cut the time it takes to learn Arabic. We need major cognitive research."

That research will include examining why some students learn faster, how different people learn and how short- and long-term memory functions contribute to learning a new language. There won't be any Arabic instruction itself.

Arabic reads from right to left. One letter may take on three or four shapes, depending on where it appears in a word. And it has more than 20 dialects that can vary widely.

State Department programs to teach languages such as Spanish and French take
24 weeks, but the Arabic program takes 88 weeks and requires a commitment in the second year to studying in an Arabic-speaking country.

Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association and a former White House translator, said the CIA, FBI, State Department, military intelligence and private firms with interests in the Middle East quickly hired the few American Arabic speakers who existed before the terrorist attacks.

"The demand sucked all the oxygen out of the room," Hendzel said. He said now the United States faces a similar situation as it did during the Cold War.

"It took a generation to train all the Russian teachers and then train all of us who became linguists," he said. "It took us about 20 years to get caught up on Russian, and it may take that long again."

But Ron Marks, a former CIA official who is now a senior fellow at George Washington University's homeland security program, said the government should be able to learn from the Cold War response to language needs.

"We need to rethink how we do this," he said. "This isn't the first time around."

The language center at Maryland is funded by the Defense Department but is independent of the department.