Yesterday I wrote about foreign-language “proficiency.” Today, there’s an article in the Washington Post “Outlook” section about the United States’ shortage of proficient Arabic-speakers. This is a good article; it sums up the major issues in a nutshell pretty tidily.
This is interesting:
The Foreign Service classifies language ability into five levels, with “1″ being the lowest (able to handle only the very simplest social situations) and “5″ the highest (a level rarely assigned to anyone but a native speaker).
From a public diplomacy standpoint, the key distinction is between a “3″ and a “4.” We have a fairly good supply of 3’s in Arabic, almost 200 as of August 2004 (the latest State Department data available). A level 3 can handle one-on-one situations, or something like a ministry meeting in a subject area they know well. But a level 3 speaker would flounder in a complex situation. If you put a 3 in a public meeting where many excited people are speaking on top of one another, for example, or in a coffee shop conversation with college students arguing about religion and the state, he or she would be lost. Double the difficulty if the diplomat has been trained only in Modern Standard Arabic, a formal dialect very different from the colloquial dialects that people actually speak (see sidebar). But these are precisely the kinds of situations that our Middle East diplomats must be equipped to handle.
Speaking, moreover, is generally harder than listening. No responsible person would ask a 3 to speak before an unfriendly crowd at the local university (or at the embassy gates), much less put a 3 in front of a television camera and expect a clear, engaging and cogent discussion of U.S. Middle East policy in Arabic. For that you need a 4, and preferably a 4+ or a 5. So how many of these 4 and 5 level speakers do we have in Arabic? As of August 2004 — 27. At the highest levels (4+ and 5), we have a grand total of eight individuals worldwide.
And there are reasons why we have so few Fours and Fives:
Upgrading our roster of Arabic speakers would require getting around three obstacles.
First, traditional language training, based on sending officers to full-time language study for extended periods, is expensive. Since Arabic is a difficult language, the FSI figures it takes two years of full-time training to get a committed learner from a simple greeting of “Salaam aleikum” to level 3.
The State Department has made a significant commitment to expanding language training, nonetheless. Enrollments in Arabic and other challenging regional languages such as Farsi and Uzbek increased more than 80 percent from 2003 to 2004, from 228 officers to 415. Training averaged only a couple of months per person, though — pretty basic stuff delivered in a hurry for most of the participants, in other words.
But there’s a second stopper. FSI is not really sure how much training it would take to get from a 3 to a 4 in any case, because FSI stops training at 3.
Training goes only to officers assigned to “language-designated” positions — slots that have been officially determined to require language skills. Thus, a diplomat assigned to Washington cannot get advanced Arabic training until he or she is actually assigned to a language-designated job overseas. And then there’s no time to build real competency. This set-up creates a strong disincentive to designate positions as requiring language skills. No embassy wants to restrict its search to the comparatively few officers already qualified in Arabic or, even worse, effectively give up the position for the two years required to train an officer to a level 3 — and carry them on its budget the whole time they sit in language classes.
So no posts are designated above level 3, which means, naturally, that the Foreign Service does not offer training beyond the 3, either. If 3’s want additional language training to improve their skills to a 4, they have to do it on their own time and their own nickel. (The Foreign Service Institute has a pilot “Beyond 3″ program, but it had a mere two people in it as of the latest report.)
This is barrier number three: Foreign Service officers see few incentives to advance to high levels of Arabic language competence. There is no financial or career reward for qualifying at the higher levels. Moreover, to the extent that the time involved in language study detracts from diplomatic job responsibilities, the commitment to achieve near-fluency could even be a career-stopper.
The author has some suggestions:
First, we should allocate funds for part-time, on-the-job advanced language instruction at post and in Washington, targeting 3’s and up. Second, we should make language training mandatory at all Middle Eastern posts (and, ideally, for Washington-based Foreign Service staff working on the region as well) and build it into the workload. Third, we should make sustained progress toward fluency an evaluation factor for all Foreign Service officers assigned to the region. And fourth, we should reward advanced fluency (3+ and above) with a pay premium, regardless of whether the diplomat in question is assigned to a language-designated post.
These requirements would add to the workload of American diplomats who are already overburdened. So a modest transfer of personnel slots to beef up embassy staffing levels in the Middle East would be a logical fifth requirement. We’d also need to increase the language training budget, but part-time language training, especially at post, is dirt cheap compared to other items on the global war on terrorism shopping list.
We just can’t afford to keep missing what the Arab world is saying to us and miscommunicating our positions back to them. What better way to narrow the communications gap than to learn how to speak the Arab world’s own language?
Those are good suggestions.
There’s one problem that the author discusses briefly in a sidebar, though, and it’s a big problem for those who want to learn Arabic: diglossia. (The writing system looks imposing, but trust me, it’s not. The alphabet can be mastered in two weeks.)
Across the Arabic-speaking world, there is a diglossic situation, with a high-prestige dialect (Modern Standard Arabic, which is essentially a slightly-simplified version of Classical Arabic (the language of the Quran)) and a lower-prestige local dialect. There are many, many dialects of Arabic, and they can vary so widely as to be mutually incomprehensible (a speaker of Maghrabi Arabic and a speaker of Syrian Arabic, for example, would have to communicate in MSA; their dialects are as different as Italian and Romanian).
MSA is the same across the Arabic-speaking world (that’s why it’s called “standard.” The Arabs call it al-’arabiyya al-fuSHaa (roughly, “the pure Arabic”)), and it’s the language used for writing (most dialects are not written, and the dialects don’t even have standardized orthography, and it’s even considered somewhat uncouth to see a dialect on the printed page), radio and TV broadcasts, formal speeches, and very formal situations (such as diplomatic meetings). It’s hard to overstate the high prestige of Classical Arabic in the Arabic-speaking world; many educated Arabs will even say that their local dialect (their native language, the language they think in) isn’t “real Arabic” and “has no grammar.” The prestige of Classical Arabic and its modern descendant (MSA) is a sort of linguistic backbone that serves to unify the Arabic-speaking world. That’s why no Arabic dialect has diverged far enough from MSA to be considered a different language in its own right. (This has happened only in the case of Maltese, which is basically Maghrabi Arabic with a huge influx of Italian loanwords and borrowing. The Maltese, being Christians, don’t have the same reverence for Classical Arabic that the Muslim Arab world has; thus, it was not a problem for them to regard their language as a Semitic tongue related to Arabic, rather than a defective version of the high-prestige Classical language.)
This is what makes the idea of “fluency” in Arabic especially hard to define: there’s not just one language to master, but a dialect continuum to negotiate, anywhere Arabic is spoken. If you’ve reached Level 3 in MSA, you can read a newspaper article pretty easily, and understand the news on TV, but go to the Middle East and you won’t be able to understand what people on the street are saying, and you’ll have lots of trouble communicating with them, even on a very basic level.
One big question in Arabic-language pedagogy is whether to start with one of the dialects and then introduce MSA later, or to give the student a groundwork in MSA and then start with the dialect later. For a student who wants to master Arabic, it’s basically having to learn one-and-a-half languages. If all you know is MSA, you’re not much good in the “real world” of speaking Arabic, because no one actually speaks MSA in a normal conversational situation; if all you know is a local dialect, you won’t be able to read anything, and you’ll be unable to understand a news broadcast.
My own opinion is that it’s better to start with a grounding in MSA, because you need it in order to read anything, and because it is understood by educated people across the Arabic-speaking world. But diglossia is a real problem for students, because Arabic speakers in “real life” move up and down constantly along the dialect continuum, from “pure” dialect, through a mixture of dialect and MSA, and perhaps even into “pure” MSA (in certain settings or situations). One has to have skills at both ends of that dialect continuum in order to be truly “proficient” at Arabic. There’s no shortcut, and there’s no easy way to get there. You need MSA, and you need a dialect. If you’ve got one of the two, you’ve got a huge head-start on getting the other one, but you have to have both.
That takes a lot of time and money, to be sure. But it’s an investment we are going to have to make. If we’re serious about coming to terms with the Arabic-speaking world, we need people who know Arabic.
(Update: If such things interest you, I have put up a page with four verbal paradigms: the same verb conjugated in MSA and three Arabic dialects. This may give you some small idea of how much the dialects differ from MSA and from each other.)
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