May 26, 2007:
While it's nice to see more folks in
the U.S. government studying Arabic, the payoff from all of these programs will
be far in the future. Right now, things are in pretty bad shape. For example,
of thousand or so State Department officials in Baghdad in 2005, only six were
fluent in Arabic. There is still a severe shortage.
Since the late '90s the number of Arabic language
programs in US universities has more or less doubled from about 150 to about
300. The Department of Defense has increased its Arabic language training even more
than that. In the past seven years the number of Americans studying Arabic
abroad has increased markedly as well, in the case of the University of Cairo
from it's now about 300, double what it was ten years ago.
Things could be worse. Back in the early 1960s,
when the United States sent the first large number of troops to Vietnam, there
were only 3-4 officers in the Armed Forces who spoke Vietnamese. Most American
"advisors" did their business in French, which was one of the most common
second languages in the United States at the time. Relations with France had
been quite warm since World War I, and through World War II. Many of the
parents and grandparents of the U.S. troops in Vietnam were quite keen on
knowing some French, which was the most popular second language in Vietnam.
There is a similar situation with English in Iraq,
and the Middle East in general. Most scientific and technical books are
published in English, and very few get translated into Arabic. So lots of Arabs
learn English. Unfortunately, in Iraq that meant a disproportionate number of
Sunni Arabs (who monopolized education, as well as most everything else) and
supporters of Saddam in general, knew English.