October 17, 2005

The interpreter shortage

Mark's post on the shortage of interpreters in Iraq is yet another reminder of this persistent problem. There aren't enough interpreters in Iraq or in the various intelligence agencies and the FBI, which can't process all the material that they collect. You might think that the lack of attention to linguistic matters is just one facet of the general incompetence of the Bush administration, along the same lines as the failure to provide armour for vehicles and soldiers, but that isn't the whole of the problem. The stupid and bigoted policy of firing translators who disclose that they are gay doesn't help, but it's a small part of the problem. The fact is that the US government has shown a disturbing lack of interest in foreign languages for decades. A particularly salient example is the incident in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when a Soviet soldier took refuge in the US embassy in Kabul and asked for asylum. Communication with him was difficult - none of the embassy staff could speak Russian.

The government does operate four language schools: the Defense Language Institute (military), the Foreign Service Institute (State Department), the CIA Language School, and the NSA Language School, which have a reputation for quality. Indeed, one of my high school friends, who had fallen in love with Arabic, after investigating the various ways in which he could study the language, joined the army in order to to attend the Defense Language Institute. The Defense Department and the intelligence agencies have long sponsored Natural Language Processing research. However, there clearly aren't enough resources devoted to language training, and what is most curious, there appears to be little interest in encouraging soldiers to learn languages on their own initiative. As the Salt Lake Tribune article about Sargeant Hamblin mentions, "he gets no special perks for his special skills". It's a mystery to me why there aren't incentives for soldiers to learn languages, and why there aren't more extensive materials made available to help them.

The military seems to have taken language skills much more seriously during the Second World War. My father went directly from being a buck private in basic training to Master Sergeant in an intelligence position because he could speak French, Flemish, and German. The Army recognized that the ability to speak these languages was useful for interviewing civilians and interrogating enemy soldiers.

The military also made a point of training soldiers in Chinese and Japanese. In addition to the intensive courses in these languages, they produced materials for self-instruction. I have in my collection a book entitled Japanese for Military and Civilian Use by Richard D. Abraham (Instructor of Foreign Languages, Philadelphia Public Schools) and Sannosuke Yamamoto (Instructor of Japanese, Philadelphia Navy League School), published in 1944. It begins with 14 grammatically-based lessons of the sort that one would find in books in the Teach Yourself series and the like. These are followed by 28 topically oriented lists of sentences and then 11 appendices, most of which are devoted to the vocabulary for particular topics. The first, for example, covers the parts of airplanes, which are illustrated. It concludes with short Japanese-English and English-Japanese dictionaries.

Much of the vocabulary introduced is related to combat or its immediate aftermath. It includes military ranks and organization, weapons, distances and directions, medical care, questioning the enemy and statements to captors. At the same time, the authors evidently had in mind the future occupation of Japan. The book covers restaurants, cabaret and geisha, getting a haircut, having laundry done, and sending a telegram.

The soldiers I have spoken to report that they are not provided with such materials, nor given any real encouragement to learn Arabic. That's a shame since it would likely be of immediate military advantage, make a good impression on Iraqis, and reduce the number of incidents that result from misunderstanding, all too often with fatal consequences.

Posted by Bill Poser at October 17, 2005 01:17 PM