February 19, 2007

Another view of Americans & Arabic in the Gulf

After posting comments on the deplorable lack of knowledge of Arabic among American diplomatic and military personnel in Iraq, I received an interesting and enlightening response from A Faithful Language Log Reader in Bahrain. His account of Americans & Arabic is rather encouraging. First, here's what he says about the current state of things in the teaching of Arabic:

Please don't assume that things are the same as they were "early in the current war in Iraq." I haven't been to Iraq, but the foreign service civilians and the military services seem to be using better language materials now. As I was preparing to come to Bahrain, where I am now, a friend gave me a two-CD set with a small course, "Basics of Iraqi Arabic", produced by the School of Language Studies of the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. The course materials consist of the booklet and accompanying audio files, for aural/oral learning. Attached is the .pdf file for the booklet part of the course. This course is at least three years old, if we are to believe the file's creation date, and is marked "survival/beginning", with an unchecked line that might identify an intermediate/advanced version. Note how little of the course is devoted to military and security terms, especially to imperative commands. Note the tone of the sections on "Security Check and search of personal belongings", "House Search" and "Interrogation".

And his comments on the personal efforts of American soldiers and sailors are even more encouraging (well, except that it would be nice if they didn't have to do all this on their own time):

My personal observation here in Bahrain of hundreds of US naval and military personnel who have used their own off-duty time to take on-base (military as well as university extension) or local Arabic-language classes, has left me pleasantly impressed. These young Americans, many of whom have never studied a "foreign" language, are learning and using Arabic. Admittedly, these folks aren't in the combat zone at the moment, and admittedly they came overseas without Arabic language skills, but many of them ARE occasionally deployed to Iraq.

And finally, in a later message he offers a different perspective on the Iraq Study Group's report about the paucity of Arabic-knowers in the American embassy in Iraq: he points out that the support personnel in an American embassy outnumber the "the American officers and staff who actually need to make contact with local citizens who don't speak English." So although, as he notes, "33 out of 1000 Baghdad embassy employees seems like an abysmally low number", the report may be misleading -- that is, maybe a more respectable proportion of the people who most need to talk to monolingual Arabic speakers are actually able to do so.

Posted by Sally Thomason at February 19, 2007 12:56 PM