May 10, 2007

Drop and give me 50 (conjugations)

According to Pauline Jelinek, "Pentagon creating civilian Language Corps to help in times of war, emergencies", AP wire, 5/9/2007:

The Pentagon is setting up a civilian Language Corps, a cadre of some 1,000 foreign-language speakers who can help the government in times of war and national emergencies.

In a three-year pilot program, the Defense Department will recruit volunteers and do testing to see if such a program would work. If successful, a permanent corps could be developed, said Robert Slater, who heads the Pentagon personnel office's security education program.

"The federal government can't possibly identify, hire and warehouse professionals with skills in 150 languages," Slater said Wednesday. "So it's invaluable to be able to respond in emergencies, whether international or national."

Prof. Dennis Baron wrote about an earlier stage of this process, back in January -- "Pentagon declares foreign language a weapon. O.K., maggots, drop and give me 50 conjugations".

"Drop and give me 50 conjugations" is clever, I like that -- but Prof. Baron's picture of this problem's history is bizarrely off the mark:

...the U.S. is way behind in terms of the foreign language arms race.

That’s because government policy for the past century and a half has been to ensure that real Americans speak only English, whether voluntarily or by force.

For some of the history of how wrong this is, with respect to the WWII era, see these Language Log posts: "A tale of two societies" (3/1/2007); "Linguistics in 1940" (3/11/2007); "The Intensive Language Program" (3/20/2007); "The Chinese Episode" (3/21/2007); "The Burmese story" (4/8/2007).

As for the situation today, the Defense Language Institute is a large and extremely effective organization. And the Education Department's alphabet soup of foreign-language programs ( Fulbright-Hayes, FLAS, LRC, NRC, LEAS, SEAS. etc.) may not work as well as they should, but this is not because of a government policy that they should fail, but rather, according to a recent review by the National Academies, because of inadequate implementation by educational institutions. And perhaps in some cases, because of outright diversion of resources from language instruction into areas of more interest to some academics, such as literature.

Wiith respect to attitudes towards Americans' knowledge of foreign languages, the main difference between 1941 and 2007 seems to be that in 1941, academics and other intellectuals were somewhat ahead of the government in planning and acting to provide for national linguistic needs, while in 2007, they're way behind, with many if not most of them uninterested in cooperating, and some actively obstructing.

I don't know how Prof. Baron feels about this, but my reading of our colleagues' attitudes is that many of them are indifferent to the problem of foreign language instruction, and therefore happy to see the federal funds allocated for this purpose diverted to the study of literature and other areas that interest them more. A smaller fraction is actively opposed to anything that would improve pool of foreign-language talent available to the government. To blame the results on a "government policy ... to ensure that real Americans speak only English" is bizarre.

How could Prof. Baron carry on at such length in a way that seems to be so strongly at variance with the elementary and easily-discovered facts of the case? Well, of course, he's focusing on the question of whether immigrants should be encouraged to learn English, and the whole set of issues that this brings up: accomodation to non-English speakers, bilingual education, and so on. He's written about this before, more than once, as we have here; and on this point, I generally agree with him.

But this is not the same as the problem of ensuring that enough citizens are proficient both in English and in a wide range of other languages, especially with respect to what he jokily calls the "foreign language arms race", that is, the availability of foreign-language speakers for the diplomatic service, the military, and the intelligence services. And it's discouraging that Prof. Baron, an eminent intellectual who clearly knows a lot about many things, is apparently ignorant of the history of this other question, and uninterested in it except as a stick to beat the nativists with.

[OK, I'm being just a tad unfair to Prof. Baron, as this 2001 NYT Op-Ed (" America Doesn't Know What the World Is Saying", 10/27/2001) demonstrates. But even in that piece, he writes that

The federal government might give financial help to colleges trying to improve their programs in Arabic and other strategically important languages. Congress could offer subsidies to students at accredited four-year colleges who choose to study these languages.

as if that's not exactly what the various Title VI centers and other programs have been trying to do. Is it possible that neither he nor the editors of the NYT knew that?]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 10, 2007 08:31 AM