Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Arabic speakers wanted....

International Education: demand soars for Arabic speakers
Rick Smith
International Herald Tribune February 15, 2005
After Sept. 11, training soars for diplomats and academics
Paris. Just as Sputnik spurred a surge in Russian language training a half-century ago, Sept. 11 has made Arabic the language of choice for a new generation of ambitious diplomats and academics across the world. .

"Looking around, we see that we haven't been training enough qualified Arabic speakers," said Ahmad Fawzi, director of the news and media division of the United Nations in New York. "The language has been neglected."

Others agree. "Even in France, with a large population of bilingual Arab speakers to draw from, it has not been easy to find possibilities to study Arabic," said Philippe Cardinal, chief of communications at the Institut du Monde Arabe, the Paris-based cultural center supported by France and 21 Arab governments.

That is changing rapidly. The Swiss diplomatic service has doubled funding for Arabic instruction and the Dutch are making courses available to all diplomatic personnel. "In the past, Russian would have helped a job candidate more, but now Arabic is the highly sought language," said Sonja Kreibich, a spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

"Today we have more teachers of Arabic than we had students 10 years ago," said Michael Lemmon, dean of the U.S. State Department's School of Language Studies.

Two of the world's strongest programs in Arabic - London's School of Oriental and African Studies and the U.S. Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California - have seen surging interest. Enrollments have more than tripled since 2001 in London and are still growing, while Monterey added a third faculty in Middle Eastern languages.

"Arabic has now passed Japanese and Chinese for us," said E. Ulrich Kratz, head of the London school. "This may be the case for a number of years." .As with Russian in the 1950s, the campaigns seem necessary because the knowledge base in the West, by nearly all accounts, turned out to be alarmingly weak at a moment of crisis.

The plaintive call by Robert Mueller 3rd, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks for more capacity in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages was so public that some intelligence professionals joked that it bordered on a breach of security. In the same vein, the British government said last year that it intended to produce 1,000 new Arabic speakers as soon as possible.

Officialdom has reason to be uneasy. According to the Modern Language Association in New York, only 0.5 percent of foreign language enrollments in U.S. universities were devoted to Arabic in 1998. But even after nearly doubling toward 1 percent in the wake of Sept. 11, Arabic still ranked in 2002 behind classical Greek, Latin and even American Sign Language. (Spanish led with 53.4 percent, following by French with 14.5 percent and German with 6.5 percent.)

The challenge is daunting because Arabic is so difficult and can make intelligence networks almost nostalgic for the cold war when they needed to develop Russian, itself a challenging language but one that is much more accessible to Western students. .

Part of the difficulty is that learning Arabic is actually a process of learning two languages. The written language, which is a simplified version of the classical language based on the Koran, must be mastered along with at least one of the many spoken dialects. Some linguists count as many as 40, but the four broad dialect groups are Levantine, Gulf, Egyptian and North African.

The U.S. State Department rates Arabic, along with Chinese and Korean, as a "superhard" language, a designation formalized late last year. It means that a student has to spend five to six hours a day of face-to-face instruction for two years to reach level three - a level that allows for basic professional functioning - on the U.S. government's scale of zero to five.

By comparison, Russian requires one year to reach that level; French and Spanish need only six months. .This intensive strategy for beefing up a nation's capacities in a language is fast and effective but expensive. The other major approach is through seed funding in schools and universities; it is much cheaper and more wide-reaching but the results are more random.

"Diplomatic and military programs don't have a large pool to work with, whereas universities and colleges have a large selection of students and you don't have to pay students a salary or benefits," said Kirk Belnap of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who directs a two-year-old government-funded program to expand possibilities for learning Middle Eastern languages.

But the problem with this more gentle approach is the long lag time before any number of qualified speakers can be produced. ."It takes five to 10 years to transform a curriculum because you have to develop a cadre of Ph.D.s as teachers, library resources, and so on," said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association in New York.

The number of students in Russian, for example, grew over the decades in response to a flood of funding for scholarships and university programs. .But the numbers reached some of their major peaks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, over three decades after Sputnik, when the strategic need first arose.

The current broad goal in many programs is to lift a significant population of students from level two - a minimal level of functioning and one that is within the grasp of most students - to level three.

The heights of level four, referred to as a "distinguished" command, and level five, which is native fluency, are usually scaled only by products of bilingual homes or by random prodigies.

Fawzi of the United Nations sees the effort as a process long overdue. "This goes beyond oil and politics," he said. "You're talking about hundreds of millions of people and there has to be a reaching out."

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