Aiding Spies By Easing Path To Languages

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By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005

William Young is a language specialist, but he once had a translation quandary in the Middle East when he tried to make a simple purchase armed only with his academic knowledge of classical Arabic.

"When I was in Egypt years ago, I wanted to buy a cup. And I knew that the good classical word for cup is kas ," Young said. But when he asked for it, it sounded something like, "Give me yon goblet."

"It's comparable to the Middle Ages in Europe, where people wrote in Latin but spoke in Catalan or Spanish or French," Young said. "That makes it difficult for an American who is studying Arabic."

Young is part of an effort at the University of Maryland to ensure that Americans -- specifically those in intelligence services -- can better understand the rest of the world by learning languages more quickly and rising to a more advanced level with them.

He works at the university's Center for Advanced Study of Language, which opened a building last week after two years in leased space around the region.

Inside the well-guarded one-story building, a team of 75 research linguists, cognitive neuroscientists and computer experts will try to figure out how languages work using the tools of science -- not just with grammar and vocabulary, but with electrodes-on-your-head types of lab work.

For instance, it is commonly understood that young children learn languages most easily. Some people retain this ability, at varying levels, into adulthood, and scientists hope that a scan of the brain while a person reads or speaks a foreign language will help them understand why.

One of the center's major goals is to create a test that will sort these people from the rest of the population, which finds learning a language difficult.

Experts also will try to get computers to perform translations more effectively by picking up nuances that have proved impossible for existing programs to read. A fast, accurate translation system would help clear the enormous backlog of untranslated materials collected by intelligence services in anti-terrorism efforts.

At last week's building dedication, the center's director, Richard D. Brecht, said the center would "reduce by as much as half the time required for language instruction in the classroom," as well as clear the translation backlog, within a decade.

Both would be part of a solution to what CIA Director Porter J. Goss, speaking at the dedication, called "a very, very big problem" for him: the shortage of fluent speakers of Arabic and its many dialects.

During the Cold War, the U.S. intelligence services had it relatively easy. Compared with Arabic, Russian was simple for Americans because the language is more closely related to English. And although the Soviet Union was a huge nation, its government used a standard form of Russian.

Young, an Arabic specialist at the center, said the Middle East is divided into many states whose residents speak mutually unintelligible dialects or do not speak Arabic. Although classical written Arabic -- the language used in books and most often learned by Americans -- is readily understood, it sounds archaic when spoken, like the speech of King Arthur might in modern times.

Arabic is not the only language the intelligence services are interested in: among them are Farsi, the language of Iran; Urdu, a language spoken in Pakistan; and Pashto, common in Afghanistan. Masters of Chinese or Hindi, both languages with a common written form but many spoken dialects, are also precious commodities.

The center is not the type of place where regular people will come to learn a foreign language -- admission requires a security clearance. Its employees declined to say which agencies they will serve, but their stated mission is to help the intelligence community, and that means working with members of the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, among others.

But employees said much of their research will be made available in public academic journals.

"It's true that this is kind of a cleared facility, but the work that I'm doing is not cleared," Young said.

But, as he noted discreetly, "some of our customers prefer to work in a secured environment."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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