Our Diplomats' Arabic Handicap

Not ready for prime time: Level 3 designates moderate fluency in a language, but you couldn't ask a diplomat who speaks Arabic at that level to appear before a camera on al-Jazeera TV and speak articulately about U.S. policy in the Middle East, the author says.
Not ready for prime time: Level 3 designates moderate fluency in a language, but you couldn't ask a diplomat who speaks Arabic at that level to appear before a camera on al-Jazeera TV and speak articulately about U.S. policy in the Middle East, the author says. (Thirteen/wnet New York)

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By Jennifer Bremer
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Karen Hughes, the new head of public diplomacy for the Bush administration, came back from the Middle East last month chastened by the communications chasm looming between the region's public and ourselves. She had seen firsthand that there are few quick fixes in the Middle East. But we do have one simple option that could move us a big step forward: teaching our diplomats to speak Arabic.

At a time when the U.S. government has an urgent need both to understand what's being said in the Arab world and to express our own views clearly, surely every U.S. embassy in the Mideast is staffed with at least several American diplomats who speak Arabic, right? Well, no. Four years after 9/11, we're still a very long way from achieving this fundamental goal, as the State Department's internal performance reviews and interviews with human resource and language training staff make clear. Policy is not the problem: State Department planning documents call for increased Arabic language capabilities in the Foreign Service. The problem is that the way we're going about meeting this goal guarantees failure.

To understand why requires a safari into the bureaucratic undergrowth, so grab your machete. The Foreign Service classifies language ability into five levels, with "1" being the lowest (able to handle only the very simplest social situations) and "5" the highest (a level rarely assigned to anyone but a native speaker).

From a public diplomacy standpoint, the key distinction is between a "3" and a "4." We have a fairly good supply of 3's in Arabic, almost 200 as of August 2004 (the latest State Department data available). A level 3 can handle one-on-one situations, or something like a ministry meeting in a subject area they know well. But a level 3 speaker would flounder in a complex situation. If you put a 3 in a public meeting where many excited people are speaking on top of one another, for example, or in a coffee shop conversation with college students arguing about religion and the state, he or she would be lost. Double the difficulty if the diplomat has been trained only in Modern Standard Arabic, a formal dialect very different from the colloquial dialects that people actually speak (see sidebar). But these are precisely the kinds of situations that our Middle East diplomats must be equipped to handle.

Speaking, moreover, is generally harder than listening. No responsible person would ask a 3 to speak before an unfriendly crowd at the local university (or at the embassy gates), much less put a 3 in front of a television camera and expect a clear, engaging and cogent discussion of U.S. Middle East policy in Arabic. For that you need a 4, and preferably a 4+ or a 5. So how many of these 4 and 5 level speakers do we have in Arabic? As of August 2004 -- 27. At the highest levels (4+ and 5), we have a grand total of eight individuals worldwide.

This little band cannot possibly cover our need to understand and be understood across 21 embassies and consulates in a region with a population approaching 300 million people, and one, moreover, with very different dialects from east to west. Given that some of our Arabic speakers are inevitably on rotation in Washington or even assigned outside the region, our 27 most fluent Arabic-speaking diplomats equate to barely one per post.

Of course, so-called Foreign Service Nationals -- local professionals who are hired to work in the U.S. embassy in a given country -- can provide valuable backup. But there is no substitute for having Americans who can communicate -- really communicate -- in the local language. The failure to field more diplomats who speak the language gives unhelpful support to the view that the United States just does not take the Arab world seriously.

So how do we get our team up to speed, quickly? There are two ways to field more diplomats with solid Arabic skills in the short term: hire more Americans who already speak Arabic, especially mid-career Arab Americans with real fluency and professional skills, or upgrade our existing stock of 3's by instituting much broader and deeper on-the-job language training, both in Washington and in our embassies ("at post" in Foreign Service-speak).

The first option sounds promising. But if it were easy to recruit Arab Americans from immigrant and first-generation backgrounds as senior diplomats, surely we would have more than eight fluent Arabic speakers on board by now. We need to keep working hard to attract Arab Americans (and other so-called "heritage speakers" who can enrich our diplomatic corps's cultural and language skills in important regions) into the diplomatic service, but building a diverse Foreign Service has been slow going. Strong disincentives, from poor pay to tight budgets and widespread Arab American doubts regarding U.S. Mideast policy, stand in the way of a rapid buildup in Arab American diplomats.

So how about option No. 2, turning more 3's into 4's? The State Department has a world-famous language training program, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), staffed by highly trained professionals. Anyone who has reached a 3 in Arabic can get to a 4 with determined study. Even a 2 has a good base to build on.

Unfortunately, current policies for language training make it all but impossible to turn 3's into 4's. Upgrading our roster of Arabic speakers would require getting around three obstacles.

First, traditional language training, based on sending officers to full-time language study for extended periods, is expensive. Since Arabic is a difficult language, the FSI figures it takes two years of full-time training to get a committed learner from a simple greeting of " Salaam aleikum" to level 3.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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