Jennifer Bremer ["Our Diplomats' Arabic Handicap," Outlook, Oct. 16] had some good ideas for improving our relationship with Arabic-speaking nations, but she missed a basic point: We have too few people who are fluent in Arabic because we start too late in development of that language skill.
Look at our high schools. How many offer language courses for countries other than what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld referred to as "Old Europe"? Naturally, we have expert speakers of French, Spanish, and German and few experts in other languages.
With a stronger curriculum in the Arabic language in kindergarten through 12th grade, high school students could spend a year abroad in an Arabic-speaking country. This would be a simple way to improve our Foreign Service corps and "close the communications gap."
RICHARD D. TOBEY
Like Jennifer Bremer, I am concerned about increasing the number of Arabic speakers at the State Department. However, I have a more positive story to tell.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, State Department enrollments in full-time Arabic language training at our Foreign Service Institute have nearly quadrupled to 414 students, and the number of Arabic speakers at the level of 3/3 (general professional proficiency) and above has increased from 198 to 225. We have also initiated a recruitment initiative to bolster hiring of Foreign Service officers with language skills, including fluency in Arabic. Since November 2003 we have hired 27 Arabic speakers through this program. In addition, the State Department's Language Incentive Program provides premiums at any post at which incentive languages are used.
Foreign Service employees need to be able to interact successfully with a hostile foreign press, engage and persuade a skeptical foreign audience, and gain sensitive information. To this end, we have integrated public diplomacy content throughout our language-training programs, including Arabic. We also provide funds for language study where employees are posted. We will continue to expand our training and "in-country" immersion to the maximum extent funding permits.
Unfortunately, 60 percent of our speakers fluent in Arabic, Chinese and other critical languages are eligible to retire within five years. We are seeking funds to bring our 3/3 speakers up to 4/4 (advanced professional proficiency) through immersion programs in relevant countries. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made this effort a budget priority.
W. ROBERT PEARSON
Although Jennifer Bremer focused exclusively on the way to increase the number of Arabic-speaking diplomats, her concern applies to other strategic languages in short supply. Changes underway in the teaching of Chinese, for example, serve as a promising model for Arabic.
Despite the difficulty of learning Chinese, which is spoken by more people than any other language, the number of programs in schools at all levels has more than tripled in the past decade. Helping fuel interest, the College Board has announced that it will introduce its first advanced placement exams in Chinese in 2007.
Rather than wait until Foreign Service officers have been posted or are in Washington, efforts should be made to stimulate an interest in learning Arabic in kindergarten through 12th grade. Both Chinese and Arabic are time-intensive to master, but the payoff is great.