In the name of national security, economic well-being and the furtherance of scientific inquiry, Uncle Sam may be in the market for bright young men and women with a passion for learning Dinka.
Those languages are among the 169 included on a proposed list of languages that the U.S. government considers "critical." It was compiled by the Education Department, after receiving suggestions from the State, Defense and Health and Human Services departments, as well as the National Science Foundation.
The list is an outgrowth of legislation passed last year that provides about $2.45 million to help students who want to study a "critical language." The Education Department spends $32 million a year to help fund 93 national resource and area study centers, most of them on college campuses, where students have been studying about 150 of the languages on the list.
According to the Education Department's statement in the Federal Register, languages were included on the list after considering:
* "The national security interest in diplomatic and military situations, or strategic geographic locations;
* "The economic security interest of the United States in our economic ties with other nations; and
* "Scientific inquiry and research which have significant worldwide or regional importance."
But take the wish lists of five agencies, and the result is a list that, as one Education Department official put it, "is fairly comprehensive." The proposed list is expected to be whittled down in the next two months to a shorter, working list of a dozen or so very critical foreign tongues, officials said.
The proposed list includes some stalwarts -- French, Spanish, German and Italian -- as well as Russian, Arabic, Hindi, Japanese and Chinese.
Others reflect national security concerns. Afrikaans, for example, is the language of white South Africans of Dutch descent, while Pashto is spoken near the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Then there is Ewe-Fon (a member of the large family of Sudanese languages); Yoruba, spoken by about 3.5 million people in southwestern Nigeria; Dinka, spoken in the Sudan and the Upper Nile region; and Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam, which together are spoken by about 80 million people in southern India and Ceylon.
That these languages are obscure to most Americans is evidence of what linguists call our nation's "language illiteracy." Americans' general inability to speak anything but English with fluency, they say, only serves to limit our involvement and interchange with other countries and life styles.
"Every one of them [languages on the list] has a scientific interest, but you have to broaden your view of science," said one Education Department official.
"Scientific interest" may amount to a researcher who wants to study plant biology or herbal medicine in an area of sub-Saharan Africa where only Ga is spoken. Or perhaps a natural resources economist exploring for phosphates in the Sahara.
As for defining languages that are important to our economic security, this linguist said, "So many people look at it in terms of, 'Can we sell them a car?' There is a more altruistic way to look at economic development, like helping them with their trade, helping them with their raw materials."