The Language Gap

Why Middle Eastern linguists are hard to find, even though the government has been funding the field.

The New York Times recently reported that the FBI has yet to translate more than 120,000 hours of pre-Sept. 11 “terrorism-related” recordings. Even though the FBI has received an additional $48 million over the past three years to beef up its translation capabilities in “Arabic, Farsi and other languages considered critical to counterterrorism investigations,” the shortage of able linguists has created what Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., calls a “translation mess” that has “obvious implications for our national security.”

The 9/11 commission report pointed to the apparent source of the problem: In 2002, only six undergraduates in the entire United States earned degrees in Arabic language. Worse yet, according to the report, “very few American colleges or universities offered programs in Middle Eastern languages or Islamic studies.” Actually, the 9/11 commission is mistaken about the paucity of programs, but the real situation is, if anything, more sobering. Among the many oversights of the government’s antiterror policy, ignoring postsecondary education in the Islamic field isn’t one of them. Yet federal efforts to support Middle Eastern studies, as the translation gap shows, haven’t paid off as hoped.

There are many colleges and universities that offer instruction in a wide range of Middle Eastern languages, as well as Islamic history and culture. In fact, a portion of the federal government’s $90 million of Title VI funding currently goes to 17 institutes  at schools across the country *—from NYU to Michigan to UCLA—that do nothing but grant degrees in subjects touching on the Middle East. Part of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the Title VI program was the product of a Cold War conviction that expertise in foreign languages and area studies was vital to the national interest—a view as popular now as ever. To qualify for fellowships under the program, students have always been required to take language courses, and indeed there are plenty of students at all degree levels now studying Middle Eastern languages as part of their curriculum. Yet over time, as the meager number of actual majors in those languages shows, the focus of Title VI subsidies has shifted to area studies.

The result, writes Kenneth Whitehead, who supervised Title VI during much of the ‘80s, was that “we were not getting a good value for our dollar. Many of those who studied ‘hard’ languages (e.g., Arabic, Persian, Chinese) in Title VI-supported programs turned out to be less proficient than they needed to be to work effectively in diplomacy, intelligence, aid-related work, and even international business.” The original rationale of the program, others agree with Whitehead, is no longer being served.

One problem is that language instruction is typically not a high priority in academia, where other disciplines enjoy more prestige. “Universities have tended to relegate language pedagogues to the status of lecturers, who don’t get the same salary or tenure rights as professors,” Amy Newhall, the executive director of the Middle East Studies Association told me. Federal funds evidently haven’t done much to change the calculus.

Perhaps the bigger problem has been Title VI’s success in its second mission, to support what has proved to be a thriving academic trend in area studies. The effect has been to discourage government service as a career choice for students in the Middle East field. The radicalization of college campuses during the 1960s dramatically reshaped Islamic studies in particular. According to the post-colonial paradigm that came to dominate the flourishing field of area studies, the Muslim world must be understood largely in terms of the physical, intellectual, psychological, and political damage wrought by the Western powers—first France and England and now the United States. Moreover, as the late Edward Said argued in his immensely influential book Orientalism (1978), Western writers and scholars were complicit in the further subjugation of the region.

Whatever the merits of the post-colonial thesis, the message that writers and academics had better beware of abetting the ambitions of empire is not likely to make graduates eager to serve their government. According to one study of the career paths for graduates from the year 2000 at all degree levels who studied foreign languages in Title VI-funded centers—not just Middle Eastern ones—only 2.3 percent worked for the federal government, while another .9 percent entered the military. Since Title VI accounts for 10 percent of the overall costs of the programs it supports, 3.2 percent represents a pretty bad investment for the American taxpayer.

The good news is that between 1998 and 2002 there was a 92 percent surge in Arabic-language enrollment in postsecondary education, from 5,505 to 10,584 students, an increase that is undoubtedly due to Sept. 11. Meanwhile, the government also responded in the wake of the attacks by raising its Title VI funding for Middle Eastern studies 26 percent to the current $90 million budget. That move has stirred up what could prove to be a useful debate about how to improve the federal investment in creating the able linguists the country needs to conduct informed policy in the region and process valuable intelligence material.

Some critics—like Martin Kramer, whose Ivory Towers on Sand documents the rise and malaise of Middle East studies, and Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution—have complained that the increase amounts to throwing good money after bad. To encourage more oversight over Title VI, a bill now waiting in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions seeks to establish a seven-member independent advisory board  that would “monitor and evaluate” activities supported under the program. The board would then “make recommendations” to the secretary of education and the Congress on how Title VI appropriations might better serve the national interest.

The bill’s prospects are dimming, due to an overheated opposition that that has denounced the advisory board as the return of McCarthyism. As Martin Kramer points out, “every other comparable federal program”—including the Fulbright-Hays program and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholar—is subject to considerably more oversight than Title VI’s beneficiaries. And of course academics suspicious of government involvement can always decline to accept taxpayer money.

In any case, if the demise of the bill promotes discussion of other ways to capitalize on, and sustain, the spike in interest in Middle East languages, that will be all to the good. The bill’s author, Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., who was recently appointed chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, thinks the solution might be to cut out the middleman altogether. “Maybe we’ll focus more on driving dollars to students rather than academic programs,” he says. “If we provide incentives to students, colleges will see there’s a market for creating these programs that emphasize language proficiency.” Certainly students won’t have to worry about jobs: Those 120,000 hours of terrorism-related recordings only cover pre-Sept. 11 chatter, and there’s a lot more where that came from.

Correction, Oct. 4, 2004:The original version of this piece mistakenly stated that $90 million in Title VI funding goes to 17 Middle East institutes. In fact, only about 10 percent of that amount is directed to those institutes. Return to the corrected sentence.