Saturday, May 19, 2007

On Learning Arabic

A Navy ensign friend of mine is in Monterey learning Modern Written and Spoken Arabic there. The attached blog is that of Col. Lang who taught Arabic at West Point. Check the link to get his own insights and others' comments on the difficulties of learning the hardest tongue of all.

Back in the day, I studied Arabic at FSI in Beirut with four CIA students [I was an FSO]. My language aptitude at State had tested out at 75 out of a possible 80. I had acquired a 2+, 3 in Vietnamese and a 3+ Speaking, 4 Reading in French before volunteering for Arabic language studies with six months stateside and a year and a half in Beirut. After a year of intense studies, I was yanked from my studies to go to Jeddah and tested out at 3+. 4. I had been promised two years, which is the minimum for what is required to become good at the language---but an FSO termite in the personnel system had tricked me into the Arabic FSI program by promising more than the State Dept had to give me. Coincidentally, I met George Kennan before shipping out up at Princeton---he was from my hometown of Milwaukee and he told me: "Treat the State Dept like an old whore---if you don't slap it around, it will ruin you." Truer words were never spoken.

Modern Standard Arabic very much resembles Medieval Latin used as a lingua franca before the Romance languages asserted their own autonomy, moving from dialects to national languages.

The State Dept now ranks Arabic [and Japanese] as Class 7 languages, as opposed to Class 5 languages, because both are excruciatingly difficult to acquire true fluency.
Below are the insights of Abu Sinan:
"A few comments about the Arabic thing. I am an American who speaks Arabic. I am lucky to be married to an Arab lady so the "immersion" thing has helped me as well.

Arabic is not a language where you can take a couple of years of University level classes and be able to function reasonably well.

Arabic is a language that you can have four years of at University and still not be able to communicate on a day to day basis.

There are a few reasons for this. First of all Arabic is very regional and the dialects are often so different that native Arabic speaks can have difficulties speaking with other Arabic speakers who use a different dialect, the Maghrebi Arabic dialect is a perfect example of this.

I have had years of Arabic instruction at the University level, along with advanced grammar classes and I still find it difficult. The immersion aspect with my wife helps, but this is only of limited use as her dialect is understood by almost all Arabs, but it doesn't help me with other dialects.

Second, Arabic is just a very hard language to learn. Languages are rated according to their difficulty to learn and Arabic is at the top along with Mandarin Chinese. There are numerous sounds in Arabic that just don't exist in English, ie "ayn" and "gayn" not to mention glottal type stops.

Third, the language that is taught in University is classical MSA "Modern Standard Arabic", or in Arabic "fus7a". This is not the way that Arabs speak to each other on a day to day basis. It will help you watch TV and movies, as well as reading religious, academic and other books, but it is a long way from how most Arabs speak. I have met Americans who have learned Arabic in school and their Arabic is almost unintelligible because it is spoken in a scholarly manner that is far removed from day to day local dialect.

As to the military issue and languages, my experience is with the DoD and the US Air Force. The linguists were trained for a little over a year in Arabic. Granted this is full time training, but it still wasn't enough. Keep in mind as well that in the Air Force, and I don't know about linguists in other branches of the service, you are required to have a "back up" language as well. So this means in addition to learning Arabic in that time you must also be able to learn a second language, which in the case of Arabic linguists, was almost always Hebrew.

Most of the linguists I knew, even ones with years in service, could not have translated on a day to day basis in a real life situation. The ones that might be able to would be able to converse on children's level. Their basic mission didn't require them to do this and their training didn't train them to do this. Their work was static work with existing materials where you can read or listen to the materials dozens of times and have a dictionary and software next to you to help you out.

I know several native Arabic speaks who went to Iraq early on to help out. This wasn't really done out of ideological support for the war, this was done for the $120,000 tax free wages that were being offered by companies such as Titan to translate for American troops. They all told me that the Arabic translators that the Army tried to use were completely ineffective. One told of a story of a translator who had taken to carrying around an "Iraqi Arabic-English" dictionary with him because much of the vocabulary they had learned in Tech School was useless.

Personally, I think Arabic is a language where you MUST attend school, and advanced schooling at that, to learn. I also feel it is completely necessary to live in an Arabic speaking country or have long term interaction with Arabs to be able to become even moderately functioning in it.

I don't think that the US military really has much of a chance of recruiting such people for the wages and benefits that they can offer such scarce people. Granted the bonuses, at least from what my former co-workers in the Air Force have told me, have gone up greatly for linguists. But when someone who can handle Arabic at a level 3 or even 4 level can basically write their own pay check, the military cannot compete.

It is about time as well, the FSI, I read somewhere, says that a student needs about 2 years of full time training to be able to go from the absolute basics to a level 3. FSI also doesn't have any programs, that I am aware of, that go above level three. I reckon from level 3 to 4 you'd need a couple more years along with extensive time spent in areas where Arabic is used on a day to day basis.

There isn't the time or money to create on the ground fluent Arabic speakers.

While in Jeddah, I had many long conversations with Hume Horan, who is in George Packer's book, The Assassin's Gate. Hume was one of the State Department's best Arabists and shared with me many arcane recondite insights into the language and culture of the Arabs he had acquired firsthand. He ended up studying Hebrew and finally becoming a very pro-Israeli FSO, which got him nowhere in the pro-Arab State Dept.

April Glaspie, Ambassador to Iraq before the 1990-91 War, was also a friend who encouraged me and shared many thoughts. She was a victim of James Baker's cowardice, and was s***canned for following his instructions and talking points during a meeting with Saddam Hussein before the War. Baker's a no-class coward and backstabber---IMHO.

Finally, I recall reading the words of a State Dept FSO fluent in Arabic who lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1940's:
"Arabic is a door to an empty room."

Hume Horan for one might agree. He took his own life in 2004 with terminal cancer.


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