Dr. Richard Brecht

Meeting Report 

"The Language Crisis in the War on Terror"
October 24, 2002

Richard Brecht, Director, National Foreign Language Center

On October 24, Richard Brecht of the National Foreign Language Center in Washington, DC spoke at the Eisenhower Institute, discussing the language issues facing the education system and intelligence community in the United States. He explored how inadequacies in language proficiency at all levels of society have impaired the government's ability to plan for homeland security and prosecute the war on terrorism. To emphasize the urgency of the issue, Brecht opened his remarks by observing that the lack of foreign language skills is the number one human resource problem in the intelligence community.

Language Deficiencies in the Education System

Foreign language problems within the U.S. government are rooted in deficiencies in the education system itself. Less than half the high school students in the country take a foreign language for more than a semester and a half during their secondary education years. Proficiency in even the most widely studied languages, such as Spanish and French, is in Brecht's words, "trivial and quite irrelevant." Simply put, the United States needs more people speaking a broader spectrum of languages at higher levels of proficiency

The existing education system does not provide much opportunity to study non-Western European languages, with only occasional offerings of Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Russian. Most of the languages spoken by the countries at the center of the war on terrorism: Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Urdu, are barely studied, and some dialects essential to counter-terrorism efforts are simply not taught in the United States.

Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of the American education curricula. In many countries, language education is a fundamental school subject, viewed a necessary as math and science. In the United States, there is often little room in the schedule for languages. Brecht cites the lack of language-proficient teachers in elementary and secondary education and the dearth of non-Western language courses. 

Brecht offered some statistics for high school and college level language study: 98% of students are enrolled in 3 languages: Spanish, French and German. At all levels of education, Spanish comprises two-thirds of the enrollment. The remaining 2% study Russian, Mandarin Chinese and other, more esoteric languages such as Latin and ancient Greek. Non-Western language instruction in the United States has increased at the university level. Brecht noted a 25% increase in Arabic language instruction in recent years. However, the percentages are deceiving as the numbers denote an increase from only 3500 to 4200 students, nationwide. Much more is needed if the United States is to build a core group of skilled linguists ready to aid in the war on terrorism.

There have been other problems as well. The 9/11 attacks affected the higher-education system in this country in unforeseen ways. The United States has seen a sharp drop in foreign student enrollment and is experiencing a "brain-drain" of valuable foreign intellectual capital. The decrease stems from changes in State Department visa policies. Application for study in the U.S. has become so difficult and time consuming for Muslim and Middle Eastern students that many high-paying individuals are choosing to attend university in Europe and Australia.

One response to the challenge facing the U.S. government is the National Flagship Language Initiative - designed to give monetary incentives to universities that graduate people at government-approved levels of proficiency. He and many of his colleagues hope that the plan will help build a base of advanced foreign language experts and create programs in the educational system which foster language expertise.

Difficulties Confronting the Federal Government

The increased emphasis on homeland security and the Bush Administration's war on terror have created a demand for more people speaking multiple languages at higher proficiency levels than has been required in the past. Skilled speakers of Arabic, Pashto, Dari and other languages are desperately needed to translate and interpret reams of data that may help avert another terrorist attack. At the same time, the bar of language proficiency to meet these needs has been raised: The government classifies language expertise on a scale from 0-5, a "5" signifying an educated native speaker (a level Brecht feels is unattainable to anyone but a native speaker). During the Cold War, the government required a rating of "2" - minimal functional proficiency. However, General Michael Hayden, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) has recently announced that to be effective in the future, NSA employees will require a proficiency level of 3 or 4. The CIA and other organizations have made it clear that they need level 4 interpreters as well - people who understand the intricacies of vernacular speech: colloquialisms, slang, and multiple dialects.

Unfortunately, very few Americans posses level "4" skills. Therefore, the government must provide language education to bridge the gap, but training and cultivating skilled translators and interpreters requires a significant time investment. Brecht and his colleagues at the National Foreign Language Center have estimated 6000 hours of study are required to gain a high level of proficiency (3-4 on the government scale) in Arabic. If one considers that 40 hours of study per week for 50 weeks equals 2000 hours, then it becomes clear how difficult the task it is. Brecht described the situation:

We need people...who not only know modern standard Arabic who can read modern standard Arabic, we need people who can speak modern standard and we need people who can read classic Arabic so they can know the references from the Koran, we need people who can speak middle language, which is modern standard Arabic without the endings, so they can understand news broadcasts...and we need people who know the vernaculars or the dialects, whether it's Egyptian Arabic or Levantine Arabic or Moroccan Arabic and all the Arabic [dialects] that there are.

Increased reliance on computers and personnel downsizing in the 1990s has also exacerbated the language crisis in the US intelligence community. More raw intelligence is pouring in than ever before but there are fewer qualified individuals to sort through the information jumble to extract valuable data. For example, the NSA, the agency principally responsible for the collection and interpretation of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), has been acutely affected by the crisis. The dramatic increases in Internet and cellular communications in the past decade has caused an information glut at the NSA, yet analysts must sift through the chaos of information with limited background in the languages they encounter. For the NSA to be effective, more analysts must achieve a higher level of proficiency than has previously been the standard.

Ways to Improve the Situation

The federal government has taken on language training because the American education system cannot do the job, and it has made inroads into the problem by establishing language institutes for the intelligence community, Defense Department and the Foreign Service. However, to improve the linguistic skills of all Americans, a federal language policy is needed around which a strategy can be planned.  Brecht recommends a national language advisor akin to the national science advisor who will have an office and a budget - and most importantly, some influence on Capitol Hill.

Brecht also proposes the development of a National Federal Language Reserve, essentially a "selective service" database that keeps a record of all persons with high-level language proficiencies and security clearances. Much like the military reserves, language experts would be obligated to perform compensated service each year in order to keep their skills fresh and could be pressed into service in times of national emergency. Other proposals include the creation of several Congressional committees or sub-committees on language would help bring language issues to national attention. Brecht believes that pressure from legislators would compel educators to work to develop better language programs across the education system.

Dr Brecht also argues that the resources of the immigrant communities of the United States are underused. "We have almost 50 million residents and citizens in the United States who speak a language other than English in the home," he observes. Unfortunately, this untapped "natural resource" cannot be used in many cases due to security clearance and citizenship restrictions. He asserts that there should be some way to overcome some of the issues to capitalize on valuable resources right here in this country.

Meeting Report by Josh Kolchins

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