THE BLOG

Ten Years After 9/11, America Still Has a Language Problem

09/12/2011 02:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

"Tomorrow is zero hour." These are the words of warning that were issued in a communication from al-Qaeda operatives on September 10, 2001. The message, written in Arabic, was intercepted successfully by U.S. intelligence on the same day. U.S. intelligence did not translate the message until September 12, the day after the terrorist attacks.

America has a language problem, one that has not been solved in the decade since 9/11 took place. In the past 10 years, multi-billion-dollar contracts have been issued to defense contractors in order to provide interpreters and translators in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of millions of dollars more were spent on interpreters for Guantanamo. Major sums have also been spent on contracts for purposes of intelligence gathering in other languages. Yet, in spite of attempts to douse these linguistic fires with a financial fire hose, the flames keep burning.

Who's going to put out the blaze? Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta intends to try. Panetta is originally from Monterey, Calif., home to the prestigious Monterey Institute of International Studies, a veritable hub for linguistic talent. Its alumni go on to interpret and translate for high-ranking officials at organizations like the Department of State and the United Nations.

Monterey is also home to the Defense Language Institute, which trains military personnel in foreign languages. In fact, it was here that Panetta spoke just two weeks ago, addressing 3,500 students and faculty members. He emphasized that language skills are crucial to national security. Panetta has been an advocate for foreign-language training throughout his career, dating back to when he served on a commission as a congressman under the Carter administration.

Panetta's support for language training is commendable, but language training alone is not a viable solution to such an urgent problem. It takes many years to become fully fluent in a foreign language. Helping more students become fluent in languages like Arabic is important, but it does not help the government address immediate backlogs of in-language documents that await translation. For example, from 2006 to 2008, the CIA collected 46 million files but left one-third of these untouched, due in great part to the lack of translation resources. Since then, no major accomplishments have been reached that would dramatically improve the recruitment of linguistic talent for intelligence agencies.

Yet, the United States is rich in natural language resources. According to Census data, nearly one in five people speaks a language other than English at home. More than half a million people living in the United States already count Arabic as their mother tongue. Rather than waiting another 10 years to train a generation of students in other languages, why not tap into the vast populations of people who already speak these languages? Teaching Anglos to learn foreign languages is never a bad idea. However, let's also keep Americans from forgetting the languages they already know.

A telling example of our society's views toward language was seen recently when Mayor Bloomberg spoke Spanish to residents of New York City in advance of Hurricane Irene. He quickly became the subject of ridicule, as people mocked his pronunciation instead of appreciating the fact that his message went out in a language that is spoken by millions of people likely to be affected by the storm.

The government needs to do a better job of ensuring linguistic preparedness. However, as a society in general, America needs to overhaul its attitude toward language. And that starts with the people.