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Time to Take a Hard Look at U.S. Linguistic Preparedness

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Last Friday, President Obama announced that Gen. Jim Jones is stepping down as White House national security adviser, to be replaced by Tom Donilon. Changes in staff often serve as opportunities to take a fresh look at longstanding issues. Where should he begin? Language.

Consider the following series of events:

2001 - On September 10th, the National Security Agency intercepted Arabic-language messages that said, "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour." Unfortunately, these messages were not translated in time to prevent the attacks.

2002 - The 9/11 Commission Report found that the nation's supply of skilled linguists was being quickly depleted. The same year, a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) highlighted the significant shortfalls in language-proficient workers.

2003 - The 108th Congress tried to enact the National Security Language Act (HR3676), which would have allocated funds to foreign language education programs at colleges and universities. It was unsuccessful.

2004 - A report from the Department of Justice revealed that severe shortages of linguists resulted in "the accumulation of thousands of hours of audio and videotapes and thousands of pages of text going unreviewed or untranslated."

2005 - The 109th Congress tried again to pass the National Security Language Act, re-introduced as HR115. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education Reform. Again, the effort failed. The same year, a report from the GAO revealed that 322 individuals dismissed from the military for being gay were trained in "an important foreign language." That group included 54 individuals who were skilled in Arabic.

2006 - The Federal Bureau of Investigation released statistics acknowledging that only 33 of its agents had proficiency in Arabic. The government began providing handheld automatic speech translation devices to military personnel, but quickly learned that the product could not serve as a viable replacement for human interpreters.

2007 - In spite of the chronic shortages and the risk to national security, the military kicked out more Arabic linguists because they were gay, prompting The House Armed Services Committee to request a hearing on the matter.

2008 - The Government Accountability Office released a report that showed that 31% of foreign service officers in language-designated positions did not meet the foreign language requirements for their positions.

2009 - The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence decried the "abysmal state of the Intelligence Community's foreign language programs," adding that U.S. intelligence personnel who could speak important languages of Afghanistan such as Dari, Pashto, and Urdu were "essentially nonexistent." An audit from the Department of Justice found that the FBI continued to have "significant amounts of unreviewed foreign language materials in counterterrorism and counterintelligence matters."

2010 - A whistleblower reported that many interpreters in Afghanistan did not actually speak the languages for which they were hired.

More than nine years have passed since the attacks of September 11th. Thousands of hours and pages of terrorism-related information remain untranslated. Yet, a soldier's ability to communicate on the ground is as vital to her or his safety as a bulletproof vest. National security is at risk due to the country's lack of linguistic preparedness. So why isn't the U.S. government minding its language?

In spite of the dismal chain of events and a nearly decade-long language crisis, there's hope. According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one in every five people living in the United States speaks a language other than English at home. With 311 languages spoken within the country's borders, the United States is one of the most linguistically blessed countries in the world.

Granted, the majority of these individuals speak Spanish, Tagalog, or Chinese. But the United States is also home to 786,210 individuals who speak Arabic around the dinner table, and another 352,617 who speak Urdu at home. So, the problem isn't the lack of people who speak other languages. The problem is that far too many resources have been spent trying to apply long-term strategies to a critical and time-sensitive need.

Training a monolingual American adult to speak another language fluently - especially one as linguistically different from English as Pashto - is a process that can take many years, sometimes decades. While funding foreign language programs could pay dividends in the long term, training individuals who are already fluent in two or more languages in the skills of translation or interpreting would yield a nearer-term gain.

Technology does not offer any simple answers to the problem either. In spite of promising advances in speech recognition and automated translation technologies, machines still can't hold a candle to humans in many domains - spoken language interpreting being principal among them. While technology is important, it should be part of a longer term national linguistic strategy.

In spite of its ample language resources, the United States fails to deliver the necessary end product. It isn't too late to address the shortfalls in linguists, but it will require overhauling the country's translation and interpreting production line. Revisiting America's linguistic preparedness is a matter of national security, and one can only hope, a top priority on Mr. Donilon's list of items to discuss with President Obama.