Help Wanted: Pashto

by Dennis Baron

My family and I flew out of Logan Airport on American Airlines the morning of Tuesday, September 4. It was exactly one week before the terrorist attacks, and when my wife went through the security checkpoint she set off the alarm. But the bored security guards just waved her along, making no attempt to check jewelry or buckles or search for banned items in her purse, which she carried through the sensor, not even acknowledging the cell phone she tried to show them, in case that was the offending bit of metal.

The terrorist attacks on September 11 highlighted these lapses in airport security. But they have also foregrounded a lapse in our linguistic security which will be harder to address: we don’t understand the language of our attackers. Just a week after the attacks, the FBI was offering $38 per hour for translators of Arabic or Pashto. According to the CIA World Fact Book, Pashto is the language of about 35% of the people of Afghanistan, including the Taliban. The CIA also reports that bilingualism is widespread in Afghanistan.

But bilingualism is not widespread in the CIA. Admittedly, there are only 25 million speakers of Pashto around the world, and there may be few opportunities to learn Pashto in the U.S. But Arabic is the fifth most-widely-spoken language in the world. It is the official or second language of perhaps twenty nations. Nonetheless our government is so unprepared to deal with Arabic that it has to resort to help-wanted ads. This shortage of Arabic speakers working for the U.S. government is not a new one. The FBI acknowledges that before the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 it had warning signs--tapes, notebooks, and phone taps--which it could not decipher or act on because they were in Arabic.

There are perhaps a million people in this country of Arab descent. Some of them are Arabic speakers, though perhaps not that many, because bilingualism, considered normal not only in Afghanistan but in most parts of the world, is actively discouraged in the United States. But although many Arab speakers are answering the FBI's call for translators, those who have maintained their Arabic may not be hired for sensitive government jobs because the very linguistic resources we so desperately need also mark these speakers as potential security risks. The same suspicion fell on native speakers of German during World War I, and native speakers of Japanese during World War II.

Another source of Arabic translators is the schools. But foreign language instruction virtually evaporated when the U. S. entered World War I. In 1998, only 6% of college students took a foreign language. 656,590 students were taking Spanish, and another 199,000 French. But only 5,505 were enrolled in Arabic. After September 11, interest in Arabic classes rose dramatically: at Princeton the numbers went from 9 to 26 students in introductory Arabic. (Figures for Pashto study are not readily available.) Even if this trebling of students in Arabic occurs on a national scale, it may not ease the translation crunch at federal spy central. Studying a language in school is one thing; practicing it in its natural setting is something else again. This is particularly true of Arabic, where the language variety taught in the classroom differs significantly from the many varieties of colloquial Arabic, some of them mutually unintelligible, that are spoken around the world. Even many Arabic speakers actually have to learn modern standard Arabic in school as a second language.

The new American students of Arabic, if they manage to stick with the language, may graduate with the ability to read Al-Ahram or the Qur’an. They might be able to order chicken shawarma in a campus-town restaurant. But even if Americans do finally manage to break out of our monolingual mind set, government agents with Arabic 101 on their transcripts might not understand the terrorists they surveil unless they’re obliging enough to couch their secret deliberations in the standard Arabic of the textbooks. In a pinch those 26 Princetonians and all the other students flocking to Arabic classes may have to exchange their spy hats for their tourist hats after all, and ask the all-American question, “Excuse me, do you speak English?”

Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign