Foreign language education and national security

America was caught flatfooted by the attacks of Sept 11, 2001 in many ways, but one of the most subtle was linguistic. American people have almost no understanding of Muslim culture, and this is due in large part to our even greater lack of comprehension of the languages spoken in most Muslim countries. This has been seen directly by US armed forces in Iraq (Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Aramaic) and Afghanistan (Farsi, Hazaragi, Pashto, Pashayi, Turkmen, Uzbek, Aimaq, Balochi, Brahui). Our soldiers have been in increased danger, and our foreign policy has been a disaster, in part due to the language gap.

There have been several programs set up by the US military to increase knowledge of key languages, including special high-paying positions for translators, and educational programs for members of the military. However, progress has been slow.

On the seemingly unrelated front of the presidential elections, both candidates have at least mentioned foreign language education. Senator McCain has included some support for online foreign language training in his plan, and while Senator Obama has not stated anything specific regarding foreign language education in his plan, he has made several statements indicating that he understands its importance.

The position of Senator Obama deserves some further comment. First, he stresses the importance of foreign language training solely in the context of business, which I feel is a mistake. The principle advantage of foreign language training has to do with the ability to make all kinds of connections (yes, including business connections) to members of another language culture. This includes social relationships, but it also includes the ability to read a newspaper or a novel written in and for a different cultural milieu. Foreign language is really more like a doorway than it is a cash register.

The other aspect of Senator Obama's position that is noteworthy is the response to it by his opponents. Senator Obama emphasized the end product of a good foreign language program by mentioning that it would be very desirable if all Americans were bilingual or even trilingual. This position was criticized as an attack on America, in that (if I understand this criticism at all), it would somehow dilute the role of English. This criticism has actually received considerable support during the electoral campaign. I see this as a manifestation of the strong distaste of Americans for things foreign, a kind of fear, in fact. I admit that I don't understand this objection, so perhaps I've misinterpreted it. However, perhaps as a result of the criticism, Senator Obama's education plan does not emphasize foreign language education, in spite of his strong support for it.

It is very interesting that neither Senator Obama or McCain, or the American military, has seemed to notice the connection between the abysmal status of foreign language education in America and the flat-footedness with which we were caught on Sept 11. The connection seems obvious to me: if substantial numbers of Americans were conversant in languages spoken in Muslim communities around the world, there would have been a shared knowledge base available to us to help guide our foreign policies. Instead of relying on summaries from the government and the media (which may or may not be complete, correct, or objective), we would be able to talk to the guy down the street who took Farsi in school and reads a Kabul newspaper online every day.

Obviously, we would also be able to find soldiers who spoke the language in any area of the world where we might need to become engaged, and not only soldiers: there is a need for all kinds of American expertise and support in many places around the world, and having a strong linguistic connection with them would help our country in countless ways.

The point I am working towards here is that foreign language expertise is a national security issue. American schools must begin to teach many more world languages, not just Spanish, French, and German. This must be supported federally from the Homeland Security budget in the form of an educational grant program aimed at second language diversity all over America.

There are many details that would have to be worked out, but here are some basic ideas:
  • Learning a second language, or at least trying hard to do so, should be a requirement at the elementary school level and beyond. This is because pre-pubescent children, whose brains have not yet fully lateralized, learn a second language more like a native.
  • Different schools or school districts should be targeted to learn the same languages, so that a kind of ad-hoc community allowing interaction in the languages can exist. The corollary of this is that the adoption of a certain set of languages in a school district should be a long-term commitment, to increase the depth of understanding of the language.
  • The "classic" foreign languages, that is, the large languages, should still be taught orthogonally to the targeted world languages. That is, French, Latin, and Spanish should still be taught just as they are now. The federally-funded program to teach world languages should be separate.
  • The choice of which languages to teach should reflect the number of people who speak that language in the world. There are as many as 15,000 US school districts, which means that there could be a fairly accurate reflection of world languages and dialects in US schools.
  • There will be a problem of finding teachers. I believe that an informant-based approach could be used in the beginning, whereby an individual trained in language teaching and in the basics of the target language could work with a native speaker informant in the classroom to teach the language. The "teacher" would be a trained teacher with knowledge of English or foreign language instruction who has passed a course in informant-based methods; the "informant" would be a native speaker of the target language and dialect, possibly brought into the country with government support for the purpose. Later, a combination of informant-based and conventional instruction could be used.
I think that a program like this should be emphasized even in the electoral campaign and certainly afterwards. This would enrich America both economically and culturally, and it would also make us more secure in an increasingly globalized world.


Human beings, oaks, seeing forests and trees

A recent article in Science Now describes a very interesting situation regarding oak trees in North America. Based on a recent survey of plant life in several forests that were surveyed in detail in 1950, researchers concluded that (1) oak trees are in decline; (2) smaller plant species that depend on the oak forest environment are fading out in favor of intrusive species; (3) human activity is the primary cause of this change. There really shouldn't be anything all that surprising about that, it sounds like just another human-caused environmental tragedy in the offing, where human beings upset the natural order.

However, the concept of "natural order" is something that pulls random philosophizers' chains. What the heck is "natural order" if it doesn't include human activity? Aren't humans "natural"?

Well, the story of the oaks is a pretty interesting example of why the idea of natural order is overly simplistic.

It turns out that one of the major mechanisms whereby human activity is killing off the oak forests is the control of forest fires. Oaks, it seems, need fire to succeed. They are capable of surviving most forest fires, and after a fire, less fire-resistant vegetation, including maple trees, their primary competitor for lifegiving solar radiation, is thinned out, allowing the hardier oaks to thrive. This is also a reasonably familiar theme--we have heard, for example, that fire control in the West causes the buildup of thick forests filled with flammable underbrush, so that when a fire does come, it is much more difficult to control. Once again, human beings, messing with the natural order.

But here is where the article spins into random philosophizing territory: it turns out that Indians, over hundreds of years, had depended on the oaks for acorns, one of their primary food sources. No dummies, they figured out about oaks and fires, so for hundreds of years, they had been deliberately setting fires in North American forests to bolster the oaks, thereby increasing their own food supply.

Therefore, the preponderance of oaks in North American forests is the product of human intervention in the first place!

So where is that natural order argument now? The fact is, when it comes to oaks versus maples in North America, we can't see the forest for the trees. Who knows which species would naturally be dominant (i.e., without humans)? Probably, it would vary over the centuries, perhaps with variations in rainfall and fires. Probably, oaks would be far more limited, on average, than they were when Europeans arrived.

It seems to me that it does no good to talk about abstractions like "natural order". It's just a little too close to "divinely ordained" for my taste. I think that humans should do things to benefit humanity, and fuck natural order arguments. The truth is, humans can not survive as a species in an unfriendly environment, and so doing things that would make big changes should be done only after careful scrutiny and with great care.

That is, if we want more oaks, and after adequate study we conclude that no great harm would be caused by selective burns in oak forests, then why not do it? On the other hand, maybe maples are pretty cool trees too, and so maybe burning wouldn't be such a great idea. Either way, let's make the decision after figuring out what we want as human beings, and what effects a certain endeavor will have on us as a species, without worrying about the abstract "natural order".

Greg Shenaut