Bill Poser at Language Log has an excellent post on an important topic, the shortage of interpreters in all branches of the government. Knowledge of foreign languages has always been in short supply in America, but it used to be encouraged; as Bill says:

The military seems to have taken language skills much more seriously during the Second World War. My father went directly from being a buck private in basic training to Master Sergeant in an intelligence position because he could speak French, Flemish, and German. The Army recognized that the ability to speak these languages was useful for interviewing civilians and interrogating enemy soldiers.

Now… well, we all know the problems lack of knowledge of Arabic has been causing, and there doesn’t seem to be much official interest in remedying it. Strange.


  1. After reading this post, I got a funny image about an American soldier during WWII, speaking Dutch with such a heavy, obscure Western-Flemish accent that the inhabitants of Amsterdam cannot understand him in an interview and decide to switch to German instead. Further, Bill Poser makes a good point of course.

  2. I’ll have to ask him, but I think that my father was in France, Belgium and Germany – I don’t recall him mentioning spending time in the Netherlands during the war. But I know what you mean. I once stayed in Antwerp with a friend of my father’s. My Flemish is limited. I could understand most of what she said to the maid but understood not a word of what the maid said.
    Actually, I once had an experience like the one you joke about. When I was a teenager I met a Welsh girl in France. I had such difficulty understanding her English that we switched to French.

  3. Back then there was a draft, and now there isn’t.
    With the draft, there was a larger pool of people bright enough to learn “difficult” languages (there were roughly 16 million people in the military services at the end of the war), and desperate to avoid battle. In the 1940s, you had to be Phi Beta Kappa, have a very high score on the army aptitude tests, or have had previous language training. Of course, when you mix all these highly educated people in with all the people who served in World War II, the average intelligence attainments were low.
    Moving to the Vietnam experience, after the draft ended, 47-week language courses became 63-week language courses, and achievement targets were lowered. They even had to rewrite the English manuals so the lower grade of soldier could understand them.
    So the all-volunteer army may not be all it’s supposed to be (not that I mind, to be honest).

  4. This is a slightly different issue from “basic language training for soldiers on the ground”, but there was a recent discussion on a J/E translation list about how the US government (and presumably many others) evidences suspicion of citizens who choose to spend extended periods living overseas. This puts them in a bit of a bind when finding multilingual gov’t staff because those are also the people who are most likely to be fluent in a foreign language.
    Of course, the more vital to national security interests the work is, the more important it is that the position be filled by a really fluent speaker — which probably means more time overseas — and what’s more the languages that are most desperately needed are also generally the ones spoken in the countries viewed with the most suspicion…
    Or so I hear. I’m not a US citizen and have no first-hand experience of any of this.

  5. I don’t understand what you’re talking about here. Interpreters? What interpreters? Why would they need interpreters? English is the international language, and everyone already speaks it. Right? At least that’s what everyone keeps telling me…
    Please explain.

  6. No need for translaters, when needed, borrow them from Brussel’s, they have how many languages translated, for citizens of EUR.
    If all else fails, use spell check in all the languages required, just like the NYTIMES, they appear to be doing well without editors and checking copy.
    Nuances be annoying.

  7. I’m not sure it’s suspicion, necessarily (and, yes, the intelligence community does tend to block out segments of the population that might have the language skills they want and need). I was dinged by the CIA without an interview (and… oddly enough, I don’t remember applying. Kept the rejection letter, tho), but a friend of mine got a job offer. He turned it down in part because of the security checks–he would have had to list all the foreign nationals he knew. His circle was so broad that the task daunted him, and he went into business consulting instead. (Incidentally, he was bilingual Chinese and knew also one of the “dialects.”)
    Now that I’m teaching a little, though, it’s not that people don’t have the capacity to learn language–heck, we most of us manage somehow at least once–but huge vast mental blocks. That are, at least, the first great stumbling block. (So I’m not sure it’s the volunteer army issue.)

  8. Michael Farris says

    I will say in my experience that Americans in Poland do much better on the whole in learning the local language that do the French or Scandinavians (Germans are about tied with the Americans) The British IME are on the whole by far the worst at learning and using Polish.
    I think the American preference for wide (if shallow) personal networks plays a part in this.

  9. As I remember, the British Empire functioned without extensive study of any of the local languages, and depended on declasse local intermediaries and dragomans.
    There’s a lot of interesting scholarship, translations, and the like written by British colonial officers, but as I understand, most of them did it as a hobby, and hadn’t been required to learn Chinese or Persian or Hindi for their jobs. Furthermore, what I’ve seen has a distinct classicist bias, presumably derived from the Oxbridgian Latin-Greek bias. (Missionaries were quite a different story.)

  10. It’s no secret that many conservatives view anyone who speaks Arabic with suspicion. It is a widely held view in the US that Americans who devote too much time to learning about Arab culture are in danger of “going native” and becoming too sympathetic to the Arab point of view. Robert Kaplan wrote a book a while back called “Arabists : The Romance of an American Elite” which argued that the State Department was dominated from the 40s to the 90s by Americans who were in love with romance of exotic Arab cultures and who thus consistently pursued courses of action anthithetical to US and Israeli interests. This book has been extremely influential on the neocons in and around the Bush administration.

  11. I applied for a freelance translator’s position at the CIA. I found the oral and written exams enjoyable (I wish I could say more about them, but I don’t think I’m allowed to), but the security clearance was intimidating — I would even say frightening. I ended up failing the lie detector test, mostly because (I think) I was overparsing the questions. It made me wonder: how many qualified speakers of languages other than English are being barred from Federal employment because of these security tests? The recent articles mentioned in previous comments bear this out.

  12. Nowadays–at least when I was at DLI in 2000–being a native speaker of anything didn’t matter. If you wanted to be a linguist, the military would train you for another language of their choosing. In fact, being a native speaker could be a detriment, because that could mean that your family is still very connected to the country of origin, in which case it is more difficult to get a security clearance.

  13. Christopher Culver’s observation about DLI not assigning people to languages they already knew may not be due merely to suspicion of foreign connections. A guy who was a couple of years ahead of me in high school, family several generations in the US, got a B.A. in Russian and then did an Soviet Area Studies. He was interested in the foreign service, took the exam, and had some discussions with them. They told him that they were interested and that if he formally applied they would probably hire him but that he could be sure that he would NOT be assigned to the Soviet desk! Their policy apparently was that they didn’t want people whom they hadn’t trained, who might not follow the party line, so they would take his training as evidence of ability but would assign him to some other part of the world.
    The suspicion of any kind of foreign connection takes remarkable forms. Not long ago I was encouraged to apply for an intelligence-related position that requires a security clearance. When I looked into it, it turned out that I am ineligible for a security clearance because I am a dual US/Canadian citizen. I think it’s a bit weird that they don’t distinguish between citizenship in an allied country (well, except for that softwood lumber mess) and citizenship in a hostile country. The even weirder thing is that they said that I would become eligible if I renounced my Canadian citizenship, as if a real enemy agent would think twice about renouncing or concealing his foreign citizenship.

  14. “No need for translaters, when needed, borrow them from Brussel’s, they have how many languages translated, for citizens of EUR.”
    But they tend to concentrate their resources on all those little ethnic languages of theirs. Not much use for our purposes. And there is the issue of trustworthiness.
    DLI: The commnet about the lenthening of courses may be overlooking some things. In the case of Chinese, for instance, in the early 60’s it seems they didn’t bother to teach reading and writing! No need if you are just trianing intercept operators, after all. DLI’s problem all along has been a lack of consensus among endusers of the the linguists it produces as to what they want, and this translates into a lack of clear objectives for the training. Intercept operators don’t need the full range of skills and interrogator needs, and so on. The default has been to whatever the emigre instructors feel comfortable with, and often that doesn’t include military terminlogy.
    As for the reassignment off of a language someone comes into the sevice with, that happens if that particular language, like Russian, is no longer in demand. The thinking is that if someone has done well enough with Russian, there’s a good chance they will learn something currently in demand more easily than a complete newbie. They are also doing this with people already in the system, sending them to learn Korean or whatever.
    Bill’s comment about the hinkiness over citizenship is bang on, especially the obvious absurdity in suddenly trusting someone who renounces his previous citizenship. How does that square with not granting clearances to defectors, on the grounds that they have already betrayed one country?

  15. Following your logic, Vanya, wouldn’t it follow that allegedly in-love-with-Arabs-for-50 yrs State Department will experience no shortage of translators from Arabic?
    Or you’re saying something abruptly changed in the 90’s, like Administration of that decade(William J. Clinton, 1993-2001) listened to zionist neocons and relieved Arabic-speakers from their government duties?
    The urge of my compatriots to look for (and find!) political conspiracies everywhere is so tiring.

  16. Jim’s point that people may be reassigned to a different language because the demand for the one that they know is filled is a good one, but my understanding is that that was not what was going on when my friend was considering the foreign service. First, it was during the Cold War, and I’m skeptical as to whether the foreign service was overful of people with an extensive background in Russian plus the area studies. Second, the statement that the foreign service deliberately assigned people to areas in which they did not have prior expertise was not my inference, or my friends. He told me that he was explicitly told that this was State Department policy.

  17. Tatyana,
    It is not my “conspiracy theory”. It is Kaplan’s, and I don’t believe he is your compatriot. Calling it a “conspiracy” is overblown, he is not arguing (I think) that the State Department was completely controlled by Arabophiles, just that those in the State Department who had the greatest affection for, and greatest knowledge of, Arab culture were “blinded” (his words) by this love and consistently pushed for policies that were anti-Israeli. I think the current Administration believes that this element still plays a strong role at State, hence their paranoid distrust of the State Department.

  18. The battle between the neocons and the Arabists is a well-known fact admitted by both sides. There’s nothing especially sinister or secretive about it.

  19. When I got checked for the draft (after multiple delays, I finally didn’t have to go, thanks to President Chirac abrogation of it), the “orientor” officer didn’t even want to hear about my abilities in Greek (my native language), but was convinced instead that I would do a great translator/interpreter for Chinese (a learned foreign language for me).
    A few years (a couple of which spent in China) later, when I tried to check out my chances of getting an accreditation as a court translator, it was exactly the opposite: only my Greek was appealing to Justice.

  20. “(a learned foreign language for me)”
    I should probably have written “acquired”.
    (To think that I had planned to start my comment with a mention of the Greek-speaking British torturers in Cyprus or those Afrikaner agents who spoke “very good Xhosa”, according to the Mandela family member who answered the door when they came to arrest him.)

  21. Regarding this: “I think it’s a bit weird that they don’t distinguish between citizenship in an allied country (well, except for that softwood lumber mess) and citizenship in a hostile country. The even weirder thing is that they said that I would become eligible if I renounced my Canadian citizenship, as if a real enemy agent would think twice about renouncing or concealing his foreign citizenship.”
    I think that taken together, we have something understandable. They don’t want someone who has dual obligations (since being a Canadian citizen does give you certain obligations to Canada and its government), but they’re okay with someone who has renounced his Canadian citizenship. They’d probably be a bit more suspicious if you were Persian-American with dual citizenship, and suddenly gave up your Iranian citizenship to serve the U.S. in Iran (or one of its allies or enemies).

  22. I think the gov’t is taking the lack of Arabic speakers seriously–they’ve had news stories about it and let applicants know that they need people with those language skills.

  23. Bits of the government are, obviously. Other bits are firing them for being gay or ignoring people’s interest in learning Arabic (see Bill’s post).

  24. The Mongols had a solution to the problem of unreliable translators with mixed loyalties. Translations were done twice by two different teams not in communication with one another, and the results later compared. Decapitation was the consequence of gross error.

  25. You know, I read all these articles in mainstreams newspapers about how serious the need is for Arabic linguists… They talk about how huges sums have been allotted to fill those gaps, and how signing bonuses will be given, as well as how they’ll go to great lengths to train people in Arabic (and other strategic languages).
    Yet, here I sit with a degree in Linguistics, a history of proven aptitude with learning new languages (French, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Greek, Latin), within commuting distance of DLI, and my application for foreign service is ignored. It makes me wonder how serious they really are.
    Thanks for the interesting post and ensuing discussion.

  26. Michael Farris says

    “It makes me wonder how serious they really are”
    It is certainly possible to draw interesting conclusions from the facts as presented.

  27. Joseph Eros says

    The article mentions that the Arabic-speaking soldier “gets no special perks for his special skills.” It is possible for troops to receive extra pay for demonstrating language skills (seach for “Foreign Language Proficiency Pay”), but the exams can be very difficult to schedule and I doubt they’re given at all in Iraq.

  28. Hey Jimmy Ho: what “Greek-speaking British torturers in Cyprus”? Is this in connection with those Enosis bombers who were trying to terrorize the Turkish Cypriots out of their own country and bring Cyprus into the then military dictatorship of Greece?
    Is it still true that all “official” (whichever they are) languages in the European Parliament have still to be translated into every other language? I understand that that would have been feasible back in the 1960s when there were only six member nations, but now there are 25 member nations. How many combinations would that involve, and what are the likelihood of there being Portuguese-Estonian or Irish Gaelic-Finnish interpreters to translate as the politicians make speeches to each other?
    Seriously, how do they manage nowadays?

  29. Re the Arabists at State thread:
    When I was in the Middle East in the 1970s, US Embassy people were continually telling me how few Arabists there were at State, a tiny minority of the staff, and they were suffering on the promotion ladder. I wonder where Kaplan got his ideas ?

  30. Paul, I guess in the same place where Vanya found his idea about “widely held view in the US that Americans who devote too much time to learning about Arab culture are in danger of “going native” …becoming too sympathetic to the Arab point of view”.[like Bernard Lewis, for example]
    Dark and smelly place.

  31. Michael, foreign service officers don’t attend DLI, so I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting to study there. It’s strictly military. There is a “DLI East” in Washington that is, the rumour goes, geared towards members of other federal agencies. Mind you, it’s been almost five years since I left DLI, but I don’t think I ever saw a civilian studying there and heard only rumours that once some FBI was here or there.
    Also, the languages you speak don’t say much about your ability to learn Arabic. The Romance languages are in the first tier of DLI’s measure of difficult, German in the second, and Hebrew in (I believe) the 3rd or 4th. Arabic is in the fifth and highest level, so in order to be accepted for study of Arabic, you would have to acheive a score on the DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery) that would indicate you are qualified for such a difficult language, previous experience couldn’t be trusted.

  32. Was reading my regular dose of Michael Yon excellent reporting from Iraq (factually if not stylistically), and came across this bit on interpreters that might shed some light on the scope of the problem:
    “The enemy also knows that interpreters occupy one of our critical information nodes. At first the enemy tried to kill off the interpreters, but then switched to a new plan—recruiting interpreters as spies(…)Colonel Noradeen did not trust the American interpreters, and I remember one occasion when he sent an American interpreter out of the room. The battle for Mosul had largely come down to information, and Colonels Noradeen and Eid both placed great value in developing networks. From the American side, LTC Kurilla had built his own intelligence team into more than three times the normal size, from seven to twenty-four personnel, all of whom were focused on breaking the terrorist networks and generating actionable intelligence. By mid-2005, the terrorists’ networks in Mosul were increasingly infiltrated and weakened. Iraqi authorities and Americans had killed or captured their top leadership.”

  33. Bill Poser,
    I see what you are saying. state works a little differnetly for Defense, I guess. Samll surprise. Worst of all is the FBI. After 9-11 loads of Arabic-capable academics tried to sign on, supposedly the purpose of federal funding for all those Mideast Studies departments. They got nothing but don’t call us, we’ll call you. Typical FBI; you are either in the family or you are not. Ask any local police department what it is like to have to work with them, even despite their recent atempts at a cultural revolution.

  34. “Hey” Glyn: your paragraph shows how little you know about neither Greece nor Cyprus. I am not going to discuss this history with you.

  35. That should be “about both Greece and Cyprus”, I guess.
    Now: I talked to someone who knows the issue firsthand a while ago, and I have to correct a part of what I said: apparently, British representants usually were not able to speak Greek (but expected Cypriots to understand English) and used “interfaces” (Greek or Turkish “collaborators”) to communicate with those prisoners whose English was unsufficient.
    That parenthical merely sarcastic, but I don’t want to lose an opportunity to aknowledge a mistake.
    None the less, I maintain what I said about Glyn’s response (apparent confusion between Enosis and the EOKA, chronological uncertainty about the Junta, etc.) and I still refuse to discuss it any further. I’d like to add that this is in no way a judgment about Glyn’s comments in general: I have enjoyed them (and occasionally found myself in agreement with them) in the past, about other issues.
    I was the one to bring this up. Sorry about that.

  36. Rats: “That parenthical remark was merely sarcastic”.

  37. The deceased Illinois Senator Paul Simon wrote an excellent book on this topic 20(?) years ago, The Tongue-Tied American. I’d love to see an update of it.

  38. It’s always a difficult issue. Too little linguistic talent in the government and you can’t communicate with your enemies, nor spy on them, nor accept their surrender. Too much, and you are in danger of finding out that, in fact, they aren’t doing any of the things that you’ve accused them of in order to justify invading their country.

  39. I bet Mr.Fnord thinks he said something

  40. It’s critical that the military find some way to encourage more straight people to learn Arabic!

  41. Glyn, the European Union was seriously in need of translators after the last extension. As far as I know, at the moment they don’t translate documents from the European Court of Justice into Maltese, because of a lack of interpreters. Irish will only be an official EU language from 2007.

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