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Improving Our Most Powerful Weapon: 9/11, Terrorism and Foreign Languages

(A few weeks ago, I unfavorably compared the Bush administration's response to 9/11 with the Eisenhower Administration's response to launch of Sputnik. Eisenhower choose investments that aided America's long term growth; President Bush didn't. Today I recommend my post-9/11 investment.)

Recently, I heard a talk by a seasoned Human Intelligence professional--the type of guy who's been around the world a few times. He deftly described our intelligence system as designed "to find metal objects, be they missiles, tanks, or ships." What the US really needs, he went on to say that, is the ability to look inside someone's head.

Obvious, impossible, but true. And a fact that is routinely overlooked. Our intelligence community has improved its human intelligence since 9/11, but we have a long, long way to go. This isn't just an intelligence failure; this is a military, national security and cultural failure.

The main reason we can't collect human intelligence is that we don't speak the right languages. We don’t have enough agents, operatives, spies, and Human Intelligence collectors who speak Arabic, Persian, Pashtun, Urdu, Chinese, and countless other needed languages.

If right after 9/11, President Bush redirected the billions we spend on technology (or just a fraction of some of the billions) towards a massive foreign language training program, not only would America be safer, our economic future would be brighter. Funding engineering research helped America win the Cold War, but also launched a computer revolution; funding foreign language training will help America defeat Islamic radicalism, but will also launch America into the globalized business world.

As soon as he entered office, President Bush approved the “No Child Left Behind” Act. Demanding accountability through test scores, it increased federal education funding by 12 billion dollars from 2001 to 2007. Investing in education is investing in the future. After 9/11, though, the program wasn’t dramatically altered. The administration didn't see the connection between education, foreign languages and terrorism. President Eisenhower saw that an interstate highway would usher in an industrial boom; President Bush couldn't see that foreign language education will usher in a globalization boom.

Don't consider this a knock on Republicans, Democrats didn't see it either, and neither did the media. When discussing education reform, we talk about reading, writing and math; no one talks about foreign languages.

Fixing the Gap

Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?
A: American (H/T Foreign Policy Watch)

How many high schools offer Chinese classes? How many elementary schools offer Arabic? I grew up in California and we didn't even start Spanish until middle school. Our university system has plenty of grants and scholarships for scientists and engineers, but few for foreign languages.

We need to fix the gap. America should immediately double, then triple, the bonus given to our service members who speak critical languages (like Arabic, Chinese, Urdu or Persian). It should offer full scholarships for students studying foreign languages with only a two-year service requirement upon graduation--be it the military, CIA, FBI or other three letter agency. America shouldn't go in half-heartedly either, this effort should be in the billions of dollars range.

At the same time, Congress should offer grants to schools to radically overhaul their foreign language programs. To provide immediate language training, we should aim our sights at colleges. For our long-term future, elementary schools should institute foreign language training. High schools should then make four-year foreign language training mandatory.

As I see it, not only terrorism, but globalization--the same force that energizes international terrorism--necessitates culturally literate individuals who can speak multiple languages. Training a core of foreign language experts will initially benefit our national security, and will eventually benefit businesses and academics. As On The Media reported last week, America has trouble translating Chinese newspapers. If we can't even read Chinese newspapers, how can we conduct complex business relationships?

Fortunately, we aren't too late. Even now America could regain the foreign language edge throughout the world. We are a diverse melting pot of every culture in the world. If our government invested the resources--and I mean billions of dollars--we could capture a key edge for future global interaction.

four comments

Why we haven’t done any of this blows my mind. I guess I would add we need cultural training as well, but I imagine that would just come with it.


Also scary is the fact that some of the language departments are in danger due to California’s budget crisis. They’ve already withstood reductions, without funding to encourage students to enroll in the more obscure languages, the university might find it financially justifiable to eliminate them altogether.


“What the US really needs, he went on to say that, is the ability to look inside someone’s head.”

Like an MRI?

I.e., advances in cognitive science/neuroscience using instrumentation developed through phsyics and chemistry that enables detection of intent due to indicative blood flow patterns. There are problems in the CONOPS at the moment, such as requirements to lie still in between or adjacent to large magnetic fields.

While I heartily concur for the need to value cultural, language, and social science skills more within the USG, creating a ‘technology’ versus ‘everything else’ dichotomy seems problematic on multiple levels.

Primarily is the the recognition of multi-fold connections between US technological competiveness & foreign policy/national security policy. The former is a key component that empowers the US to implement and execute the latter.

The biggest challenges, imo, are reductionism and anti-intellectualism, whether it be resistance to learning other languages/about other cultures or anti-science/neo-ludditism.


Another challenge—State Department language teachers are hourly contractors. I was one (for French) but I know this is true for Arabic and Chinese as well. This means: no benefits, no time off, no sick leave, you’re only the hours you work. For me, that was fine because my husband’s work had health insurance and I could afford to take unpaid time off. That being said, it wasn’t sustainable. Another problem, real, qualified professionals aren’t going to accept working under these conditions and there’s no reason they should. That means you get people like me teaching languages: native speakers, usually with university degrees but with no teaching background or training. Not a great way to show your commitment to teaching languages.