How long does it take to grow a linguist?

Maybe enough fertilizer can speed up the process.

Item 1

National Security Language Initiative

Briefing by Dina Powell, Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Cultural Affairs and Barry Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

President Bush today [January 5, 2006] launched the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI), a plan to further strengthen national security and prosperity in the 21st century through education, especially in developing foreign language skills. The NSLI will dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need foreign languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi, and others through new and expanded programs from kindergarten through university and into the workforce. The President will request $114 million in FY07 to fund this effort.

Item 2:

In late 2004, the number of people studying Arabic in college had zoomed to more than 10,000. In his 2005 book Al-Jazeera: the inside story of the Arab news channel that is challenging the West, journalist Hugh Miles says, ‘Despite a billion dollars spent on public relations, long-term investment in learning Russian during the Cold War means today there is a serious lack of Arabic speakers in the American administration. Incredibly, America has fewer than five spokesmen capable of advocating American policy in Arabic in a televised debate on Al-Jazeera.”

Item 3: From exactly one year ago

Spies are us: interest in Arabic soars

Primary motivation for American students of the language is to land a job with a government security agency

By Benjamin Sutherland

Special to The Daily Star JANUARY 19, 2005

“. . . Witness Titan Corp, a San Diego-based contractor that provides Arabic interpreters to militaries. Salaries hover around $100,000 a year, but the firm still can’t meet the demand for qualified Arabists: coalition soldiers have criticized Titan for sending them unprepared immigrant cabbies and shopkeepers. CACI, a U.S. company that hires interrogators fluent in Arabic, recently reduced requirements from seven years of interrogation experience, to five years, then to two.”

And in counterpoint, Item 4:


President wages war on foreign languages, then orders ministers to speak fluent English in matter of months.

By IWPR staff in London

President Saparmurat Niazov’s obsession with himself and all things Turkmen appears to have caused him some embarrassment.

Apparently shamed by his ministers’ poor linguistic skills at a recent trade meeting in China, Niazov ordered them to learn fluent English in under six months – a near impossible task, especially since there’s hardly anyone left in the country to teach foreign languages.

Over the last ten years, Niazov — better known as Turkmenbashi — has systematically destroyed foreign-language teaching, as part of his attempt to hermetically seal the country from outside influences and promote Turkmen language and customs together with his own personality cult.

Niazov’s latest quixotic edict followed the visit of a Turkmen trade delegation to China in December, where negotiations on a range of deals — including gas deliveries, the construction of the silk mills and financial loans – were held.

Members of the delegation — which comprised top officials from a number of important ministries, such as food, textiles and oil and gas — were reliant on an interpreter while their Chinese counterparts spoke in English.

Apart from being evidently embarrassed by his subordinates’ poor grasp of the language, Turkmenbashi was also seemingly concerned that their linguistic shortcomings could undermine the Turkmen negotiating position in economic talks with China and other states.

“We have every possibility for joint, mutually beneficial work with foreign countries. Gain experience and learn languages,” he urged members of his government at a recent cabinet meeting. “Even the Chinese speak in English, but my officials don’t understand a word. I give you six months to speak English as if it were your native language.”

The problem is that Niazov has over the years closed almost all the specialist foreign-language centres and reduced the teaching of Russian and English in secondary schools and universities to a minimum.


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