Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Why We Lost This War

After the fall out from the September 11th attacks settled, I did the sensible thing for anyone underemployed and overeducated, I took some classes. Studied Arabic culture and, especially, the language. It seemed like a good thing to do since that always important corner of the world had just been thrust into the spotlight and there'd be a pressing need for translators and workers who could at least understand the mindset. As I've said before “money spent on education is never wasted” and I think those classes I took were extremely valuable even though I can't exactly carry on a conversation in Arabic. It's a hard language. At least as hard to learn for a non-native as English or Japanese are. And there are some 26 dialects spoken throughout the Arabic world (Including several in just Iraq alone.) because it's highly diglossic. The alphabet is pretty mutable, too, depending on positioning and, again, about fifteen dozen ways of doing it. It's just not an easy thing to get your head around.

But it's, if anything, even more important now than when I studied it. Although I wasn't able to master it you'd hope the government has been steadily encouraging and stockpiling folks who can actually speak the language. It's just common sense. Even with the best translators there are nuances, idioms, phrasings, and more you can miss if you're not familiar with the source. But, then again, this is the Bush administration where knowledge is dangerous.

So, yeah, how many people do we have in Baghdad who are fluent in Arabic? Ten? Well, that's okay, it's probably a small staff and...oh, that's only 1% of the 1000 Americans who work there?

And people wonder why the general public is so irate over this whole fiasco.

Oh, and in case you're wondering – took me a few minutes to remember it myself - the 3/3 proficiency spoken of in the above article is a measure of the level of competency in Arabic (Other languages have similar gradings but, often, different plateaus depending on any number of factors.) on the IRL scale (There are lots of language proficiency scales, here's another, but that would be the one used by the US government for foreign service.). There are five levels starting with the most basic understanding of the language at 1 to full fluency at 5. The 3rd is "professional" fluency or what you'd need to handle almost any conversation you're likely to have. There are two numbers because the first represents deftness with the spoken language. The second is for if you know how to read and write with that language.

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