Congress to consider "National Security Language Act"

Rush Holt, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey, and 34 others (mostly Democrats) have cosponsored a bill that would provide increased federal funding for languages considered to be critical to national security.

Al Qaeda operates in over 75 countries, where hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken. However, 99 percent of American high school, college and university programs concentrate on a dozen (mostly European) languages. In fact, more college students currently study Ancient Greek (20,858) than Arabic (10,596), Korean (5,211), Persian (1,117), and Pashto (14) put together. We need to do more to make sure that America has the language professionals necessary to defend our national security. This cannot be done overnight. We are already years overdue.

As reported by the 911 Joint Inquiry in July, our intelligence community is at 30 percent readiness in languages critical to national security. Despite this alarming statistic, we do not appear to be taking aggressive action to address this problem. When I asked a panel of intelligence experts at a recent Intelligence hearing what the federal government is doing to increase the pool of critical need
language professionals, they answered with silence. Two years after the events of September 11, we are still failing to address one the most fundamental security problems facing this nation.


This National Security Language Act would:

* Provide loan forgiveness of up to $10,000 for university students who major in a critical need foreign language and then take a job either in the federal workforce or as a language teacher. 

* Provide new grants to American universities to establish intensive in-country language study programs and to develop programs that encourage students to pursue advanced science and technology studies in a foreign language. 

* Establish grants for foreign language partnerships between local school districts and foreign language departments at institutions of higher education.

* Commission a national study to identify heritage communities here in the United States with native speakers of critical foreign languages and make them targets of a federal marketing campaign encouraging students to pursue degrees in those languages. 


Here are the languages covered in the text of the bill (pdf) as submitted to Congress:

The term less-commonly taught foreign languages includes the languages of Arabic, Korean, Chinese, Pashto, Persian-Farsi, Serbian-Croatian, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese, and any other language identified by the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Defense Language Institute, the Foreign Service Institute, and the National Security Education Program, as a foreign language critical to the national security of the United States.


This can only be a good thing. Since 9/11 intelligence officials and others have noted that there is a dearth of Arabic and other Middle Eastern language speakers in the intelligence community. The targeting of "heritage communities" is a particularly good thing, especially considering that these have often been historically under-represented compared to other groups in certain parts of the federal government for political reasons -- see for instance the State Dept. Near Eastern Affairs bureau, which for a good part of the 1990s was dominated by pro-Israeli appointees at the senior level.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.