By Jim Garamone
College Park, Md. The United States is engaged in a global war on terror, and knowledge of the enemies’ language and customs may be key to success. How terrorists think and act may be more important than what weapons they have.
Defense officials attending the National Language Conference that began here today (June 22) are looking at ways to improve the U.S. ability to protect its interests. The two-day conference is sponsored by the Defense Department and the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland.
“This conference is a ‘call to action’ to create a more language-competent society for the United States,” said David S.C. Chu, defense under-secretary for personnel and readiness. In his address to the conference, Chu said more Americans must be able to speak foreign languages.
The challenge, Chu said, is “How do we make being competent in a second language cool? How does the country get people to want to study foreign languages?”
The conference will produce a White Paper detailing long-range plans for increasing the number of Americans who speak foreign languages.
The conference is not limited to government officials. In an era of globalization, Chu said, it is equally important for private industry to embrace this effort.
“We are a nation that has brought all peoples, languages and cultures into the great melting pot for the purpose of creating a single unified nation,” he said. “In that national experience, English has been a unifying element, and the standard of a single language for the country has been one of the ways that we have brought cohesion out of the rich diversities of cultures that make up America.”
In the past, new immigrants insisted their children learn only English to survive in the United States and adapt to the new culture. Chu said he believes that cultural need is a thing of the past, and that Americans should embrace other languages.
“As the country has grown more educated, we can move beyond just getting English right to also nurturing interest in other languages,” he said.
The need for language skills and cultural knowledge is not new. Chu said that as far back as the 1960s, experts complained about the lack of language training in the United States. But with the war on terrorism, it is now a prime national security concern.
How a country and people reacts to the United States is important, Chu said. How the United States treats it allies and friends is important. Doing so with a firm knowledge of the culture and language is part of that, he said.
“Since Sept. 11, 2001, our national security concerns have taken us from the streets of Manhattan to the mountains of Afghanistan to the resort city of Bali,” Chu said. The country and specifically the military needs people who can relate to all those areas and more, he added.
Chu noted that during the Cold War the military was concerned about order-of-battle issues the number of tanks, aircraft and men. Now the U.S. military has to deal with nuance, illusions and culturally coded speech. The languages used in Iraq alone range from English to Mongolian.
The United States cannot delay taking action, Chu said. The conference must look at how to create a demand for linguists. The conferees must consider the supply of qualified people and should examine where, how and when the instruction should take place, he said.