Monday, April 18, 2005

Teach Our Kids Arabic

Back when I was much younger, my older sister was taking Russian in high school. She started in 1991 which happened to be around the final collapse of the Soviet Union. As her high school years went by, my sister was in the unfortunate position of trying to eke out proficiency in French her senior year because Russian was no longer being offered at school. Why was this the case? The Cold War had ended and people felt that having our future leaders learning Russian was no longer a priority. It was unfortunate that my sister was left in this predicament, but the initial idea was a great one: know your enemy. Our enemies in the Soviet Union spoke Russian and in order to have an effective intelligence apparatus, we needed to know their language.

This all seems clear, right? So then why then, with our intelligence in the Middle East obviously lacking, are we not attempting to have today’s youth learn Arabic? Certainly it is a difficult language with a complicated alphabet, but Russian does not use our alphabet and people have learned that. Besides, if we focused on teaching children at a younger age, they would have an easier time mastering this starkly different language. Obviously this is a plan that cannot pay dividends until the next ten years or so, but how certain are we that we can somehow defeat terrorism within the next few years? I would love for that to happen, but I have my doubts. It would be better for us to hedge our bets and have an army of young people ready to better handle this war in the future. Also, if terrorism has been reduced to a more minor problem by then, there should be revitalization and a growing economy in the Middle East. Knowing Arabic will still have its advantage if this happens.

Americans are less likely to know other languages mainly because English is now so ubiquitous due to our economic, cultural and military might. So we are in the unfortunate habit of only half-heartedly learning languages late in our adolescence when it is increasingly difficult to learn new languages. This must change in general, but it especially must change in regards to Arabic if we want to have the best chance to address the problem of terrorism.

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