By Reporter
NBC News
updated 10/19/2004 11:20:28 AM ET 2004-10-19T15:20:28

Ominous Al-Qaida messages like "Tomorrow is zero hour" and "The match is about to begin," were intercepted by the National Security Agency the day before Sept. 11, 2001. According to a recent Justice Department investigation, it wasn't until a few days later that they were actually translated.

That lapse underscored a major problem facing the U.S. intelligence community: a lack of translators specializing in one of the most important languages pertinent to counterterrorism, Arabic.

"Huge," is how Gerald Lampe, a senior associate at the National Foreign Language Center in Maryland, described the scope of the Arabic language problem in the United States, and it's not likely to go away anytime soon.

In late September, a U.S. Justice Department audit revealed that the FBI has a backlog of hundreds of thousands of untranslated audio recordings from terror and espionage investigations. The backlog existed even though money for the FBI's language services had increased from $21.5 million in fiscal year 2001 to about $70 million in 2004. The number of linguists had risen from 883 to 1,214 over that period, Glenn Fine, the agency's inspector general said.

"The Justice Department's translation mess has become a chronic problem that has obvious implications for our national security," Sen. Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said.

In February 2004, the General Accounting Office (now known as the Government Accountability Office) reported that insufficient foreign language skills also posed a problem for the State Department's diplomacy in the Muslim world. As of Dec. 31, 2002, 30 percent of diplomatic officials in the Near East region did not meet the requirements, the GAO reported. The languages in question were Arabic and Urdu, it said.

U.S. chronically behind the curve on languages
The United States is in this mess partly because "we think about languages only after there is some national security reason or economic reason to do so," said Michael Katz, dean of language schools and schools abroad at Middlebury College in Vermont. 

Katz pointed to Middlebury's own history — usually at the forefront of U.S. language trends — to demonstrate the pattern: Middlebury started its first German language school in 1915, a year after the start of World War I.  Then in 1945, when America's Soviet ally became its Cold War adversary, the school first taught Russian. Japanese was offered in 1972, just when Tokyo emerged as a ruling economic power in Asia. And it was not until 1980, after the United States grew concerned over oil embargoes, that Middlebury started its Arabic program.

From that point on, "Arabic was moving along at a low level of interest," Katz explained.  Sept. 11 was the catalyst to change all that.

According to "Foreign Language Enrollments in United States Institutions of Higher Education," a report compiled by the Modern Language Association, there were 5,500 people studying Arabic at the university level in 1998.  By 2002, the number had almost doubled to 10,584.

Yet even with this sharp increase, Arabic still makes up less than 1 percent of the total language enrollment in the United States. Ten times more people, for example, study American Sign Language.

Difficulty of learning Arabic
Part of the problem lies in the fact that learning Arabic is such a daunting task for an English speaker. 

The Foreign Service Institute estimates that it would take about 2,200 hours of study to attain proficiency in Arabic. That’s double the amount of time necessary for languages like Hebrew and Turkish, and four times the estimate for proficiency in French and Spanish.   

Arabic is a Semitic language, and everything from the word order to the grammar, the vocal sounds to the writing system, are entirely different from English vernacular.   

Furthermore, Arabic is multi-lingual: The language takes on various shapes and sizes depending on the occasion and speaker. 

There is Modern Standard Arabic, used by journalists in news reports and by political leaders when addressing the public. There is classical Arabic, the language of the Quran, studied by Muslims around the globe regardless of whether Arabic is their native tongue.  And then there is colloquial Arabic, with each of the 22 Arabic-speaking countries home to their own unique style. 

According to Jacob Keryakes, an Arabic translator for MSNBC, some local dialects actually bear little resemblance to others — and communication between less educated people throughout the Arab world can be difficult.  

The Egyptian Arabic dialect, according to Keryakes, is the most commonly understood.  Not only is the country home to some 72 million people, but, "Cairo is the Hollywood of the Middle East," and most Egyptian movies and television shows are pumped throughout the region.

"Algerian," however, "is a mix of French, tribal languages and Arabic. Most native Arabic speakers would only understand a small percent of it,” explained Keryakes.

The cultural divide
Like the different dialects, many words in Arabic have multiple meanings depending on the region and use.

For example, in Upper Egypt the word “gamoos” means dictionary. To say someone’s a “gamoos” is to call them smart.  In Lower Egypt the same word means buffalo, so to call someone a “gamoos” is to say they are stupid. 

But while mistaking one meaning of a word for another may lead to minor misunderstandings or awkward situations, it could also have profound and paralyzing effects when it involves translating documents, e-mails and phone conversations that are vital to the defense of America. 

Many words are loaded with meaning. Many expressions don’t add up without understanding the religion and culture of a people. Keryakes explained that as a translator, “You don’t just interpret the words, you must interpret the culture itself.” 

For example, on Oct. 31, 1999, Egypt Air Flight 990 took off from JFK Airport and mysteriously plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean en route to Cairo. 

Upon the aircraft's descent, the relief pilot, Gameel el Batouty, was heard on the cockpit voice recorder reciting a Muslim prayer, “Tawkelt ala Allah” or "I depend on God."

According to Lampe of the National Foreign Language Center, many in the intelligence community heard this prayer and figured that Batouty was on a suicide mission, intentionally crashing the plane.

"But if you know Muslim culture, you know that Egyptians say this [prayer] even on the happiest of occasions," Lampe said, "so it doesn't mean that they are going to do an evil deed.”

“That’s why,” explained Lampe, “just understanding the culture on a minor scale can be crucial in terms of understanding who did what.”

Changing teaching tactics
Change is coming slowly. “With a big push from the government, people are finally beginning to rethink the way Arabic is taught,” said John Eisele, the executive director of the American Arabic Teachers Association.

The main goal is for schools to offer Arabic before the university level, and with more of an emphasis on the colloquial dialects spoken on the ground. 

To be considered proficient, Eisele believes, students must have a command of more than formal, textbook Arabic.

"Part of the problem," he explained, "is that there is too much emphasis on the more formal Modern Standard style.”  For the first time, he said, “People are teaching dialects earlier and earlier, as opposed to doing the literary style for the first three or four years.”

In addition, according to Lampe, there’s been a big push to utilize “heritage learners.”   The term “heritage learners” refers to people who have parents or grandparents who speak Arabic at home, and therefore were exposed to the language at an early age. 

One pitfall of many language courses now is that since heritage learners often have no academic experience with Arabic, they are frequently placed in the same beginner classes as those who have never been exposed to the language at all. Instead, said Lampe, they "need to be put on a fast track," with curriculum designed to meet their specific needs. 

Arabic instruction has also started to reach the elementary, middle and high school levels.  According to Dora Johnson, a research associate for the Arabic K-12 Network, a project of the National Capital Language Resource Center, “New schools are cropping up all over the place, and not just in the places where there are large amounts of heritage speakers.”

“By the time children get up to a certain point in schooling there’s proficiency,” said Johnson, “so they can go to intermediate, as opposed to starting at a beginner level in college.” 

She pointed to a charter school in Atlanta that has started teaching Arabic as part of the core curriculum where the teachers have actually had to add extra classes because of the large demand from students.

But Johnson is only cautiously optimistic. In this country, she said, Arabic will “never be a huge thing.  It will always be a small group, but it will not be as unknown as it was before.”

Jill Wagner is a researcher on the NBC News international assignment desk.

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