The importance of learning a foreign language can’t be overstated. This message is one that I need to share today. It’s the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on U.S. soil. And it’s one day after President Obama spoke to the nation about ISIS.
The Importance of Learning a Foreign Language in a Global Society
Language as a Counterterrorism Tool
The world is a dangerous place. Or at least certain parts of the world are dangerous. Like all countries, the U.S. tries to gauge if a specific actor, group, or situation is a threat. The ability to do that comes from understanding that actor, group, or situation in context. That context often involves a foreign language and culture.
The languages spoken are as varied as the actors themselves. Table 1 lists just a few of the approximately 60 organizations that the U.S. Department of State labels Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). You can see the State Department’s full list of FTOs here.
Foreign Languages in Our Education System
The importance of learning a foreign language should be stressed in our schools. And it should happen before children learn to speak. How do we do this? Simple. By exposing them to foreign languages. Language-immersion schools, Montessori schools, and some private and public schools do this already.
They teach American children, many coming from English-only households, that other languages exist. Why is this important? Because when you teach kids that another language exists, you teach them that another culture exists. This culture is different from their own.
In short, children start to look beyond their own households. They learn to look beyond their own classrooms and country.
The point of exposing kids to foreign languages is not so they feel good about themselves or have some sort of Kumbayah moment. It’s to create knowledge where there was ignorance before.
Exposure to foreign languages is about creating knowledge where there was ignorance before.
Studying Chinese doesn’t mean that you like China’s one-party rule. Studying French doesn’t mean that you prefer France to the U.S. (Even if you do dream about 35-hour workweeks.) And studying Arabic doesn’t make you a terrorist sympathizer.
But it would be silly to suggest that we’d have world peace if only you and your friends knew Spanish. Things aren’t that easy. As anyone who has ever intensively studied a foreign language knows, the path to linguistic proficiency is a long one. But it’s a path that leads to many other disciplines. These include commerce, education, geography, diplomacy, law, and counterterrorism.
“This Is America, Dammit!”
Of course, some people question the importance of learning a foreign language. They shout refrains such as, “This is America! We speak English in America.” Or “We need to concentrate on STEM subjects. Liberal arts aren’t practical.”
People who think like this are usually misinformed. They don’t know what intensive language study entails. It requires mastering the ability to analyze, decipher, reproduce, synthesize, persuade, and create. These same people are also misinformed about what foreign language study leads to. Better job opportunities and higher pay, for a start. Language learners also have opportunities to travel the world or serve their country. The importance of learning a foreign language, then, should be clear.
But many people already know this. Their work may require foreign-language proficiency. Or they may have a loved one working in a language field. Certain positions require fluency in a foreign language before a candidate even applies. Translators and interpreters, of course, come to mind. But so do journalists working abroad and diplomats. Heads of state, members of the military, intelligence analysts… The list is long.
The Language Legacy of September 11
Thirteen years ago today, I—and thousands of others—ran from the World Trade Center’s South Tower as it pancaked and crumbled. It killed and maimed civilians. The collapse of the North Tower came not long after. For more than three months, I smelled smoldering metal in a mass graveyard.
Since then, I’ve asked myself a lot of “what if” questions. One of the biggest is What if American intelligence agencies had had a larger cadre of Arabic-speaking analysts? Could any of the damage and carnage from the day been prevented?
If you think that language proficiency couldn’t thwart a terrorist attack, consider the following. In January 2001, a CIA analyst in Southeast Asia investigating the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole did not translate foreign-language information for an FBI colleague who was also on assignment in the region.
According to the 9/11 Commission Report, this hampered the FBI’s ability to identify and detain a man named Khalid al-Mihdhar. Why was this significant? Because on September 11, 2001, Mihdar boarded American Airlines Flight 77. Along with four other terrorists, he flew the plane into the Pentagon.
Does the idea that language proficiency can prevent terrorist attacks sound far-fetched? Consider the case of Khalid al-Mihdhar. He was one of the 9/11 hijackers.
American intelligence agencies don’t reveal how many speakers of critical languages they have. But the Commission’s bipartisan panel had this recommendation for the CIA in the wake of the September 11 attacks: “The CIA director should emphasize […] developing a stronger language program,
with high standards and sufficient financial incentives.”
The importance of learning a foreign language should be obvious to anyone who reads the news. Still, the work of language professionals isn’t usually mentioned in the media. But this doesn’t make it any less important.
So what do we do? All study Arabic and work at the NSA? No. But we need to stop thinking of a foreign language as an “easy major.” It’s not a “soft discipline.”
We need to see foreign-language study as a prerequisite for working in a global context. This is true no matter the domain: business, science, counterterrorism, or some other field. Our ability to speak with the world’s actors depends on it. Those actors could be friendly international companies or detainees suspected of terrorist ties. Bilinguals have access to information that monolingual people simply can’t tap into.
Actions may speak louder than words. But words can empower people.
Foreign Terrorist Organizations, U.S. Department of State.
CIA World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency.
Ethnologue. (multiple pages)
Wikipedia. (multiple pages)
The 9/11 Commission Report.
“US spy agencies ‘struggle with post-9/11 languages’” The Guardian, September 20, 2011