The importance of learning a foreign language in a global society
The importance of learning a foreign language in today’s world cannot be overstated. This message is one that I feel compelled to share today. It’s the 13th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on U.S. soil and one day after President Obama spoke to the nation about his strategy to confront and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Language as a counterterrorism tool
The world is a dangerous place. Or, more precisely, certain regions in the world are dangerous. Our ability to gauge whether a particular actor, group, or situation is a threat stems from our ability to understand that actor, group, or situation in context. That context is often in 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 designated by the U.S. Department of State as 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 before children learn to speak. How do we do this? By exposing them to foreign languages. Language-immersion schools, Montessori schools, and some private and public schools are playing a proactive role.
They teach American children, many of whom come from English-only households, that other languages exist. Why is this important? Because the minute you teach children that another language exists, you teach them that another culture exists. This culture is different—slightly or radically—from their own.
In short, you teach children to look beyond their own households, classrooms, and country. The point of exposure to foreign languages is not for students to feel good about themselves or have some sort of Kumbayah moment. Rather, it is to create knowledge where there was ignorance before.
The point of exposure to foreign languages is not for students to feel good about themselves or have some sort of Kumbayah moment. Rather, it is to create knowledge where there was ignorance before.
Studying Chinese doesn’t mean that you agree with China’s one-party rule. Studying French or Spanish doesn’t mean that you prefer Europe to the United States. (Although you may envy 35-hour workweeks and siestas.) And studying Arabic doesn’t make you a terrorist sympathizer.
But it would be disingenuous to suggest that by learning how to conjugate verbs in German you will bring about peace in the world. If only things were so simple. Instead, as anyone who has ever intensively studied a foreign language knows, the path to linguistic proficiency is long and winding. But it’s a path that leads to many other disciplines, including 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, not the liberal arts.”
People who subscribe to these viewpoints, I have found, are invariably misinformed about what intensive language study entails—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, not to mention opportunities to travel the world or serve your country.
On the flipside, many people know the importance of learning a foreign language. These are usually people who work in a position that requires foreign-language proficiency or know someone who does. Certain positions require proficiency in a foreign language before the candidate even begins the job. Translators and interpreters, of course, but also journalists working international beats, diplomats and heads of state, members of the military, analysts for intelligence agencies—the list goes on.
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, killing and maiming civilians. The collapse of the North Tower came not long after. For more than three months, I smelled the odor of smoldering metal emanating from a mass graveyard.
Since then, I have wondered if the damage and carnage from that day would have been averted (or at least mitigated) if American intelligence agencies had had a larger cadre of Arabic-speaking analysts.
If the notion that language proficiency can prevent terrorist attacks sounds far-fetched, consider that 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 an individual named Khalid al-Mihdhar. Why was this significant? Because on September 11, 2001, Mihdar boarded American Airlines Flight 77 and, along with four other terrorists, flew the plane into the Pentagon.
If the notion that language proficiency can prevent terrorist attacks sounds far-fetched, consider the case of Khalid al-Mihdhar, one of the 9/11 hijackers.
American intelligence agencies do not publicly 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:
with high standards and sufficient financial incentives.
The importance of learning a foreign language should be obvious to anyone who reads about world events. The foreign-language work of analysts, translators, interpreters, soldiers, and diplomats is often not explicitly mentioned in the media. However, this doesn’t lessen the significance of their work.
So what do we do? All study Arabic and join the intelligence community? No, not at all. But we do need to stop considering a foreign language an “easy major” or a “soft discipline.” We need to see foreign-language study as a prerequisite for working in a global context no matter the domain, be it business, science, or counterterrorism. Our ability to communicate with the world’s actors—whether they’re friendly international companies or detainees suspected of terrorist ties—gives us access to information that monolingual people and cultures simply can’t tap into.
Actions usually speak louder than words—but words can enable good acts and prevent horrific ones.
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