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Critical Language

When Inbar Pe’er decided to study Arabic in college, she didn’t expect to learn to say “United Nations” before “to talk.”  The sophomore at Columbia University harbored an interest in international affairs and thought the language was critical for work in Middle East foreign policy.

This emphasis on national security-related vocabulary in Arabic study is not unique to Columbia. Al-Kitaab, a widely used Arabic-language textbook, incorporates lessons on diplomatic and military vocabulary before the verbs for “to do” or “to think.” The curriculum itself thus prepares students of Arabic best for careers in national security and government, particularly for interacting with politicians and officials. 

Though students may be well equipped to utilize their Arabic skills to decipher messages for an intelligence agency or discuss geopolitics with foreign ambassadors, this focus on national security issues politicizes language study. This angle comes at the cost of cultural vocabulary vital to developing a complex understanding of the Middle East and North Africa beyond a U.S.-centric national security paradigm. Students believe they need to learn vocabulary to engage with the Arab world diplomatically and militarily, leading them to pursue posts in the national security field, and the cycle continues. Allison Rice, a sophomore studying Arabic at Yale University, told The Politic, “The Arabic curriculum here does sometimes tend to be more towards foreign policy, and, I would even venture to say pro-U.S. lens.”

United States security priorities have largely shaped the Arabic curriculum, in particular after 9/11 when the government ramped up federal funding for study of the language. In January 2006, the Bush administration created the “National Security Language Initiative” (NSLI) in order to incentivize American students to study so-called “critical languages” including Arabic, Russian, and Farsi. Between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. Department of Defense contributed $705 million to the initiative, financially linking national security interests and education initiatives. 

The NSLI serves as an umbrella for a multitude of programs and offices under the Departments of Defense (DoD), Education (DoE), and State (DoS), including the Defense Language and National Security Education, The Language Flagship Programs, and the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program, among others—all of which prioritize language study in service of U.S. national security. 

The initiative, by the federal government’s standards, has worked. According to the Modern Language Association (MLA), the number of American students studying Arabic increased by 126.5 percent from 2002 to 2006 and another 46.3 percent from 2006 to 2009. Stone said, “I did notice a change in the motivations of students studying Arabic prior to 9/11 and after.” Arabic class enrollment continued to increase between 2006 and 2016.

The militarization of language study has concrete ramifications for U.S. engagement with Arabic-speaking countries and contributes to ongoing military operations. Stone continues in his article, “The Department of Defense understands linguistic and cultural proficiency to be weapons in its arsenal.” Indeed, in his 2006 address announcing the NSLI program, President Bush proudly explained how language skills would be useful to U.S. forces on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan. “[The Secretary of Defense] wants his young soldiers who are on the front lines of finding these killers to be able to speak their language,” Bush declared. 

Arabic programs are particularly susceptible to manipulation because of the clearly differentiated dialects.  Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is used in official government addresses and newspapers but is not spoken between people on the street or in the home. In those contexts, Arabic-speakers employ regional dialects which are often very different from MSA. In order to ensure that students can employ their Arabic across the world (albeit in limited professional and cultural contexts), most introductory Arabic courses focus on MSA, also known as fusha, with some dialect work as a bonus. When Dene studied abroad in Morocco, she was dismayed at how little of the Arabic she was taught in her courses was useful. Dene said, “Getting on the ground and realizing that I couldn’t use the Arabic that I had spent the past two years learning to communicate with people was a pretty big shock.” 

At Yale, the first two levels of Arabic instruction focus on MSA Monday through Thursday and reserve Friday to work with the Levantine dialect, which is spoken in countries such as Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Even then, students are often exposed to only one or two dialects, out of the many that exist. Dene acknowledged, “There aren’t that many resources for learning Arabic outside of Al-Kitaab, and that book is primarily fusha.” Students are thus more likely to gain skills in MSA through their coursework, which are primarily useful in diplomatic or military contexts.

Given her ambitions to work in government, Dene is focused on learning fusha rather than the dialects. “For now I think fusha is the most useful thing. It allows me to listen to speeches at the UN or read Al Jazeera,” she said. However, Pe’er expressed frustration that this linguistic variation would limit her ability to speak to people in the Arabic-speaking countries that she visited. “I realized that in order to be able to actually speak to anyone, I would need to learn the dialects,” she said.

The federal government finds itself in a convenient position: programs need money, and the government can step in with generous bequests and seemingly-straightforward stipulations.

As a result,  Christopher Stone, an associate professor of Arabic and head of the Arabic program at Hunter College, explained, “As U.S. public universities are losing funding from their states, I know it is tempting for administrators to replace those monies with military funding.” Indeed, the Language Flagship program, a federally-funded program which aims to “develop a pool of language-capable professionals in various fields of study available for employment with federal national security agencies,” according to its website, funds programs at twenty-two universities across the country, twenty of which are public universities.

Stone expressed concern with the system: “My problem with the funding is two-fold: a lack of transparency and the potential militarization of universities in the U.S.”

“There is a teacher education program called Startalk that is funded by the NSA,” he explained, “Though you can find this info on their website, I have never seen a call for participation in the program mention the funding source. Those participating should have a clear picture of who is funding any program they are participating in,” Stone said in an email. 

In an article for the magazine Jadaliyya, Stone said, “There is no doubt that these funding sources are already influencing the choices of many, conscripting students away from the civilian sector toward career paths in the military and in intelligence.”  Alexandra Bauman, a junior at Yale University, acknowledged, “There aren’t that many career options that are made clear to you other than working for the State Department or the CIA after graduation to use your Arabic.” 

Given the institutional and financial support for Arabic studies geared towards national security interests, some professors have felt it necessary to supplement lessons drawn from the textbook with additional materials that focus on culture in Arabic-speaking countries. Pe’er noted that during her language study abroad program in Tunisia and Jordan, “Our professors really tried to counter the fact that our textbook had a huge political emphasis by focusing on songs, culture, and literature.” In this way, professors can increase students’ engagement with the region through channels other than diplomacy or the military. 

Students like Bauman are pushing back against the focus in Arabic language classes that fails to engage with the region’s complex sociocultural history. “I feel like I’m trying to make a statement against the security route by studying Arabic because I don’t want to add to the huge number of Americans who only want to study Arabic because they’re interested in foreign policy and security.” 

In addition to coursework at universities, study abroad opportunities as early as high school incentivize students to utilize Arabic for national security interests. The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) provides scholarships for students to study Arabic in Morocco and Jordan. Furthermore, the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program provides full funding for summer study of designated critical languages. 

The application for CLS asks students to articulate how they will serve as “an effective citizen diplomat” while abroad and detail how they will use the language in their future career. These programs thus provide not only an academic but also a financial incentive for students to direct their interests in Arabic towards serving national security interests. As Elizabeth Gill, Director of Career and Alumni Engagement at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, noted in an email to The Politic, “There are far more opportunities, especially through the U.S. government, to study Arabic than there were prior to [9/11]. U.S. government-funded programs generally focus on national security/diplomacy.” 

Some programs are even more explicit in their direction of students towards national security careers. According to the program’s website, the Boren Awards offer scholarships of up to $20,000 for students to study abroad in “world regions critical to U.S. interests.” Boren Awards recipients are required to commit to working in the federal government for at least one year after graduation. The program website states that, “Preference will be given to applicants who can demonstrate a longer-term commitment to government service.” The criteria for selecting awardees listed on the program’s website include whether the applicant makes a compelling case that their study can contribute to U.S. national security and their future government career. 

But students’ reasons for studying Arabic abroad often expand beyond the national security realm. Gill said, “Some [students] are interested in security, others in migration and human rights,” noting that there is “really a wide variety.” Students interested in the latter are less likely to be able to fund their summer experiences through public funding. Gill noted that, “U.S. government language fellowships often recruit students interested in security issues, but the Yale fellowships really attract a diversity of people.” Students at schools with limited institutional funding beyond government sources for language study are unlikely to similarly be able to choose a focus outside of national security. 

Government funding for the study of critical languages, however, comes with strings attached. Stone further noted how language funding is but one aspect of a broader trend of militarization of Middle Eastern studies and politicization of funding in the field. In September of this year, the DoE opened an inquiry into the programming of a Middle Eastern studies center co-hosted by Duke University and the University of North Carolina (UNC). The DoE wrote a letter to the program expressing concern that much of its programming has little relevance to Title VI, a federal grant program that funds international studies and foreign language programs at U.S. universities like Duke and UNC. 

In the letter, Robert King, Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education at the DoE, wrote, “Although a conference focused on ‘Love and Desire in Modern Iran’ and one focused on Middle East film criticism may be relevant in academia, we do not see how these activities support the development of foreign language and international expertise for the benefit of U.S. national security and economic stability.” The letter came with a substantial threat. King wrote, “As a condition for future Title VI funding, the Duke-UNC [Consortium for Middle East Studies] is directed to provide a revised schedule of activities that it plans to support for the coming year, including a description demonstrating how each activity promotes foreign language learning and advances the national security interests and economic stability of the United States.” 

These language programs ultimately teach American students to see Arabic-speaking individuals across the world as subjects of U.S. policy—or even U.S. enemies. This framing, which often plays into racialized and Islamophobic perceptions of people living in Arabic-speaking countries, obfuscates the agency of these individuals. Stone said, “I think [replacing state funding with military funding] could ultimately have a corrupting influence on our education system.”