If you dislike Arab culture or think of it as inferior to US culture, and if you are suspicious of Arabs, you probably won’t be able to sustain the necessary level of motivation. If you don’t actually care about communicating with Arabic speakers your interest will probably wane. The author, to his credit, was anxious to try out his language with people in his neighborhood.
The issue of attrition comes up a lot, usually in connection with the observation that the US government and US military are hurting for competent Arabic speakers. The attrition is usually explained as a function of the difficulty of the language, but I think the author is headed in the right direction when he says that this lack is “inseparable from the Arab world’s long history of troubled relations with the West.” Which seems to me like a euphemistic way of referring to US interference in the region, its unconditional support for Israel, its support of brutal autocrats, its outright military aggression, as well as racist anti-Arab attitudes among Americans. But he is right that the politicization of the language is a deterrent to its study.
The thing is, it’s not like there aren’t a good number of Arabic speakers in the US. They do exist, both among people of Arab heritage and those who started learning as adults. The elephant in the room in these discussions about Middle Eastern languages is the fact that most people who feel positively about Arabic culture generally speaking, and who like Arabs as people, are not going to want to be associated with this country’s putrid foreign policy. In the course of my studies I’ve met a lot of people (and not heritage students, either) with fantastic Arabic. Not a single one of them wants to enter government service or the military. The dilemma for the US government is that the only way people become really good at a language is by spending a lot of time in contact with the culture and its people, and this is incompatible with the foreign policy view of the peoples of the Middle East as objects to be manipulated to suit US interests.
Monday, January 14, 2008
explaining the shortage
alif sikkiin makes a point that occurred to me before, but that i've never articulated here: