Language for Strategy or Culture?

In my last post, I was applauding the students of Bowdoin for asking for classes in Arabic (and also Swahili). This of course got me to thinking about “strategic” languages and sociolinguistics…which is always worthy of another post.
One group who is very much interested in Arabic language instruction is of course the U.S. defense forces and diplomatic corps. Yes folks, they DO want to (legally) spy on Middle Eastern terrorists and figure out what they are up to. I confess that I don’t have an ethical problem with this, but I do remember that in another forum, a colleague was objecting to the fact that the linguistic community would answer questions for someone in the military.
I think his concern was that the military is learning Arabic solely for the purpose of detecting and destroying terrorist cells and that they would miss learning about positive aspects of Arabic culture. Although I understand this point of view, I will be optimistic (rare for me) and say that when you learn another language, even if it’s for “defense” you will be forced to face the values and literature of that culture.
Based on what I’ve seen, learning a language for the military isn’t just about listening to terrorist activity. It’s also about negotiating with local leaders and learning to work with people willing to cooperate with your side. You have to understand the other culture to be a more effective negotiater. For some people, learning another language is also about living there, eating the local food, seeing the local architecture and learning the local literature. Most people who go to another country are usually positively affected by the local culture, even if they had no idea of what they were getting into in the first place.
So even though some people may be learning Arabic solely to “protect their country”, in the long run, these people may be the ones to help us bridge the gap for a truly peaceful co-existence. The worst thing the military could do is to force everyone to interact in English! Ironically, returning vets from another country have been the source cross-cultural pollination. The crusaders exposed Europe to a lot of Middle Eastern innovation and today’s interest in Japanese culture is partly based on what vets experienced in post-war Japan. Go figure.
P.S. From a purely strategic point of view, any language which has a large number of speakers, a politically volatile past or proximity to scarce resources (oil, nukes, diamonds, etc) is worth investing in…because you never know where the next hot spot will be. Back when Yugoslavia was still a country, an ROTC classmate chose to focus on Serbo-Croatian because it was a “strategic” language, yet the country was relatively “stable”. Of course, that all changed in the 90s, but it was a good thing the military did have some experts to call upon.

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