A packet came in the mail yesterday from San Diego State University with information about their "distinguished level Arabic and Persian program" for the summer. Unlike the flurry of expansion in basic Arabic and Persian programs over the past few years, this one concentrates on taking advanced/superior proficient learners of Arabic (or Persian) and through intensive study in small groups with master teachers moving them to "distinguished level" the level required to use Arabic competently in professional capacities.
In fifteen years of graduate school and teaching in Middle Eastern Studies this is the first program of this nature that I have seen. Looks like we are finally getting serious about producing Americans with deep proficiency in Middle Eastern languages! Where was this program September 12, 2001? Or November 5, 1979?
Arabic is a difficult language to learn (although I found it easier than Chinese). But the biggest problem is that it is a diglossic language like Spanish. It has a universal "high" written form that no one but newsreaders speak (and government officials giving formal speeches) and then regional dialects that have multiple forms depending on the education and background of the speaker. You can be fluent in fusha, Modern Standard Arabic, but that won't get you very far with an Iraqi peasant. You can be conversant with Iraqi dialect in the Anbar province but that won't help you speak to a peasant in Morocco or a schoolteacher in Cairo. And that's as much true of native speakers as language learners. I like to compare Arabic to a martial art, there's always anther belt level to master. Can you imagine a single Spanish speaker who can speak with the same fluency in a university in Madrid and one in Argentina? Now send them to a subway in Mexico City, then East LA. It would be hard going. Arabic works the same way. A difficult fact that has taken our military, FBI, CIA, and police too long to grasp (although I think that the NYPD figured it out first).
Ahmed Hashim of the Navel War College has said in the Air Force Times
"We have a civil war right now, a low-level civil war,” he said. “Our understanding of Iraq has advanced at a very glacial pace, and the only policy we really have in our hand right now...is to leave.” The counterinsurgency strategies the U.S. has been implementing so far may not be effective tools for dealing with a civil war or organized crime, he added.
“To stay in Iraq and to affect the situation in Iraq will require a kind of understanding at a level far deeper than we have,” he said.
The program at SDSU is probably too little, too late to help the US deal with the civil war in Iraq, but since America will be neck-deep in the region for the next 30 years, I suppose it is better late than never.