Friday, August 21, 2009

There Must Be 50 Ways to Learn Some Uyghur

Do some Rosetta, Greta.
Class is a start, Art.

Yeah, not a terrible creative introduction, but please enjoy BTSTU, they're good peeps.

So this is another post bouncing off of Registan and Afghan Quest, but it bears mentioning. What's the problem with military translating? Translators are obviously invaluable when operating a counter-insurgency/counter-terrorist operation in a place where folks don't speak English. Duh. But then why are there so many reasons they tend to be treated poorly?

My assumption is that the problem lies in a simple distrust of foreigners by many folks operating in foreign theaters (not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but also all of the gentlemen and ladies of the intelligence community from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe). When you see Afghanistani Taliban folk killing your friends with all sorts of devious, insane, methods, I can understand a level of mistrust for the Afghanistani translater promising to help you out. That's human.

What is interesting to me is the sort of sea change in what makes a Good Soldier over the past few decades. It reminds me a lot, a whole lot, of the Sabermetric revolution in baseball. The metrics and thoughts about military production have been pretty concreted for a while. You get a good athlete who can follow orders and understand spacial relationships, you have yourself a soldier. Marksmanship is a plus. But now, I would argue that a good communicator who knows a few languages, who can make themself understood and think creatively. In short, the officer-level requirements now maybe ought to be NCO-level requirements. This would, of course, lead to a reorginization of the military of Russia-esque proportions. In short, it'll never happen.

So the other option, one would think, is to get more Americans to learn some crazy-cool languages. A lot of college kids haven't learned cool languages, because they all think this is cooler than this. Whatever. Also, the bigger, more popular, languages are always going to be easier to find classes in. French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Farsi are all awesome, of course. But it may not take a big push to get high school and college students, to say nothing of postgrads, looking in different directions.

First off, programs like my ex-school's FOLA were incredible. A low-cost (for the school) and low-pressure (for the students) way to get an introduction to the language. Both of my tutors were incredible people who bent over backwards to help me learn the language and were open to giving me opportunities after I graduated (I'm currently rueing not taking up my Urdu hoja's offer to teach English in Oman. I also spell-checked it, that is the correct present-tense-verb of "rue").

For post-grads or people who just really like summer school, programs like Indiana's CEUS is just wonderful. It's going to be tough to find Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Uzbek, Pashto, etc. most places, so these guys ought to publicize and advertise their offerings, offer some scholarships (if they can get the government money, which, well, they damn well should) and otherwise get their summer halls full of dudes trying to wrestle with Altai or something equally absurd. Thing of the networking that must go on over there, too. And because it's independent of the military, it'll be able to attract a more varied group than the Defense Language Institute.

Study and travel study and travel study and travel. As an ex-employee of a study abroad office, I couldn't be more emphatic that kids should travel, and travel to cool places. If I was a college counselor, I would tell everyone to just play around iiepassport for 10 minutes or something one day.

Of course, jobs have to be out there for kids who are learning all these languages, but that is a place where the government really could kick in. By making it very clear that a translator is not military personnel, you can attract some good people who are looking for more of a 1-2 year commitment than a 5-year one. And since they are Americans, the thickheads will approve of the translators, and the constituencies would be happy with some money being thrown that way. Construe it as a sort of Peace Corps-esque option, where people can work as translators in Dari or Pashto, Uzbek or whatever, without the military payroll or uniforms (though, of course, people always can become a military translator as well...this is more of a resource/logistics/econ problem after a bit).

Students will do it. I would gladly have spent a year figuring out Uzbek as opposed to Turkish as a post-grad, then hung out in Rashid Dostum's neighborhood for another year or two on rotations. That sure beats law school. I just am wary of the 5-year commitment that military would imply, and would prefer to work independently than for SecState.

If there was a graduated curve on how much work people wanted to do after grad school, and if there were more varied language opportunities, I'm sure they would be taken. American translators certainly could exist, they just need a big nudge from the government. I would certainly like to see it happen, but as long as the military sees drones and battalions as a successful Face of America, it'll always be seen as an occupation.

The languages are out there. Us Americans can learn them. We just need the opportunity, and the promise of employment opportunity. It'll certainly be easier to fix than changing an entire group structure and thought process.

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