The State Department's Arabic problem is worse than you think

Spencer Ackerman, a journalist who writes often for TPM Muckraker, recently noted the following revelation from a recent U.S. State Department briefing:

Question: How may Arabic speakers with 3/3 levels of proficiency are currently serving at Embassy Baghdad?

Answer: We currently have ten Foreign Service Officers (including the Ambassador) at Embassy Baghdad at or above the 3 reading / 3 speaking level in Arabic. An additional five personnel at Embassy Baghdad have tested at or above the 3 level in speaking. A 3/3 indicates a general professional fluency level.

This is actually more alarming than it sounds. No wonder U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was raising hell.

A 3/3 level of proficiency is virtually useless for conducting serious business in Arabic. The use of the word "fluency" here is deeply misleading: Someone with a 3/3 would not be able, for instance, to do simultaneous translation of a meeting, and would struggle to translate complicated documents. Anything technical, legal, or politically sensitive would not be something you'd want a 3/3 to handle. For that, you'd need someone closer to a 5 or better yet, a native speaker with a large vocabulary and superior writing skills in two languages. Such people are rare, because the amount of investment and time it takes to reach such rarified heights is more lucratively deployed elsewhere.

What's more, I would assume that the proficiency scale refers to Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), which is what most students of Arabic learn and is the language used in most newspapers and for Al Jazeera's broadcasts. The dialect spoken by Iraqis is very different from MSA and from other Arabic dialects. So different, in fact, that in the early days of the war, a unit of U.S. troops had to fire their struggling Egyptian translator and go with an Iraqi who once worked for Saddam's Ministry of Information. That story here.


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