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.


Morning Brief, Thursday, June 21



U.S. envoy Christopher Hill is in Pyongyang today to convince the North Koreans that, now that they've got their $25 million back, it's time to uphold their end of the nuclear bargain made in February. It's the first trip to North Korea by a U.S. official since Hill's predecessor, James Kelly, accused the North Koreans of harboring secret uranium enrichment ambitions in 2002.

Japan's exports to Europe and China are booming

The Taliban's new target: Kabul

Child labor is common in China, and the government often looks the other way. 

Middle East

The fighting between U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents in Baquba, Iraq, goes on. In Diwaniya, Shiite groups are squabbling violently for power. One of Iraq's three vice presidents, a Shiite, tried to quit the government in frustration last week. And the U.S. State Department is considering filling its staff shortages in Baghdad by ordering foreign service officers to go there.

The United States is making no secret of its wish to give outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair the worst job in the world: Middle East envoy.

As Hamas makes not-so-subtle threats against Fatah in Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas is planning to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a summit hosted in Egypt next Monday. Arab leaders like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak are frightened to death of Hamas and the Islamic trend it represents.


Nicolas Sarkozy is making big promises on economic reform: "Everything I said before the elections, I will do," France's new president said Wednesday. 

The Poland-Germany spat over the EU treaty/constitution is getting nastier: Now the Poles are demanding a greater share of the votes in compensation for all the people killed by Germany during World War II.

Mob killings in Italy are down significantly in recent years.


Insurgent unrest and strikes in Nigeria over high gasoline prices are pushing up the price ... of oil.

Starbucks reached an agreement with Ethiopia over licensing and trademarks for its coffee. 

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is not so secure.  

Today's Agenda

  • It's the longest day of the year. And they're partying it up at Stonehenge.
  • The European Summit is getting underway in Brussels, Belgium. It ain't gonna be pretty.
  • Activists are holding the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem over the objections of the city's conservative religious groups.

Yesterday on Passport