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Colleen Glenney BoggsBack to OpinionColleen Glenney Boggs

Lessons from Libya: Why America needs more language teachers

What went wrong in Libya? Even as the East Coast recovers from Hurricane Sandy, this question won’t go away, with renewed allegations that the Obama administration mishandled security at the embassy in Benghazi. We need a full investigation into the events and to hold accountable the people responsible for the violence. But if we truly want to honor Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his life’s work, we also need to ask another question: what went right in Libya?

Stevens spent his career as a diplomat reaching out to people on their own terms. His death was mourned by thousands of Libyans who knew him personally because he understood their customs and spoke to them, literally, in their own language—he was fluent in both Arabic and French. Mass demonstration against the violence that killed him took place in Benghazi, not in Washington.

The Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24, published in 2006 and co-authored by Lieutenant Generals David Petraeus and James Amos embraced the concept of nation building, and advocated that winning hearts and minds (WHAM) was to the United States military’s strategic advantage.

This strategy has been controversial. A fellow at the Hoover Institute, Thomas Henriksen, published a report in February 2012 that accuses the military of being “an armed charity organization.”

As an American who grew up in Cold War Germany, I find it hard to understand the opposition to nation building and cultural diplomacy. The Marshall plan put Europe and America on a pace of unparalleled economic growth and prosperity. When John F. Kennedy stood at the Berlin Wall, he won the hearts and minds of generations of Germans with one sentence: “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

The military has explicitly embraced a role usually reserved for the diplomatic corps: reaching out to local politicians

WPA poster about the importance of learning languages

and populations by constructing relationships and dialogues.

A crucial part of those dialogues is language proficiency. The Pentagon underscored the urgency of this approach just this month when it reinstated a program known as Mavni (Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest) that puts immigrants with specialized language skills on a fast-track to citizenship. An appendix to the field manual discusses “Linguist Support,” arguing that the United States Military should have personnel trained in the languages of the “host-nation.”

This section of the manual closely resembles the curriculum for language education that developed in the aftermath of the American Revolution, as Americans aspired to become global citizens. A key figure in this movement was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Tea Party members might know Longfellow for “Paul Revere’s Ride,” one of the most famous poems about the American Revolution. What they may not know is that Longfellow had made his career as a language instructor and a translator. At a time when universities were teaching ancient but not modern languages, and when English Departments did not exist, Longfellow made the study of modern language and literature an integral part of the Harvard curriculum, which benefitted students such as Henry David Thoreau.

Like the counterinsurgency field manual, Longfellow taught that Americans should be interpreters. His focus was not just on elite education – he also published volumes of translations that popularized European poetry at a time when poetry itself was a common currency among American readers. He wanted to make Americans citizens of the world, and understood the world to be a linguistically diverse place. The American publishing landscape at the time reflected that diversity: by one estimate, translations from languages other than English and reprints of English works jointly held a market share of 70 per cent in 1820 and 30 per cent in 1850; by contrast, today’s figures for translations hover around 3 percent.

The idea that America has always been an English-only country promotes a false account of our past and our present. That false account justifies sweeping spending cuts in foreign language education that will make America less secure around the world, and less competitive in the global market.

And yet, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, roughly one fifth of American households speak either one or multiple languages other than English. We should encourage the use of these languages even as we foster English-language learning in American schools.

The counterinsurgency manual supports that view. To facilitate communication between host-nation linguists and U.S. service personnel, it gives instructions on proper English usage. For instance, abbreviations such as “plane” should be avoided in favor of the correct word, “airplane.”

Mitt Romney should know the power of WHAM from experience. As a missionary, he learned French to converse with people in their own language, and to create profound connections that would lead to their conversion. That’s what the military has been doing – trying to connect with people on their own terms, to convert foes into friends.

Even though he opposes WHAM, the Hoover Institute’s Henriksen draws on the British use of communication in Malaysia during the 1950s as an example of efforts that work. Such efforts can only be cheap if they involve mass-produced propaganda, not if they require high-level language learning and skilled, inter-personal communication. It is in such skilled language learning that we need to invest. Our national security and success in foreign affairs requires massive reinvestment in language teaching at American schools and universities. We don’t just need math and science teachers, as President Obama argued; we also need Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Spanish and other language teachers. The nation building we will then be engaged in is twofold: investing in language education will benefit our missions abroad, and our own advancement at home.

Language learning is not an elite or useless enterprise; it needs to be a hallmark of American democracy in its global reach. Knowing another language, as Stevens’ example tragically shows, cannot prevent violence. But it is a critical tool for limiting that violence to individual perpetrators, who can be brought to justice and held accountable, and it is our best hope for enlisting cooperation from the population to bring those murderers to justice.

Colleen Glenney Boggs is an associate professor of American Literature at Dartmouth College and author of Transnationalism and American Literature: Literary Translation 1773-1892.