How does your program contribute to the mission of national security?
Foreign language programs fundamentally contribute to the mission of national security because they enable practitioners to contextually understand sources of foreign threats. In the years following 9/11, American higher education saw an enormous spike in student interest in Arabic. No doubt the nation needed such skills. That said, there’s more to foreign language vis-à-vis national security than simply “whacking the mole” wherever it appears. With some critical exceptions, one could argue that the general failure of the U.S. foreign policy establishment to understand the Arabic-speaking world – as reflected in the pre-9/11 national dearth of Arabic speakers – was one among many variables that led to the events of that tragic day.
Knowledge of foreign language is key to 1) understanding the fine-grain, ‘on-the-ground’ realities of foreign contexts, and 2) effectively interacting with foreign actors. So long as the United States continues to play a central role in an interconnected world, U.S. foreign policy will interplay with nations whose cultures use non-English languages to interpret and react to world events. This is not to say that simple linguistic understanding will unlock some door of cultural difference that, left closed, inevitably precipitates civilizational clash. Instead, language skills enable security practitioners to contextually understand root causes of conflict – causes which often emanate not from cultural difference alone, but from difference in interests. Thereafter, through miscommunication and misperception, linguistic and cultural differences often exacerbate tensions. Language ability enables the security practitioner to more accurately interpret the foreign landscape before the ‘mole’ appears, and to respond more effectively when it does emerge.
As a tool, linguistic understanding helps move our perception of the world from assumption to knowledge. A doctor invites trouble if he or she treats a patient with chemotherapy before using other tools to first understand and diagnose the patient’s condition. Language is a unique tool because – like a microscope – it translates assumptions into knowledge and helps us see “what’s there” before we select yet another tool to act on the condition. And as we act on the condition, language continues to help us review and adjust our actions.
How will this experience help you in your job search and career?
Foreign language ability is one of the most in-demand skills in the security sector, and obviously in the broader realm of international affairs. Middlebury’s language programs are renowned, and well-known by government and non-government entities. But substantively, this experience uniquely enhances my competiveness because I can assure employers that my language skills surpass the confines of the classroom. This program emphasizes linguistic functionality, which is valuable to a wide range of potential employers. If I only wanted to use Arabic to read Arabic literature or news, this program would be wonderful, but unnecessary. This program specifically enhances my career aspirations because I want to develop a practical Arabic skillset that allows me to interface with people in varied situations, in addition to reading and writing. The immersive environment here means that I’m not just learning Arabic grammar and vocabulary; I’m learning how to use Arabic. Arabic courses at universities can be great, but ultimately one can best attain the functional language skills that many employers want by studying in total immersion.
What have you learned from this experience?
I’m only one week down, seven to go as I write this. But it’s easy to imagine how immersion changes you and how you see the world. Look around yourself right now. Can you use a foreign language to describe everything around you? Imagine you want to ask directions to the clinic nearby… but you’ll have to first learn how to ask that very question. These are the types of quandaries that come to mind now when I think of immersion.
But as I sit here typing this blog with my bottled water at hand and my iPhone keeping me immediately connected to everyone I love, my most imminent challenge is my limitation in communicating with those around me. It gives me a whole new respect for non-English speaking refugees and immigrants. I’m sure many who are reading this are like me – we’ve been to a foreign country, we’ve had to learn to ask for something in a foreign language. But at the end of the day, if you’re an English speaker overseas, there’s almost always someone who speaks some English. This program has enabled me to see what it’s like for those who have no choice but to learn a new language, if but to simply ask for a glass of water. I traveled into town with a new friend in my program and we ate at a restaurant where our waitress was an Algerian immigrant who spoke very little English. As we conversed in Arabic, I saw in her the courage of those millions of people around the world who have, with little other choice, left their homeland in search of well-being, and for whom linguistic challenges are only one among so many.