Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Belated Comment On Alberto Fernandez

I'm coming late to a topic that has by now largely faded, but after all the hub-bub I feel I might have something useful to add. The State Department's Alberto Fernandez was recently in the hot seat for comments he made in Arabic on Al-Jazeera stating that America had been "arrogant" and "stupid" in Iraq. I won't go into all the nitty gritty details, for that I suggest you read the post and comments over at Abu Aardvark:

But here's what I'd like to add and it will come off in one sense as more supportive of Fernandez and in another sense perhaps slightly denigrating. I don't mean it as either, I just am trying to reflect what seems to me an important and obvious reality other commentators have missed:

People have gushed about how Fernandez is "fluent" and speaks excellent Arabic and how he's the only State Department guy who gets out there regularly on Al-Jazeera. On the latter point, it's true, he's the only one who is out there so often, and he can hold his own in a debate in Arabic on many levels. But - and here's the negative part - his Arabic isn't actually that good. Don't get me wrong, it's not terrible, it's not like Adam Ereli who was previously hailed as a good example of a State Department Arabic linguist and who was genuinely awful and embarrasing (no offense to Adam, I'm sure he's a great guy and could get there with time, he just wasn't there yet and wasn't ready to speak on TV, it came across as insulting and condescending just as I would have when I was first starting to learn the language). Fernandez can certainly communicate better and seems to pretty fully understand what's being said, and he's not afraid to be combative in defense of US government positions. BUT, his spoken Arabic is fairly choppy, it's laced with a fair amount of Egyptian dialect with a sprinkling of other dialect bits and bobs, his vocabulary is somewhat limited and hence he can't convey complex ideas nearly as richly as either his questioners or fellow interviewees can, and he just generally comes off as more of a moderately well-advanced Arabic student than a "fluent" speaker.

I don't fault him for that, I have enough experience with State and with friends there to know that despite their occasional rhetoric they do not actually value developing deep language skills in Arabic (and I presume in other languages as well). They'll generally get people up to and maintain minimal competency for their jobs. In some cases that is little more than "pass the cocktail weiners" (i.e., virtually nothing), in other cases it's how to chit chat and ask questions about a visa application, in a few cases it's moderately advanced for diplomatic discussions, but almost never is it a truly deep knowledge of the language that will allow a Foreign Service officer to blend in or impress folks in the countries they work in. Truly advanced Arabic training is essentially non-existent.

In that light, Fernandez' Arabic skill level is actually somewhat impressive. To get to that level clearly must have involved some personal initiative sustained over time. But it also is not enough to really prep someone so they won't make a linguistic gaffe as he did. I'm saying that because I actually feel like I've been in his shoes. At my peak several years ago, my spoken Arabic was probably about as good as his is today. I could communicate reasonably well, I could understand fairly well, but at the end of the day my ability to fish just the right word out for a subtle idea was quite limited in comparison to what I can do in English. More than once I have ended up pulling out an overly-simplistic or just plain erroneous word (which then results in some conversational acrobatics to "explain" what I really meant or else just living with the knowledge I had communicated something incorrect on the assumption that it didn't matter). Further, I've been interviewed on Jazeera and felt that nervousness of a live interview. In my case, it had been several years since I'd really spoken Arabic, I certainly hadn't spoken Fusha (formal modern standard Arabic, akin to say Queen's English or other than the archaic nature of it King James Bible English) in a long time, and so I had asked to know the precise questions ahead of time and written out my replies. I was going ok, but I got nervous, spoke very quickly, and when they shot an unexpected question at me I stumbled, scrambled, and barely managed to say something not totally incomprehensible before they mercifully had to finish. Fernandez' skills are more fresh as he does this on a regular basis, but at my peak I was more along his lines and I can see in his use of language something very similar to my own challenges.

So, I figured (having not seen the actual interview) that Fernandez really did say "stupid" and "arrogant" as it's the kind of gaffe I might have made in his shoes. You know, people asking a tough question, he tries to acknowledge things haven't been perfect as a prelude to his "but you have to understand that X Y Z is what's really important", but in the process of that almost afterthought prelude, he accidentally picks a harsher word than he ever would have used in English because his vocabulary is somewhat limited and he's trying to think on his feet in a second language at which he's not nearly as adept as his native language.

For him personally (regardless of my opinions of him as a person or a representative of the US government), that explains things better than any of the political musings or rantings. It's about language abilities. He deserves credit for having accomplished what he has, but also acknowledgement that the level he's up to is not truly "fluent" in the sense of speaking with anywhere near the richness, smoothness, formality, or ease of a well-educated native speaker (of which there are many who appear on Jazeera). For the lack of people with such skills, blame the State Department and US government generally. They do not have any programs in place to develop those kinds of speakers and in my personal experience have shown they have no intention of actually building such a capability.


At 4:56 AM, Blogger badger said...

Very enlightening. I am sure you have hit the nail on the head re Fernandez, and you raised the biggest unacknowledged problem of all: language ability. From my own perspective as a complete outsider, I have the same feeling about Arabic-reading ability, not just in the government but in North American academia as a whole. I have been thinking of launching a "rough-and-ready newspaper Arabic" blog to encourage autodidacts and others in this, but it would be a lot of work...

At 1:49 PM, Anonymous John Burgess said...

As a former State Dept. "Arabist", I have to agree with your assessment of State's language training.

I went through an experimental 8-month basic course in Arabic back in 1980. It was very useful and got me to the intended S2/R2 (speaking/reading) goal. Unfortunately, that was somewhat undone by the fact that I ended Arabic on a Friday and started a 6-week French refresher course the following Monday, in preparation for an assignment in Tunis.

I had my next assignment in Dhahran, KSA, where I actually did build on my Arabic skills while doing my job as Branch Public Affairs Officer.

I then went to Cairo for a year's advanced study. That assignment was itself commentary on Arabic teaching by State. I was an employee of the US Information Agency/Service, then independent from State. USIA had concerns about the quality of education being offered by State's Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Advanced Arabic Program in Tunisia (where it had moved from Lebanon following the kidnappings and bombings). I was put into a private language school that also taught diplomats from other countries. A peer was sent to the American University of Cairo for their program. A third went to State's program in Tunisia.

After a year, we were tested twice: once by FSI (where the FSI-trained student did best); I came second; the AUC came in last. An independent test had me on top; FSI second; AUC third.

As a Foreign Service Information Officer, I had to use Arabic in a much wider frame of reference than the typical State officer. Not only was political vocabulary important, but I also needed vocabulary for education, exchanges, culture, even electricity! (Tri-phase power, anyone?)

Following a strain in US-Syrian relations, I departed Damascus early and was put into another Arabic course in DC. This one was more a tutorial, with just four students, and I learned a lot more.

But even this was not adequate, in my opinion. Rather than the goal of an S3/R3 in Arabic (a level that works pretty well in most world languages) Arabic requires an S4/R4 to truly function well.

FSI's language program is no joke. It's six hours of classes, five days a week, with at least 3-4 hrs of homework every night. Students cannot take leave; only national holidays get you out of the classroom. While you're in language training, the only break from language training are weekly courses in area studies.

But American diplomats are not, for the most part, Arabs. They will learn Fusha and broad regional dialects (Maghrebi, Egyptian, Levantine, Khaliji, Iraqi), but their experience on the ground will have a deep effect on their vocabulary and pronunciation.

When I speak, sometimes I'll pronounce a word with a Shami pronunciation; sometimes, a Masri. It sort of depends on where I picked up that particular vocabulary item. I have Egyptian idioms, Saudi idioms, Yemeni idioms all mixed together with Classical or Fusha phrases. That's the breaks.

Keeffak, Shloanak, Zai-ak, Keef al-hal... they're all the same thing, but used in different regions. Even a word as widespread as "Shukran" isn't ideal in the Maghreb, where "Allah yubarak feek" is preferred.

Luckily--and increasingly--dialects are being weakened through the availability of satellite TV. But they're still there. Bahrain, a tiny country of less than 300 square miles, has at least 28 dialects. A Yemeni from the Hadramaut still benefits from a translator if he's speaking with an Iraqi.

And idiomatically? It's a zoo out there... I recall the story of a Kuwaiti businessman by the name of Zamil Al-Zamil Al-Zamil who was travelling to Morocco. In Morocco, "zamil" means "homosexual". The immigration officer was quite confounded in having to deal with Mr. Al-Zamil, to the point of suggesting he change his name!

At 1:51 PM, Anonymous John Burgess said...

Oh, by the way...

Alberto Fernandez (with whom I've had the great pleasure to work) has been supported by Karen Hughes according to what I recently heard from some other State "Arabists".

At 10:53 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Mr. Burgess, thanks for your comments. Your experience is clearly far more extensive than my own. I spent a few months working for State and then passed all the exams but chose not to join. I had several reasons, one of the key ones was that I decided I didn't want to put lipstick on the pig that is US foreign policy in the Middle East (though if USIA had still been around that might have been a more attractive route). But language was another big one. The more I looked into it, the more I decided I just wouldn't get what I hoped for there. Granted I've probably gotten less now having pursued other routes, but I'll call it the option premium (i.e., if I ever make my money I'll probably head off for a couple years at Al-Azhar) that I found so valuable. I've known a few folks in the Foreign Service who have truly excelled in Arabic. The common threads seemed to be both a strong natural talent for language learning and a lot of personal intiative, frequently combined with unusual job assignments (generally non-political) that got them out there mixing with folks and learning the language from real use. FSI may have been a starting point, but there real ability to excel came from other sources which State didn't and wouldn't provide. And sadly, these folks are few and far between. Hats off to those who do achieve. Just wish you didn't have to spend so much time with the pig lipstick :)

At 10:55 PM, Anonymous John Burgess said...

I guess I saw the fetchingly colored porcine labia as merely an exercise in democracy. I certainly didn't like all the policies I had to promote, but in USIA I was tasked with explaining them, not making people fall over in admiration of them. It provided a good chance for me to learn about policy formation, too.

Explaining what they were and how they came about was a useful exercise that did not compromise my morality. And all FSOs, of course, have the option of pulling the plug and quitting if they feel the need.

USIA--and now PD--officers do spend more of their time out of the office, meeting with wide arrays of people. That's not always due to the traditional State officer's penchant for desk-flying, though.

In Syria, for instance, USIA or PD officers are not considered part of the Embassy, but "cultural representatives" instead. Thus, they do not need Syrian gov't permission to leave Damascus or to meet with anyone they wish. State officers, located a block away, need written permission to meet with any governmental employee, which in Syria means just about everyone of interest.

One State officer stands out, though: Amb. Mark Hambley. Not just a linguist, he was a true "Arabist". He would spend his leave by going out to a Yemeni village and living there for a few weeks--and this was from his assignments in the KSA. He was only a POL officer at the time (Ambassadors can't disappear like that), and no, he didn't ask permission first; just absolution later.

But there are others. John Berry, for instance, ran the Arabic program I attended in Cairo before I recruited him to USIA. He had true, S5/R5 Egyptian Arabic, as well as S4/R4 Chinese.

There are a good handful of multi-lingual officers, some with real fluency in a good dozen languages. They don't always make great officers, of course, but they keep others on their toes.

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