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.