People visit the September 11th monument, made from girders from the World Trade Center, for a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of the multiple terrorist attacks. (Joshua McKerrow / BSMG)

Sixteen years ago, the U.S. lost almost 3,000 lives to an Al Qaeda-led terrorist attack. Inarguably, these tragic events have had an enormous impact on our daily life at home as well as on the international relations.

As we commemorate the 16th anniversary of the attacks, the first thing we have to do is to join our fellow Americans in paying tribute to all the victims and in expressing our condolences to their grieving families. Another thing we have to do is to keep devising effective mechanisms to possibly prevent those tragedies from happening again. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, while the U.S. Army was fighting back in Afghanistan and Iraq, many U.S. international educators, diplomats and national security experts have understood the urgent need for diplomatic and other non-military solutions, including but not limited to public or people-to-people diplomacy and dealing with monolingualism and the world language crisis in the U.S. In these short reflections, I would like to focus on the importance of world language skills for the national security.


In the post-Cold War and post-September 11th era, America's chronic monolingualism raises three concerns. First, it reminds us that the actual status of English as the de facto global lingua franca has further reinforced Americans' negative attitude toward world languages. Second, it reveals shortcomings in the U.S. education system whereby students "take" world languages but don't speak them. Third, it undermines the U.S. national interest, security, public diplomacy, and global leadership.

The tragic events of Sept. 11 and the global war on terrorism have raised key questions about, and shown the major problems with, American monolingualism. Hunting down terrorists requires more than smart bombs, drones and interpreters. It also requires cultural understanding, communication and public diplomacy, all of which require world language skills, most of which must be integral parts of the curriculum and world-ready education. To solve world language shortages and related problems, the U.S. government has to do many different things, including but not limited to the need to hire thousands of foreign language specialists for homeland security, defense and intelligence agencies. Unfortunately, according to Kevin Hendzel of The American Translators Association, "it will take intelligence agencies between 10 and 15 years to catch up in translating tons of materials recovered from Iraq and Afghanistan." Consequently, as a society, we pay a huge price for not being competent in foreign languages.

A quick assessment of problems and needs suggests that the U.S. has world language skills shortages. These problems ought to be tackled as part of the comprehensive solutions to national interest and security. According to the world-language compendium Ethnologue, there are as many as 162 indigenous and immigrant languages spoken in the U.S. However, there are serious issues behind this impressive number. The U.S. Census 2000 showed that only 18 percent of U.S. citizens age five years and older spoke a language other than English at home. In other words, 82 percent of the Americans are monolingual English speakers. Many immigrants' children miss the opportunity to grow up bilingual due to the legacy of encouraging immigrants to speak only English. Moreover, a legacy of misunderstanding globalization prevents some people from learning world languages. The misunderstanding consists of characterizing globalization as "Americanization," or "McDonaldization." This misconception of globalization has led many people — especially in the United States and in Anglophone countries— to believe that the whole world has already been "Anglo-Americanized." Therefore, English — the de facto global lingua franca so far — is spoken by virtually everybody in the world. Of course, this belief offers no solution to the world language crisis in the USA. But does the whole world or even half of it speak English? According to Ethnologue, Mandarin is the first most spoken language in the world with approx. 1.3 billion speakers. English is the second most spoken language with approximately 1 billion speakers, including people who speak it as a second language. Currently, the world population is estimated at approx. 7 billion. So, most of the world doesn't speak English. In July and August 2008, for example, I traveled to China and South Korea to attend two international conferences. I realized that the overwhelming majority of my taxi drivers in Beijing, Wuhan, and Seoul did not speak English. Why should they? In addition, at the World Forum on Axiology in Xi'an, China, my American colleagues and I presented our papers in English to a predominantly Mandarin-speaking audience. The Questions and Answers period was very short, not because everything was clear, nor because of the lack of time, but because of the language barrier. The whole world doesn't speak English. When Chinese scholars come to the U.S. for conferences, most of them do their best to present in English. I wish some of us did the same when we present papers in China.

Another problem is the fact that in the U.S., world language skills are viewed as a cultural pursuit and almost never as an important economic skill and a serious national security issue. However, this view overlooks the reality that the knowledge of another language is essential in 60 occupations or so. In 2005, or four years after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks, for example, the National Security Agency hired or planned on hiring additional 1,500 people every year until 2010. While the State Department was expected to hire 400 Foreign Service generalists. Hill confirmed the needs for more skilled language workers in many occupations by noting that there is a troubling shortage of people with foreign language skills in many areas, including but not limited to military troops, intelligence analysts, translators, interpreters, or just federal employees delivering services to an increasingly diverse American population. With regard to the U.S. national security, Hill also deplored the fact that "The Defense and State Departments, intelligence agencies, the FBI and many other agencies were suffering severe shortages of linguists even before 9/11." Rep. Rush Bolt, a Democrat from New Jersey made a clear connection between the language shortages and the U.S. global war on terrorism by asking the right question at the right time, that is, "If Osama bin Laden is truly American public enemy No. 1, how do we expect to track him down if we cannot speak the languages [Pashto and Farsi] of the people who are hiding him?

Other areas affected by the shortages of language workers, according to Hill, are education [shortage of qualified world language teachers], surveillance and military operations, the court system, hospitals, and diplomacy. In the diplomatic area, John Lambert - President of the American Foreign Service Association—states, "The shortage of linguists makes our mission of representing the American people that much harder."

As a part of a national effort to advocate for world language skills, the year 2005 was "The Year of Languages" in the U.S. The years 2005-2015 were the "Decade of Languages." In 2005, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) held its 39th Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. Its theme was, "2005-2015: Realizing Our Vision of Languages for All." It invited all caring teachers to speak up for the foreign language education in the United States of America, thereby bridging the world language divide and resolving some of the national security problems. Two years after the Decade of Languages, and as a part of our commemorative reflections on the September 11th attacks, it is necessary to assess successes and shortcomings relative to the national attitude toward world languages. World language skills matter.

Dr. Zekeh Gbotokuma

The writer is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morgan State University, Baltimore, Maryland; Founder, Polyglots in Action for Diversity, Inc. (PAD), and Author/Editor, A Polyglot Pocket Dictionary of Lingala, English, French, and Italian.


Send letters to the editor to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.