A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Saturday, May 29, 2004 :::
Hoping this Memorial Weekend finds you all enjoying yourselves. Not to rub it in, but free lodging in beautiful seaside Wilmington is a perk to be grateful for. In case you were wondering, it is gorgeous down here. A tad hot, but there is such a thing as air conditioning, and a near quarter century of living in DC without it has innured A Mind That Suits to a certain extent. Between some work, dining with his very own World War II hero, and hanging out in the plentiful young-person joints with young friend Brandon, he has not been much time for extensive blogging. A big one for Memorial Day is brewing.

Last night, young friend Brandon decided we should try Hell's Kitchen, the set of a fictional bar featured on Dawson's Creek that was transformed into a real bar. For anyone who actually saw an episode--a certain pudgy balding English teacher may have seen five--the Ice House on the waterfront, where many of the characters worked in the early seasons, was an actual bar that became a TV set. The "are you really old enough to have this job" bouncer checked the ID of a certain pudgy balding English teacher and said very intentionally, "uh, enjoy yourself." Aside from health inspectors and an obviously absentee owner, it is hard to imagine that many people over 25 have ever passed the door, and it will not become a regular stop, what with the menu where everything is priced "6.66" and whatnot, but it was certainly confirmation that young people are still young people. And loud. And good looking. And funny. And that pudgy, balding English teachers can't keep up and the rational ones (such as this one) don't even try.

Young friend Brandon of course made it to work at 6, looking fully refreshed, whereas his comrade in drinking from teh night before crept out of bed at 8:30, an unusually late time for him.

Back to Iraq:
What else should we have planned for?
Here's one where this writer's professional life makes one thing obvious that is not to most Americans.
First, an old joke: What do you call a person who speaks many languages? Multi-lingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bi-lingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.

"An English-speaker" would be more accurate, as a certain obtuseness toward foreign languages is the product of the peculiar isolation of "les ango-saxons," to borrow Charles de Gaulle's sneering title. The fact is that it is entirely possible to learn another language, especially if your life depends on it, and the main reason English-speakers find it so daunting is that their life rarely depends on it. Business students at Stanford are flooding the Chinese language programs, so even les anglo-saxons can pull it out if they have to.

And in a war, you have to.

Aside from the national "huh" attitude toward foreign languages, typical government "budget creep" also makes clear vision on this issue difficult. When Congress mandates an increase in language studies, the bureaucrats jump in with a year-long full scale intense program removing the student from all other responsibilities. This is unnecessary, as we shall see.

(These programs are also problematic in another sense. The redoubtable Stanley Kurtz over at the National Review, who has an eye for real issues--as well as a remarkable facility with highly difficult languages--has been highlighting the extreme politicization of Middle Eastern Studies, which is a very serious issue. That primarily affects the long range development of skilled Middle Eastern analysts, but, as he has pointed out, dollars meant to prepare people to defend this country have indeed been sucked up by these programs with little accountablity.)

In a war, one does not have the luxury for fully-developed programs. Here, Donald Rumsfeld's fascination with business models for conducting war might actually have made sense, had he felt the need to do any kind of post-battle preparation. (The war is still going on.)

Most people do not learn new languages in a controlled environment, they pick them up as they go along. This does indeed mean that they do not learn the gramamtically pure form of the new languages. They do, however, pick up more nuances than people in the classroom, because there is nothing quite like getting yelled at to teach you that what seemed like a literal translation of an innocuous phrase was actually quite confrontational.

This "on-the-fly" learning is usually caused by the life-and-death aspect to it that most Anglo-Saxons never experience. The military is at a distinact advantage in overcoming that: they have the ability to give direct orders.

Here is a recipe for providing 500 members of a division who are capable of basic communication on arrival in a foreign land and of further learning as matters develop.

1) Use every means possible to cough up 500 "volunteers." They do not need to be officers (college educated.) I met a very well-educated enlisted man who was not old enough to have graduated from college even if he had gone, and he spoke fluent Korean and was much better educated than any product of the deconstructionist cultural studies programs at our elite schools. There are plenty of brainy enlisted men and women. Here's a hint: look for people with musical ability.

2.) Find 10 Arabic speakers. 5 would do. They just would never sleep. But this is war.

3) Buy 500 versions of any of the two very good Arabic introduction courses that seem to be available in the bookstores, and as many copies of two or three single-casette "Arabic to Order Food With"-type programs. Total cost per "pupil:" about $150, tops, so a grand total expenditure of $7500.

4) Break the classes down as you can, and have the "teachers" show the students how to learn a new alphabet. (It involves writing it over and over and over, least ways if it is like learning the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.)

5) Tell them they will have a test one week later.

6) Test them one week later. Test them until they get everything right.

7) Assign them one chapter a week to study at home. Give them a test every week and have them do all the written assignments. Dump the written assignments on the poor "teachers." Make sure that everyone gets the basics down. Do not worry about making as much headway in the academic books, but make sure that the first few chapters are learned cold. Relentless testing is the key.

8) Use only commercailly available tapes and tests, with extra work by the teachers. They do not have to be great new tests. Anybody can come up with some kind of test in about 30 minutes, and let us not forget the virtue of lining up 20 people and shooting questions at them orally for 15 minutes. Once a week should do it.

9) Do this for 15 weeks.

In other words, instead of creating a "friendly learning environment," recreate the hostile one where most people in fact learn new languages.

You will have 500 people who can read the road signs and ask basic questions. In the common experience of immigrants the world over, they will find that they start learning more really quickly once they are in a hostile land. They will also regret not having learned more vocabulary in "class"--all language learners have that regret--but they will also discover they are in an environment where vocabulary comes quickly.

500 qualified translators? No, but a damnsight better than what we had. But as most Americans think learning is impossible, and most programs would be led by bureaucrats and professors who want only fully developed programs and students who speak Classical Arabic, this is probably dreaming.

But it is entirely possible. Just ask Juan down at the corner for a pack of Marlboros. It may not be pretty, but it will work.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 9:59 AM



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