Immersed in Iraq, But Not Speaking the Language

There are 1,100 employees in the U.S. embassy in Iraq, all living in the middle of a war among and against Arabic-speaking enemies.

Of those embassy employees, the Iraq Study Group found that only six speak fluent Arabic.

The lack of Arabic speakers in the embassy is indicative of an overall shortage of Americans who speak the language.

Increasingly, Americans are making efforts to learn. For example, Americans Miriam Asnes and Nora Barakat went to Cairo, Egypt, to study Arabic. But in that huge, bustling city, they stand out -- not only as Americans, but also as Americans who speak near-fluent Arabic.

"You are not going to speak the language fluently," Asnes said, "unless you understand a whole list of things about the culture and how people interact, and how values and things work."

"Because the U.S. government has such a stake in this region right now and is putting so much money into it," said Barakat, "the American people need to understand more of what is going on."

Although more Americans are studying Arabic at home and abroad, only 10 percent of U.S. colleges offer courses in the subject.

And like the U.S. embassy in Iraq, the FBI -- which investigates terrorism cases -- only has a small number of Arabic speakers. In October, the Washington Post reported just 33 of 12,000 agents could speak the language, and most not well.

U.S. soldiers shipping out to Iraq usually try to learn a few Arabic phrases, but critics say the lack of fluent Americans is making U.S. problems in Iraq immeasurably worse.

"It is not an accident that three-and-a-half years into the war in Iraq, we really don't know who the enemy is," said Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International and an ABC News analyst. "We don't know anything about the insurgency. We know very little about the Shia death squads. We're really operating in the dark."

For Iraqis, helping Americans speak Arabic can be dangerous. Those who work with American soldiers as interpreters often wear masks in public because they are so frequently targets of assassination.

American companies are rushing to fill the language void with new technology. There is software to translate speech, though imperfectly, and a device that clips onto a soldier's uniform is being field tested.

But critics say that technology can never replace having real people who speak the language, and that the government needs to make a massive investment in training Arabic speakers, as it did during the Cold War with training Russian speakers.

"We can't just wait for demand to create supply," Zakaria said. "We have to actually create the supply of the programs, teachers. If that means hiring people from around the world, if that means trying to find people in the Arab-American community, all that is fine. But we can't wait for this to happen at a leisurely pace. The need is now."