Americans and Arabic
As a university student in the 1970s Condoleezza Rice did the smart thing and learned to speak Russian. Today, the smart thing is to study Arabic. In Washington DC, a lot of people are trying to learn the language. One American I know found the experience so difficult that he switched to a diplomatic career in Europe. Another was so excited by the opportunities that he went to Iraq to help found “Lamp of Liberty“. I never heard from him since but can only wish him safety. And yet more and more Americans attend The Washington DC Arabic Language & Culture Meetup Club to practice their language skills. When I ask them why they are learning, many are uncomfortable. Some, I suspect, are trying to avoid telling an Arab that they want to become spies for the US government.
But Americans in particular, and the West in general, must learn how to communicate with Arabs.
Of course, Americans will try to use technology to for all of their problems. The results are increasingly impressive. Google’s Franz Och, a 35-year-old German working in the California headquarters, passionately discusses how he trains his software. Like Jean-FranÃ§ois Champollion looking at the Rosetta Stone 200 years ago, Och’s software looks at text for statistical evidence that two words in two languages mean the same thing. But he has a quantity of text that would have shocked his French predecessor. Every day he feeds long documents from the United Nations – both English and their Arabic language translations – into Google’s powerful computers. The results are freely available from Google’s homepage, and the Arabic version is at http://www.google.com/language_tools?hl=ar.
There is an opportunity here for Arabs. Sakhr Software USA, using tools of the original Kuwaiti company, has won contracts from the Department of Homeland Security for its translation software. At a party organized by the Bahraini Embassy I chatted to one of their programmers. He was proud of his company’s products but frustrated by how long it took to obtain the trust of the American government. A few months after that the hysteria of Dubai Ports began, but Arab businesses continued their work.
But the opportunity for Arabs is much larger than a business one: we can help Americans understand our Arab viewpoints, and why we hold these, rather than lamenting misunderstandings and fighting in frustration.
An interesting example is from the Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia that allows anyone to improve existing work. The Chinese government regularly censors access to the website. Jimmy Wales, its founder, was born in Alabama, 100 miles away from Ms. Rice’s birthplace. When Mr. Wales discusses China’s censorship, he does not say that China’s government is depriving its citizens from access to the Wikipedia’s knowledge, although it does. Rather, he says that censorship stops the world from hearing China’s viewpoints. Only those outside the censorship can write on the website – citizens from Taiwan, from Singapore, from America, and from all other countries that may have opposing viewpoints to the Chinese government.
So Mr. Wales encourages citizens from all over the world to contribute. There is, of course, an Arabic language website, which Mr. Wales often highlights. It is written by Arabs for Arabs but still mostly focuses on computing technology, reflecting the interests of its enthusiastic authors.
But more of us should be writing more. Because just as Ms. Rice was smart to learn to talk to the Russians, we should be smart and learn to talk to Americans.