Deciphering the Rising Sun

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Following up on earlier LL posts about language training in the U.S. military (e.g. "The interpreter shortage", 10/17/2005; "Linguistics in 1940", 3/11/2007) Jim Gordon sent a pointer to Roger Dingman's Deciphering the Rising Sun: Navy and Marine Corps Codebreakers, Translators and Interpreters in the Pacific War, Naval Institute Press, 2009. From a review by Ian Nish at the Japan Society:

Professor Dingman has based this enlightening study on extended interviews with former officers in the US Navy and Marine Corps who are now in their upper 80s. But he has also made much use of the unpublished memoirs to be found in the Navy Language School Collection in the Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder where they were trained. It is a tribute to the US government – and the British for that matter – that they appreciated the importance of training linguists during the Asia-Pacific war and had the foresight to recruit and train personnel not of Japanese ancestry to study the Japanese language with a view to serving as language officers. Dingman concludes that it was a successful experiment and draws a painful parallel with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq:

“In June 2002 America teetered on the cusp of a war in Iraq that has lasted longer than the titanic struggle which the World War II language officers fought… It led to swift military victory, but true peace has proven elusive in the disastrously mismanaged, occupation that followed… those in our armed forces charged with carrying out their orders lacked knowledge of Iraq’s history and culture and of the language of its people. (pp. 249-50)”

While there's no question that more interpreters would have been better, I wonder whether deficiencies in military language training bear any significant responsibility for the well-documented problems in managing the American occupation of Iraq. And I also wonder whether the good qualities of the Navy Language School in the 1940s were critical to the success of the American occupation of Japan.

In the first place, I'm fairly certain that the Defense Language Institute graduated many more people from its Arabic programs during (say) 2001-2003 than the Navy Language School graduated from its Japanese program between July 1943 (when the first class finished) to August 1945 (when the U.S. occupation of Japan began). And on the second place, I believe that the U.S. occupation of Japan ended up being mainly managed by the Army rather than the Navy.  Certainly Douglas MacArthur was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces.

For a picture of what the American occupation was like from a linguistic point of view, I can recommend J. Marshall Ungar's Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines, OUP 1966, and (if you can find it) Robert King Hall Jr.'s Education for a New Japan, Yale University Press, 1949. In particular, it's interesting to follow their description of the argument over whether to force a switch away from kanji ("Chinese chararcters") to the exclusive use of kana (syllabary) or romanization. Although the intellectual and political arguments were complex ones, my impression is that overall, Americans in the military who were better trained in Japanese language and culture (like Hall, who was one of the Navy's Japanese experts) tended to be on the anti-kanji side of the debate. The (pro-kanji) winners of the argument were, I think,  basically following MacArthur's general policy of leaving the Japanese governmental bureaucracy largely in place, and letting it decide most things not seen as central to American interests.

The most relevant criticism of the U.S. military's Arabic language training would not, I think, be the quantity or quality of Arabic-language students, but rather a decision made a long before the first Gulf War about what language to teach them. Rather than learning one of the various regional colloquial versions of Arabic, students were only taught Modern Standard Arabic.  From a linguistic point of view, that's roughly like teaching people Latin and then sending them to duty stations in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

I was once told by someone at DLI that they used to teach several different "colloquials", but found that the various military branches were not able to keep the differences straight, and would assign someone who had learned Moroccan Arabic to the gulf, or vice versa, so that DLI gave up and went with MSA alone, since that's the standard written form which students need to learn anyhow. According to the website of the DLI's Middle Eastern Schools, they now once again teach Levantine, Egyptian, and Iraqi "dialects", "in the third semester of instruction, after students have gained a solid foundation in MSA".

Anyhow, none of this detracts from the interest of Dingman's history, which I've ordered and look forward to reading.

[Update -- there is some interesting and useful discussion at The Volokh Conspiracy.]

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21 Comments »

  1. Will Steed said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    "10/17/2205" Quoting sources from the future has got to be unethical somehow. :P

    [(myl) !@&$ off-brand time machine!]

  2. David Edelstein said,

    April 25, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

    I was an Arabic language student at DLI in the early 90s. They did start teaching one of the dialects in the last semester (mine was Iraqi), but as I recall, it was only a few hours a week, and we really didn't absorb much. The DLPT (the test which determines your language proficiency, qualification to keep your job as a linguist, and most importantly, your bonus pay and eligibility for promotion) was entirely MSA (and to my knowledge, still is).

  3. [links] Link salad is subterranean homesick | jlake.com said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    [...] Deciphering the Rising Sun — Language Log on military linguistics in WWII and in Mr. Bush's War. [...]

  4. Army1987 said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    Rather than learning one of the various regional colloquial versions of Arabic, students were only taught Modern Standard Arabic. From a linguistic point of view, that's roughly like teaching people Latin and then sending them to duty stations in France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

    Very roughly. In these countries practically nobody is able to understand (much less speak) spoken Latin. (In some high schools in Italy, students are taught ‘Latin’, but this actually means they are taught to translate formal written texts from Latin to Italian at a speed of about six lines per hour and using a bilingual dictionary; most of these students don't even know how to say “please” in Latin.) In the Middle East, instead, most literate people would have at least a more-or-less decent comprehension of MSA.

    [(myl) This is true. But someone with a year of intensive MSA would (I gather) be pretty much at a loss to understand the way that Iraqis, literate or otherwise, generally talk among themselves. Certainly that's the report that I've gotten from DLI graduates who applied their Arabic-language skills in Iraq.]

  5. Adam said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 9:49 am

    I've been told that a lot of contemporary broadcasting (particularly news) in the Arabic world is in MSA. Is that wrong, or is the comparison of MSA with Latin a bit of an exaggeration?

    [(myl) Yes, as I understand it, news programming is generally in locally-accented MSA.]

  6. Sili said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    that the various military branches were not able to keep the differences straight, and would assign someone who had learned Moroccan Arabic to the gulf, or vice versa

    Sadly, I'm not surprised. I guess it's a sign that I haven't served that I can still get angry at this sort of incompetence. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater comes to mind.

    But I guess at least the military can point to their having far bigger problems with their language officers that ending DADT won't actually make a difference.

  7. y81 said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    Isn't teaching modern standard Arabic more akin to teaching people Parisian French and sending them to the slums of Haiti, or Oxbridge English and sending them to Jamaican countryside, than it is to teaching people Latin? Which is to say, that one could in fact navigate the Haitian slums speaking French, or the Jamaican countryside speaking standard English, though one would have to speak slowly and clearly and demand that one's interlocutor repeat various items and try alternate verbal formulations.

    [(myl) Perhaps so. As noted above, in any case, educated Arabic speakers will generally be able to understand MSA, and to speak it more or less well. Perhaps it's more like what it would have been like to teach someone Latin and send them to work in Italy or France in 1550 or so; except that literacy rates are higher in Arabic-speaking countries today.]

  8. uberVU - social comments said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

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  9. Jim said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    "But I guess at least the military can point to their having far bigger problems with their language officers that ending DADT won't actually make a difference."

    There's an obvious connection, to. And DADT especially imbecilic in this context. I would think the lack of a gag reflex would be really helpful in learning Arabic of any variety.*

    *(In-house joke about the Army's imbecilic method of attempting to ferret out gays in the 1940s)

  10. Army1987 said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    But someone with a year of intensive MSA would (I gather) be pretty much at a loss to understand the way that Iraqis, literate or otherwise, generally talk among themselves.
    The same applies to many older speakers in Italy, who at home mostly speak ‘dialects’ (so called — by their speakers but not by most linguist — because of the lack of an army and a navy, though IMO some of them are less mutually intelligible with Italian than Spanish is). My parents speak almost exclusively Neapolitan to each other, to family, and to friends from Campania, despite having lived outside Campania for more than 20 years, and despite my mother being an Italian teacher. My grandparents are probably about as fluent in Italian as I am in English.

  11. Ex-SP6 Bob said,

    April 26, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    "…someone with a year of intensive MSA would (I gather) be pretty much at a loss to understand the way that Iraqis, literate or otherwise, generally talk among themselves."

    I was a German student at DLI in 1966 — an intensive 24-week course, 6 hours of class a day, 2 – 3 hours of homework a night. After language school and another few months of training elsewhere I was sent to what was then called "West Berlin."

    I thought I was a pretty hot German lingust ("linguist" used here in the DLI sense) until I heard Berliners speaking their brand of German — which probably bore as much relationship to the Hanover Hochdeutsch I had learned as Iraqi Arabic bears to MSA — and realized I couldn't understand a word they were saying. It took me about 6 more months of hearing Berlinerdeutsch every day before I felt confident that I understood a substantial portion of what was being said.

    I'm guessing the situation is similar for Arabic DLI grads, who have learned MSA in school but are on their own to pick up the local brand of Arabic once they get to their duty stations.

    [(myl) I'm pretty sure that the distance between MSA and everyday Iraqi colloquial Arabic is a good deal greater -- in lexicon, in morphology, in pronunciation -- than the distance between Hanover Hochdeutsch and the Berlin brand of German. (You could try to quantify the lexical difference by looking at average percentage of cognates in "translations", and the pronuncation difference by looking at some kind of weighted edit distance between broad IPA transcriptions, etc., though I don't know that anyone has ever tried to do such a thing.) This is not to minimize the differences among regional varieties of German, or the differences between formal and informal varieties of nearly any modern language, or the difficulties that these differences pose for adult learners. But the relationship of Modern Standard Arabic to the colloquials really is, I think, like the relationship of contemporary Vatican Latin to Italian or Spanish.]

  12. Stephen Jones said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 2:20 am

    Your comparison with Vatican Latin in Italy would only be valid if Italians read the newspaper every day in Latin, watched TV and listened to the radio in Latin, heard their politicians speak in Latin, and wrote it at school.

    In general most Iraqis will understand MSA and be capable of making a fair stab at speaking it. After all Iraqis or Egyptians get around with little problem in the Gulf and they will be communicating with Gulf Arabs in MSA.

    Ferguson based his concept of diglossia on the Arab World.

  13. Bill Poser said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 2:25 am

    I wonder whether the problem of the military assigning people to areas in which the wrong "dialect" of Arabic is spoken could not be solved simply by changing the terminology. If someone has learned Moroccan Arabic, don't list "Moroccan Arabic" as one of his languages. Instead, list "Maghrebi". If he has learned Iraqi Arabic, list "Mesopotamian". For each of the major "dialects", make up a name and treat it for administrative purposes as a language.

  14. Mark S. said,

    April 27, 2010 @ 2:33 am

    Most of the first chapter of Unger's Literacy and Script Reform in Occupation Japan: Reading Between the Lines, mentioned above, is available on my site: Scholarly Neglect.

  15. Lane said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

    Every diglossia is unique – I don't think anyone here would dispute that. None of the modern diglossias are much like the Arabic world either; we could find major sociolinguistic differences in the canonical cases of Swiss German, Greek, Haitian creole and any other… I think that Mark's point is that if you know *only* MSA, you will be pretty helpless in the Arab world.

    I had an enlightening trip to West Point about a month ago for a tour. My group was told proudly how many more cadets these days study abroad than ever before – previously, an academic semester abroad was nearly unheard of, and in just the past ten years the numbers have shot up. (Of course cadets also do military duty during summers, but this is different; they aren't really immersed in local cultures, most of them.)

    We were meeting with a few firstie (senior) cadets who had won various prestigious graduate scholarships, and the one I chatted with just happened to be an Arabic and Math major. I said, "oh, btihki 'arabi?" in my recently-acquired Levantine, he piped up in pleasant surprise, and we went on to have a minute's conversation in Levantine (his was better than mine). Turns out he had spent either a semester or a summer in Amman (I can't remember which.) Impressive kid. I told him so, and that the army must be doing a better job than I thought. But he replied that there were plenty of "Arabic majors" at West Point who really still struggled with the language.

    This isn't DLI, which I imagine is full-time intensive in a way West Point, with its many other priorities, never could be. But Arabic majors who almost can't use Arabic? I have to say that just after meeting this kid my hopes shot up; then he dashed them. It was just my weird luck to meet perhaps the best Arabic-speaker at West Point.

    I think the issue is something like this: what bright young would-be linguist wants to make his career in… Egyptian? Iraqi? "Arabic" is grand; we all know America will be involved with the Arab world for a very long time, it's indisputably a great world language (whatever it is), and so on. Tell Mandarin looks attractive. Tell him "Arabic is great – you just have to learn basically two very distinct languages to have the competency of a normal human being!" and Mandarin looks better yet. "Arabic" is a daunting prospect, believe me.

  16. Lane said,

    April 29, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    Ooops, a bit of that last para got mangled. It should read

    I think the issue is something like this: what bright young would-be linguist wants to make his career in… Egyptian? Iraqi? "Arabic" is grand; we all know America will be involved with the Arab world for a very long time, it's indisputably a great world language (whatever it is), and so on. But telling a budding language-learner that his "Arabic" will be either no good for speaking, or it will be limited to one country or smallish region, and all the sudden Mandarin looks attractive. "Arabic" is a daunting prospect, believe me.

  17. Stephen Jones said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 2:23 am

    I think that Mark's point is that if you know *only* MSA, you will be pretty helpless in the Arab world.

    So a Moroccan is helpless in Iraq, and an Iraqi in Saudi because they only know MSA and their home dialect, which the people in the host country won't understand? Not my experience.

  18. Lane said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:06 am

    But a Moroccan doesn't know only MSA and his dialect. He has a lot more than that available to him when he tries to get along elsewhere. He probably understands Egyptian very well from television and films, and he is probably familiar with Levantine through some of the same cultural forces. Further, two Arabs from widely different countries are largely familiar with what words and phrases are unique to their dialect and avoid them, while converging on features common to all or most of the dialects, and then leaning on Egyptian or MSA words or constructions that "everybody knows" as necessary to fill it, out.

    As I say, a unique diglossia; comparison to any other can only be partial. MSA is about as different from modern Egyptian as Latin is from Italian. When you're in a hurry explaining Arabic diglossia to someone, this isn't the worst comparison to begin with. And if you have a little more time, the above (which was explained to me by Mohammed Maamouri, Mark's colleague at Penn, in an interview for my book) can follow.

  19. Lane said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that Maamouri told me that two Arabs from different regions discussing a technical topic – he mentioned computer science – will often switch to English (or less often, French), which is much easier if one wants to avoid confusion. That tells you a lot, too.

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    That tells you a lot, too.

    Tells you very little. Speakers of the same language and dialect will often change to English when discussing computers.

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    April 30, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    as different from modern Egyptian as Latin is from Italian. When you're in a hurry explaining Arabic diglossia to someone, this isn't the worst comparison to begin with

    But the difference is the majority of Arab speakers do understand MSA, whilst the majority of Italians do not understand Latin.

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