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[Winning the war of words]: At a time of international conflict, language can make or break peace.

I just returned from a vacation that encompassed travel in the western U.S. from Nebraska to Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. At many places were roadside markers noting that I was on the route of the U.S.'s famous explorers Lewis and Clark.

On Sept. 23, 1804, American history could have changed forever. At the site of what is now Pierre, S.D., Capt. Meriwether Lewis and Lt. William Clark, on a mission for Thomas Jefferson to discover the magnitude of the Louisiana Purchase, met a hostile band of Sioux Indians. Since leaving St. Louis a few months earlier, the explorers had been able to communicate with the various Indian tribes using sign language and some simple words. But this tactic no longer worked. The Sioux were befuddled, if not angry, about why they were there, and Lewis could not explain.

With dialogue impossible, Lewis saved the day by having his troops drill, shoot off a cannon, and last but not least, share a glass of whiskey. But in early November, when Lewis had a chance to add a French Canadian by the name of Touissant Charbonneau to his team along with his 15-year-old pregnant wife, Sacagawea, he took it. He realized his communication problems in the expedition were getting worse and threatening its success, so by adding the couple he would fix the problem. Before he ran out of whiskey.

From this point on he would communicate with the Indians he encountered in a roundabout fashion. Charbonneau also had a partner--a mulatto who spoke both English and French. Lewis would speak English to the partner, who would translate it into French for Charbonneau. Charbonneau would translate it to Hidatsu, the language of the Shoshones. Hidatsu was spoken throughout the Upper Midwest. When the expedition reached the Pacific, they found the Indians there spoke only Walla Walla. But the team had captured a Shoshone warrior years before who spoke both Walla Walla and Hidatsu. As a result of this chain, Lewis and Clark were able to set up a communication system and accomplish the goals of their mission. A bit of communication history we never read much about.


The U.S. has embarked on a war and a reconstruction effort that also present unique communication challenges. In conventional wars (if such a thing exists anymore) you really don't have to worry about being able to communicate; you simply kill the enemy as quickly as possible and worry about little else. This philosophy led to such attacks as the Allied firebombing of Dresden in WWJI and the dropping of A-bombs on Japanese cities.

The current conflict in Afghanistan is far different. In this situation, the U.S. and its partners are trying to extract a foreign force (Osama bin Laden and his Saudi Arabs who speak Arabic), defeat a faction (the Taliban, who speak primarily Pashto), strengthen a Northern Alliance (who speak Uzbek, Tajik and Dan), manage a coalition (who speak Urdu, Tajik, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Turkmen, German, Turkish, Russian and British English) and then rebuild a country that can get along with its neighbors (where they also speak Farsi and Chinese). These are just the language differences, not even to mention the political, ideological and religious conflicts. A friend of mine who runs a language translation firm called this "the height of lingoterrorism."

Interviews with a number of people in the military, the intelligence services and diplomatic circles reveal that there is no central "language cop," no Sacagawea to make sure what is meant to be said is what is being said. Lewis and Clark did not take communication for granted in managing their expedition- nor should the U.S. in fighting a war and then reconstructing a country.


To be sure, some flavor of English is being used among the various parties as a common language at the militia stage of this conflict, but even that is fraught with peril. U.S. military English is loaded with acronyms and very precise, yet obtuse, language. This quotation comes from an ordnance manual: It is necessary for technical reasons that warheads should be stored upside down, with the top at the bottom and the bottom at the top. In order that there be no doubt as to which is the bottom and which the top, for storage purposes, it will be seen that the bottom of each warhead has been labeled with the word "top."

It should be no surprise that a bulletin from the Defense Language Institute English Language Center (DLIELC), which trains foreign military in English, cautions, "First forget everything you have previously learned or understood about English language training..."

Use of English can be dangerous unless you go to the trouble to figure out whose version you will use. Even common terms like truck, battery and propeller can be hazards, for in British English they are lorry, accumulator and airscrew.

The Defense Language Institute is also the U.S. organization that trains the U.S. military in other languages. It was set up secretly in November 1941 to teach Japanese. The founders must have known something, because a month later Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.

The DLI needs to catch up to current events quickly, as the Middle East program currently concentrates on Arabic, Greek, Turkish and Hebrew. During the Vietnam War, the Institute did train some 20,000 service people in Vietnamese. This type of survival linguistics, or as it's sometimes called, "guerrilla linguistics," program will be needed as soon as possible.

The suddenness and the breadth of this conflict caught everyone by surprise. The DLI's situation would be like a company having to gear up to sell and communicate in 10 new markets at once and to find the language resources to deal with them. But the consequences of not being able to communicate are much more severe than in the private sector. In 1994, Wal-Mart was forced to shut down for a day in Mexico to comply with the country's language laws. But in the Afghan conflict, political catastrophes and even death can result if you can't make yourself understood. Will everyone understand "direct fire" or "fly-over" in their military context, or will people who hear these terms think of campfires or insects instead?


Here are some steps that should be taken to improve communication:

* Have a single manager: The employment boards for the CIA and the FBI show that a huge effort is under way to find people who speak many of the languages needed now. Just as a head of Homeland Security was appointed in the U.S. to watch citizens' backs, it would make sense to appoint one person to sort out the language issues facing the conduct of the war and the subsequent reconstruction.

* Develop and disseminate a common glossary: The simplest thing to do would be to develop a glossary of important terms that are being used militarily and politically and translate them, then back-translate them into all the languages present in this conflict. This step would ensure that someone using one of these terms would know how it is regarded in other languages.

* Use all the technology available: Make sure that all of the modern language technology at our disposal is used in this effort, from globalization platforms to translation memory and machine translation.

The U.S. has used translation technology to win wars in the past. The Cold War helped develop and refine machine translation (MT). During the Cold War, the U.S. helped finance companies to develop MT technology to translate mountains of information from Russian into a form Americans could understand. And during WWII, the U.S. used language technology to break down military codes used by the Germans and the Japanese to gain a huge advantage.

* Consult with the private sector: When the FBI needed to find interpreters in Pashto, Arabic and Dan to deal with domestic issues, they simply had people sign in on their web site. The agency could have saved a lot of time by going to companies and organizations that have long handled work in these languages. Very quickly, the FBI could have learned who was familiar or not so familiar with a language, and then determined which language could be used to communicate with other languages.

John Freivalds is principal of JFA no., in Minneapolis, Minn.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Changing Language Quandary

Those of us who have studied languages or manage them in our work usually deal in FIGS: French, Italian, German and Spanish. We see Spanish everywhere, and in case those of you in the U.S. haven't noticed, your passport is also written in French.

But the current conflict in Afghanistan will bring us in touch with a lot of languages we have never heard of before--not to mention know anything about. I have worked in Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait and Bahrain and was able to learn quite a bit of each language spoken. All these languages have influenced English. Our alcohol comes from al kuhl, the powder of antimony; algebra comes from the Arabic al-jabr (the science of reuniting); and for you alpha beta fraternity and sorority types, remember that the first two letters in Arabic are alif and baa. I am Latvian by birth, and many Persian words and numbers are the same as I use in Latvian.

To raise your awareness, here is a quick rundown on the quagmire of the Afghan conflict.

PASHTO: A member of the Iranian group of languages spoken by 11 million people in Pakistan and 8 million in Afghanistan, where it is the official language along with Dari. It is written in the Arabic alphabet and has a literary tradition from the 16th century.

DARI: The local name for Persian, or Farsi, as it's called in Iran, where it is the official language. Spoken by 5.5 million in Afghanistan, it is written in the Arabic alphabet and dates from the first millennium B.C.

URDU: Along with English, the official language of Pakistan. Urdu displays little structural difference from Hindi, one of India's official languages. It is written in the Persian Arabic alphabet.

UZBEK: A member of the Turkic branch of the Altaic languages spoken by 15 million people. It is the official language of Uzbekistan and spoken by some in nearby Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan and China. It is written in Cyrillic in the former Soviet republics and in the Arabic alphabet elsewhere.

TAJIK: A member of the Iranian group of languages, spoken by 6 million people in Tajikistan (where it is the official language) and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. It is written in Cyrillic in the former Soviet republics and in Arabic in Afghanistan.

TURKMEN: Spoken by about 3 million people chiefly in Turkmenistan, where it is the official language, and also in Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. It was traditionally written in the Arabic alphabet, but in Cyrillic in the former Soviet republics and the Roman alphabet elsewhere.

KIRGHIZ: A Turkic language that is the official language of the Kyrgyz Republic and is spoken by 2 million people there and in nearby parts of Afghanistan and China. It is written in Cyrillic.

KAZAKH: A member of the Turkic branch of languages. It is the official language of Kazakhstan but also spoken in China, Mongolia, Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan. It is written in Cyrillic in Kazakhstan.

TURKISH: Chief member of the Turkic group of languages, and official language of Turkey. Also spoken in Bulgaria and Cyprus. Though Turkish was originally written in Arabic, the Roman alphabet was introduced in 1929 as part of Kemal Ataturk's modernization program.

ARABIC: Chief member of the Semitic group of languages and spoken by 150 million people. The 28-letter Arabic alphabet is written from right to left. It has one standard written form, which can be understood by all Arab speakers. The script is cursive in that there is no distinction between printing and writing of the sort that exists in European languages.
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Author:Freivalds, John
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
Previous Article:Letters to the editor.
Next Article:Can PR save media?: Standing up to the reporter results in a big yes for the news.

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