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On the Tower of Babel as a National Security issue

[ by Charles Cameron — bilingual politics and forked tongues, also the KJV ]

SPEC languages


  • Husain Haqqani, upper panel
  • Itamar Marcus, lower panel
  • If you watch the two videos linked above, from which these quotes were taken, you will glimpse the stunning degree to which the use of native languages other than English permits the transmission of messages to local populations to which we are not privy, and which indeed may dangerously contradict the messages emanating from those same sources for international consumption in English.

    Flashback to 1979:

    On October 15, 1979 the members of the President’s Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies submitted their report to President Jimmy Carter. This multifaceted document of 150 pages presented 65 recommendations directed toward ameliorating what the report described as “America’s scandalous incompetence in foreign languages.” Woven into these recommendations and their supporting texts were no fewer than 70 references to study abroad, international exchanges and/or overseas experiences. The frequency with which these references appeared suggests that the members of the commission were convinced that such experiences, in and of themselves, would play a major role in altering the sorry state of affairs in which the United States found itself with respect to the learning of second languages.

    How are we doing, thirty-five years on, and how will we be doing five, ten years from now?


    On a lighter note:

    The English language is supreme — God speaks it. As one writer on the internet notes with regard to translations of the Bible other than the King James Version:

    The new versions have been translated in America, which is not a monarchy. God’s form of government is a theocratic monarchy, not a democracy. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that His word would be translated for the English speaking people under a monarchy with an English king. I know the King James Bible is the word of God because it was translated under a king.

    I kid you not / just kidding.

    13 Responses to “On the Tower of Babel as a National Security issue”

    1. Cheryl Rofer Says:

      It’s not just English.
      The Soviet Union periodically tried to impose Russian in place of other languages. The conquering nation always insists on its language. And it is said that Estonians and Russians both believe that Estonian is the world’s most difficult language. I suspect that part of the reason that the Baltic States were best prepared to leave the Soviet Union was that their languages allowed them to plan out of the eyes of the Soviet overlords. (Latvian and Lithuanian are completely different from Estonian, but not as close to Russian as Ukrainian.) Even now, the parts of Russia that are showing the most signs of independence are those with languages differing significantly from Russian.
      Or we could consider India and Great Britain.

    2. Grurray Says:

      Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich once said, ‘A language is a dialect with an army and navy’

    3. Charles Cameron Says:

      Which raises the question: How many divisions does Church Slavonic have?

    4. david ronfeldt Says:

      Your Tower of Babel post appears shortly after I watched a PBS video about Noah’s Ark. So now I’m wondering, and maybe you can clarify for me, about the following:
      Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel are the two hugest man-made architectural constructions in the Old Testament (and both in the Book of Genesis), are they not? The ark’s construction is inspired by God, so that Man, having become too wicked, is compelled to start over. The tower’s construction is inspired by Man — whose peoples are then divided by God in order to limit Man. Both appear to involve dynamics of hubris and nemesis; also, there appears to be something apocalyptic about both.
      Has anyone written up a comparison before that is focused on the Ark and the Tower? And if so, what themes were put in play?

    5. zen Says:

      To build on Cheryl’s point, the reverse is sometimes true. By language and culture are some conquerors conquered.
      Ancient China was famous for its ability to Sinicize barbarians, vassals and conquerors alike. Many dynasties, among them the Sung, Yuan and Q’ing began as foreign conquerors and despots. The Greeks had a similar but slower and more limited effect on the Romans. The patrician class adopted the Greek language, studied Greek philosophy and rhetoric and had Greek tutors for their sons. But they did not for many centuries cease to hold dear to their Roman values and identity until the surviving Eastern half of the empire had become thoroughly Orthodox and thoroughly Greek

    6. larrydunbar Says:

      ” But they did not for many centuries cease to hold dear to their Roman values and identity until the surviving Eastern half of the empire had become thoroughly Orthodox and thoroughly Greek”
      Do you mean thoroughly “Greek” as to mean Russian?

    7. Richard Landes Says:

      love the stuff about monarchy and the bible. rather: “no king but god” is the main political message of the bible and by translating it, James prepared for his successor Charles to have his head chopped off by avid bible readers less than a half-century later. the kings and church in the middle ages understood better, if you want to maintain hierarchical rule, don’t translate the text.
      also reminds me of the famous line from a parent at a PTA meeting in discussing foreign languages in school. “My kid don’t need that. Why if English was good enuf for Jesus, it’s good enuf for my boy.”
      wrote an article about all this.

    8. Richard Landes Says:

      the real problem that both Marcus and Haqqani are pointing to is that in some cultures, dishonesty is widely practiced and considered legitimate when dealing with outsiders. In the case of Marcus and the Palestinians (also Yigal Carmon and MEMRI), what they say in English is the opposite of what they say in Arabic. Progressives, however, are so intent on believing the pacific elements of their English pronouncements that they accuse MEMRI and PalWatch of being “right wing,” apparently a deadly sin these days.
      I know a Pakistani who converted to Reform Judaism. but when she tried to tell her fellow congregants about the anti-semitism she was spoon fed from birth, they refused to believe her (and called her right wing). [imagine Billy Crystal/Max the Miracle Worker in Princess Bride: “I can’t hear you. I’m not listening!”
      They think they pursue peace, and instead they prepare war. Eg: “Peace Journalism

    9. T. Greer Says:

      “How are we doing, thirty-five years on, and how will we be doing five, ten years from now?”


      I sometimes get frustrated with the number of op-eds that lament the generally horrible state of 2nd language learning in America. The trouble is that no one looks at the economic incentives facing the would be language learners. As I wrote in a post on the spread of Chinese journalists around the earth a few months ago:

      Xinhua’s global expansion will help China in a different way. Turn to America to understand why. Every few months some professor or think tank fellow writes up another article despairing the shrinking number of Americans with expertise in foreign cultures, or the small number of Americans studying obscure languages. They rightly point out that the small number of Americans with this sort of knowledge puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage. (Right now I am sure the United States wishes it had more people available who speak Kurdish or could navigate the details of Syrian tribal politics). What these articles never discuss are the economic incentives that keep Americans away from studying foreign languages and cultures. In economic terms it simply isn’t worth it: companies that need bilingual individuals or specialists with knowledge in local cultures can always find a local who speaks the language in question as their native tongue. This person is quite likely to speak English as good as any American; they will also work for much less than most Americans. Government work is little better. Demand for regional specialists varies too sharply from one crisis to another to commit one’s career to expertise in an obscure region or culture.


      Things will not change until these economic realities change. As long as their is no place for American regional expertise in the private sector, very few Americans will become regional experts.

    10. T. Greer Says:

      P.S. It was the Song’s enemies, the Jin, Liao, and Xiaxia, who were set up by foreign conquerors. The Song retreated into the watery Southlands and ruled as a Han Chinese dynasty until the Mongols conquered all of China. One could argue that the seed of modern Chinese nationalism was born in cult of Yue Fei, the great ethnic Han general that defended the Song lands from Northern incursions.

    11. Cheryl Rofer Says:

      Certainly the locals are likely to “speak English as good as any American.” The author’s competence in the language establishes a low bar.

    12. Grurray Says:

      Charles, haha… it certainly seems more than the Pope, considering the state of the Orthodox liturgy compared to the Tridentine mass

    13. T. Greer Says:

      @Cheryl- Good catch! If ever I am a rich man I will hire someone to proof read all of my blog posts for spelling and grammar errors. Too many slip to, only to be pointed out to me months later….

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