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The threat of disconnect

Why ASU teaches less commonly taught languages


The threat of disconnect

Why ASU teaches less commonly taught languages

When Hannah Spencer lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina, she learned the word ćejf (pronounced “chafe”) a word that does not have a direct translation to English but can be interpreted as “a savory moment.” Ćejf, she said, is having a cigarette with a coffee after a long day of work.

Spencer said that learning this colloquial term helped her better understand the warm and inviting Bosnian people.

“The language is difficult,” she said. “But they are very forgiving people in terms of foreigners speaking their language or trying to.”

She spent one month each summer for three years in Bosnia-Herzegovina while she attended ASU’s Critical Languages Institute, CLI, a program that teaches less commonly taught languages. There, she studied the Bosnian language and familiarized herself with the quaint lifestyle of Sarajevo, the country’s capital.

Along the way, she unintentionally stumbled across the history of a war that has been largely overlooked by the United States.

Each morning in Sarajevo, she walked to class through the city’s enchanting cobbled streets and shackled roofs. “This place is like straight out of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or a Van Gogh or Monet,” she said.

But Spencer said she couldn’t help but notice the bullet holes in the walls of buildings and the grenade shattered concrete that was filled with red paint to symbolize that a child had died there.

“When you see that, and you don’t understand it, you just want to understand it,” Spencer said.

These haunting images are remnants of the Yugoslav Wars, a conflict between 1991 and 2001 that consisted of genocide and ethnic cleansing of over 140,000 people. In the end, Yugoslavia dissolved into six new countries: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. 

Being in a region not far removed from war compelled Spencer to study it. She researched the Yugoslav Wars for her Barrett, the Honors College thesis, and then taught English in Serbia as a Fulbright scholar.

Her fluency in Bosnian was critical to her understanding the region’s history. She said that when someone can speak the language and read its newspapers without translation, they can see what’s going on more clearly.

Spencer said upper level bureaucrats in the U.S. State Department and other governmental agencies handle diplomatic issues poorly, because they lack linguistic and cultural fluency of the foreign regions they work with.

“They don’t understand the people,” she said. “They don’t understand what’s going on.”

This cultural and linguistic fluency, she said, is what international diplomacy workers are missing from their skillset and part of the reason that the U.S. did not intervene in the Yugoslav Wars until 1995.  

It is also what the CLI is trying to help develop within the next generation of researchers and diplomats.

The CLI teaches languages that are not commonly taught and deemed “critical” by either the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State or the University.

The Department of Defense defines critical languages as “any foreign language identified by the Secretary of Defense in which it is necessary to have proficient personnel because of national defense considerations.” 

While the Department of State defines the term as languages “less commonly taught in U.S. schools but essential to America’s positive engagement with the world.”

Irina Levin, associate director of the Critical Languages Institute, said the University deems languages taught in the program as critical for two reasons: they are spoken in regions that were formerly a part of the Soviet Union, or they are languages that may not be taught anywhere else.

The institute currently teaches 12 languages including Russian, Polish, Bosnian, Hebrew, Albanian and Uzbek. In 2010, the program taught Pashto, known in the U.S. as the language of the Taliban. Students in the program study the language in the classroom for seven to eight weeks and can opt-in for a four week study abroad trip.

The CLI’s classes are intensive, lasting four hours per day, five days per week, and students sometimes learn a week’s worth of material in one day. Levin said the rigorous courses help students become intermediate level speakers after one summer in the program.

Borche Arsov, the Macedonian instructor at the CLI, said he saw tremendous improvement from his students in one summer. At the beginning of the program, he taught between 20% and 30% of the time in Macedonian, but at the end, he taught 100% in Macedonian. 

“They start as passive listeners, and then you see how they grow into an active part of a conversation,” Arsov said. “It’s amazing.”

Levin said the University administration sees learning these languages as so important that they waive tuition for the program.

“This is ASU really putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to global engagement,” she said.

Levin said the goal of the institute is for students to continue to do research or diplomacy work with those regions in the same way that Spencer became culturally fluent in the history of the Yugoslav Wars as a result of learning Bosnian.

Representatives from the NSA, FBI and CIA visit classrooms to recruit students because, Levin said, fluency in the language and culture of these critical languages is essential for international diplomacy. This is because translators can often miss out on the subtleties of language.

“If you’re able to read something how you should take something, whether it should be taken as a light-hearted joke or a more pointed comment, all of that when you’re dealing with people from different languages is not immediately obvious,” Levin said. “Becoming culturally and linguistically fluent is really the only way you’re going to get there.”

Patrice Shackleford, a language outreach officer for the National Security Agency, said in an email that language analysts for the NSA use these skills to scan through and analyze large amounts of foreign language material to uncover potential threats. 

“Language is intrinsic to the expression of culture and as a means of communicating values, customs and beliefs, language fosters feelings of group identity and solidarity,” Shackleford said in the email.

The Critical Languages Institute exists to combat the threat of a United States without speakers of critical languages. A lack of critical language speakers could result in a lack of understanding of the regions where critical languages are spoken. 

Shackleford said that without a workforce that has strong proficiency in languages critical to national security, the NSA would not be able to perform its foreign signals intelligence mission.

Critical language fluency and cultural fluency of their prospective regions is essential to fields beyond government intelligence, Hannah Spencer said.

Spencer, who wants to work for the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service Officer, said it’s also invaluable in careers in politics and the military.

It’s important to “know what it’s actually like rather than, ‘Oh, that’s this part of the world,’” Spencer said. “I can point to it on a map, but I can’t tell you what it’s like to be there. A lot of problems come from people who have no idea what they’re getting into,” she said.

CLI Russian instructor Irina Drigalenko said she not only teaches her students new languages, but also intercultural skills. This is so they can understand not only the language and its culture but why people of different cultures do the things they do and make the decisions they make.

“Maybe people didn’t have another choice,” Drigalenko said. “Maybe they were absolutely lacking some essential information, so their reaction was due to that.”

She said she does this because her students can be the negotiators or diplomats who can stop global conflict in the future.

To explain this concept, Drigalenko gave the example of morning showers.

An American might think that it is unhygienic that Russians do not shower in the morning, but Drigalenko said that in Russia, unless you make sure you are completely dry before leaving the house, “You’ll be walking icicle.”

She said when this same principle of cultural understanding is applied to larger, global issues, it could result in a more secure world.

“In this absolutely amazing global society, we have to work as a team, not as enemies, because we will do more positive, effective things,” she said. “We’ll clean our planet faster. We’ll get rid of these nuclear weapons faster. We will secure our kids’ and grandkids’ future.”

“That’s what’s really the goal: to make the world just a bit better place.”

Reach the reporter at or follow @mollystellino on Twitter.

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