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BUILDING A FUNCTIONAL Arabic language program in the United States has been nearly as difficult as building a tower to the heavens. The University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language (CASL), however, is developing the building blocks to put this national security goal within reach, turning babble into understanding.

One of the pillars of the CASL language program is a battery of aptitude tests that will predict a person’s native ability to achieve proficiency in foreign languages. By predicting success in learning situations, these tests will help the government target limited language resources to the most promising candidates.

The type of training used to learn language is also critical. For example, immersion situations can speed learning, but students must be willing to use their budding skills in conversation.

That can often be embarrassing to someone new to the language, says Richard Brecht, director of CASL. To increase learning in these situations, CASL has created training methods that encourage novices to be better communicators and “put their egos aside and talk more and take more risks,” he says.

CASL is also tackling the problem presented by the language dichotomy in the Arabic world. The problem is that Modern Standard Arabic—the dialect learned by most security professionals, diplomats, and military personnel—is used only in formal and written communications. Colloquial languages, or aamiya, are favored for everyday communication.

Thus, even after an intelligence officer undertakes the difficult task of learning Modern Standard, he or she might still not be able to translate colloquial communications, says Jennifer Bremer, an adviser to the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

CASL is addressing that challenge through the Arabic Variant Identification Project. The project is identifying and cataloging distinguishing features of the most important colloquial dialects—such as characteristic sounds, distinctive rules for forming nouns and verbs, special grammatical features, and unique vocabulary items. The list will help translators to quickly and correctly identify the dialect and pass it to someone with that expertise.

Achieving fluency in Arabic is a long-term project. It can take many years of intensive study to achieve the top rating of four or five. According to Bremer, who is a three, fewer than 30 diplomats have a four or a five in Modern Standard.

Bringing personnel up to speed could require a generational investment, says Richard Bloom, director of Terrorism, Intelligence, and Security Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Meanwhile, the government hopes that identifying and fast-tracking those with a high aptitude for language acquisition will help speed the process.