Officials laud creation of new language center

Research facility at College Park seen as avenue for filling holes in U.S. intelligence

October 07, 2005|By BRADLEY OLSON | BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- Four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal intelligence and defense officials say the government still doesn't have sufficient expertise in foreign languages and cultures to win the war on terror.

That is why the Defense Department commissioned the Center for Advanced Study of Language, which yesterday joined a burgeoning intelligence infrastructure at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"In the intelligence world, to do our job, we start out today a little behind the curve," said CIA Director Porter J. Goss at the center's dedication yesterday. "Not enough people speak the languages we need."

Goss, who learned French and Spanish while working as a CIA agent decades ago, said the research facility is just the place to fix the problem.

"We need a revolution in learning and I think we've got a way to do it now," he said. "We have the place, and the interest and the competency."

With the addition of the new language center, as well as a recently established Center of Excellence for Behavioral and Social Research on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism funded by the Homeland Security Department, the University of Maryland is fast becoming a research and training hub in intelligence and security.

The Center for Advanced Study of Language, founded in 2003, becomes the largest language research center in the United States. It begins with ambitious goals, said Richard Brecht, the center's executive director. Within the next decade, it aims to produce research that will:

Reduce by as much as half the classroom language instruction professionals will need to reach proficiency, which for Arabic can be as much as 18 months.

Eliminate the translation backlog for classified documents and communication intercepts. The Justice Department's inspector general said in a report that the FBI's backlog as of March 31 was more than 700,000 hours of intercepts that had yet to be translated.

Reduce the stress on government linguists and analysts.

Reaching the center's goals will require "revolutionary breakthroughs in knowledge, in training, in tools and management structures," Brecht said. "CASL [Center for Advanced Study of Language] has been established explicitly to provide the research bases for these breakthroughs as well as their transfer into the federal workplace."

Rep. Rush D. Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey who sits on the House Select Committee on Intelligence and has sponsored legislation to increase federal spending on language studies, compared the need with that for science and technology learning during the Cold War.

Holt said Sept. 11 resembles the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which led to the passage of the National Defense Education Act in 1958.

That act created "a generation of scientists, security experts, engineers and linguists that helped win the Cold War," Holt said yesterday. "The CIA, FBI and other agencies have made some progress in identifying and hiring foreign language experts, but the pipeline doesn't really exist. They're drawing from an almost nonexistent pool."

Holt called for a national commitment to languages on a scale of the landmark 1958 education act, which might include requiring teaching languages before ninth grade, federal incentives for high school students who study foreign languages and funding university expansion of language programs.

A recent Pentagon report outlines ambitious goals for language training in the military, including the possibility of foreign language requirements for every uniformed officer.

Researchers at the language center have already formed an advisory panel to help the Defense Department develop a new proficiency test.

Among other projects under way at the center is an effort to outline the 20 to 30 Arabic dialects, and one to study ways to lessen the stress on analysts to improve morale and performance.

Catherine Doughty, the center's area director for second language acquisition, studies how language is learned and what teaching techniques work best on people with different aptitudes for learning.

Part of her research involves developing tests that can identify people who have a talent for reaching high levels of proficiency in a second language. For those who don't but still must learn a language for a government job, she researches how to best help them reach whatever proficiency level is possible.

"If you're trying to reach professional proficiency," she said, "the question is how far can you go and how good can you be?"

About 75 researchers and staffers work at the language center, parts of which have been open since 2003. The number of researchers and staff is expected to double by 2007. Officials declined to say how much funding the center receives annually from the Defense Department, noting that much of its work is classified. They also declined to give a tour of the facility.

The sprawling 128,000-square- foot complex, developed from an old manufacturing facility and housed at the school's M Square research park, joins the behavioral terrorism research center funded by a $12 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

The behavioral center researches how to disrupt terrorist networks, minimize the impact of attacks and how terrorist groups such as al-Qaida form and recruit new members.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said the new language center will help make Maryland a national hub for biotechnology, nanotechnology, language and intelligence.

"The University of Maryland, College Park is an outstanding research university," he said. "The strength in all these areas is a linchpin, I believe, for creating and securing our role in the 21st century."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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