- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

To skeptics who think it is all but impossible to make an adult American conversant in one or two foreign languages, including Arabic dialects, the newly opened Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland says, in essence, “Think again.”

The trick is being able to develop the techniques that can make this happen. As a university-affiliated federal research center, CASL is charged with finding ways to improve the language proficiency of federal employees — especially those in diplomatic, security and intelligence jobs. It is the first time government agencies have come together to achieve such a goal.

One of CASL’s primary aims is to shorten by half the classroom instruction time it takes for professionals to acquire a high level of proficiency in languages — and to do so within the next decade. “It’s a BHAG, one of those ‘big-hair audacious goals,’” says Richard Brecht, the center’s executive director, “but we can do it if we put resources behind it.”

It takes an adult a year or more to become fluent in Arabic, according to Joe Danks, the center’s director of research and development. He says another major area of study will be the less commonly taught languages, including Arabic dialects, of which there are 22.

“We have to know how to deal with ‘surge’ languages,” Mr. Danks says, referring to languages that turn out to have strategic importance to the U.S. government. “If there is a sudden need for language in a particular area where we don’t have expertise, how do we ramp up quickly to meet that need?”

Government agencies, which are CASL’s clients, are funding the project with unspecified sums in the many millions of dollars to establish the first and largest research center of its kind in the country, according to Mr. Brecht, who holds a doctorate in Slavic languages and literature. The official opening of the center took place Oct. 6 in College Park, although it has been operating at various sites for two years.

Machine translation hasn’t proved successful enough, both men emphasize. “After 60 years’ investment in machines, we now basically know what they can do, which is process millions of words, but they can’t parse with any degree of sophistication,” Mr. Brecht says.

Second-language acquisition is only one part of the research going on at the facility, which employs about 75 people, a number expected to double in the next two years.

“We also are doing research in summary translation,” Mr. Danks says, explaining this as “the interface between machine tools and the translator. …There currently is a huge backlog in the federal government of untranslated documents.”

A third important area of study is learning how stress affects the performance and morale of government employees working in a second language and finding ways to mitigate the effect, according to Tom Wallsten, a University of Maryland professor whose field is cognitive psychology.

“This is a really new area,” he says. “We are beginning to identify ways in which language performance breaks down, but it’s not enough to say people are making errors. We want to know something about the nature of those errors, and the causes.”

In addition, a neuroscientist is investigating brain mechanisms underlying language, especially those aspects of brain function that relate to the center’s quest to upgrade language aptitude.

“We expect that short-term memory processing will be related to the ability to process language,” Mr. Danks says. “[Staff neuroscientist Henk Haarmann] will work ultimately with government professionals doing the language work. For example, he would test people with high levels of language ability and compare what he finds to someone with a lot of language experience but who hasn’t achieved a great deal of proficiency.”

Catherine Doughty, a co-author of “The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition,” who has taught at Georgetown University and the University of Hawaii, is director of CASL’s High-Level Language Acquisition program, which she describes as “anything to do with language learning and language maintenance.”

The latter refers to a federal worker who has spent a lot of time learning Chinese, for example, and then wants to maintain that level. She and her team are charged with finding the best method for that worker to do so.

A soft-spoken blonde, she explains her approach as looking, step by step, into every aspect of language learning: writing, speaking, listening and reading. She herself can speak three languages “pretty well” and does not so well in a few others, including Japanese.

“There is now a new mandate that all federal workers must attain what is called professional proficiency,” she notes. The challenge comes from the fact that Americans typically do not grow up speaking more than one language, unlike Europeans, who are taught languages early in life, when it is easier to acquire them. To attain very high levels of language as an adult is more difficult, she says.

To test for aptitude — which is unrelated to either mathematical or musical ability, she says — her team is developing a number of measures as well as using some that already are known. “We look at things such as working memory, perceptual acuity and a talent for implicit learning, which is being able to pick up irregularities of learning without recourse to rules,” she explains.

“It is a much faster way of learning. The key is to make specific elements of language that are part of that rule system very noticeable. This can be done on any language, although some are more difficult to learn if you are starting from the beginning.”

Another focus is on what Ms. Doughty calls “workplace language needs” that go beyond and come before learning the rules of grammar and vocabulary. The method, which she says is being applied increasingly in modern-language classrooms, systematically builds up the ability to do a complex workplace task.

She cites by way of example a client’s need to write a complex report about public opinion. “Let’s say it is in Korean,” she says. “They might do a survey in a local neighborhood on a particular issue relevant to that area. They do it while speaking and writing in Korean. They come back and get feedback support. Next, they take on a more complex topic, asking more people and different kinds of people. Perhaps in the first case you ask just one age group and the next time ask three different age groups. It depends on particular tasks and aims.”

Language acquisition is only one of “four thrusts of CASL — 20 percent or less of CASL’s mission,” notes Renee M. Meyer, senior language authority for the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, who was acknowledged at opening-day ceremonies as a primary instigator behind the project.

“The big business is to get language up to the status and stature of math and science, using empirical evidence. For years in the language field, we were perceived as ‘chicken little’ and sort of peripheralized along with drivers ed. … CASL represents a dream we had at NSA/CSS for many years.”

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