Language Fast Track; U.MD. Center Focuses on Federal Workers' Skills

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 20, 2005 | Go to article overview

Language Fast Track; U.MD. Center Focuses on Federal Workers' Skills


Byline: Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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