Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Ugly American? Where Is He Now?

Every single person contemplating working, studying, or retiring to Mexico should have to read a little book published in 1958 by W.W. Norton and penned by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. This fictional account is a story of life in a fictitious Asian country in which diplomatic blunder after blunder occurs because of linguistic and cultural ineptitude. Though fiction, the authors go to great lengths in the epilogue to show how the stories in the book were based on actual people and events in the American Foreign Service.

The book is called, The Ugly American.

The premise of the book seems to be saying that when linguistic and cultural incompetence abounds, so does the presence of arrogance and prejudice, as perceived by the natives, wherever Americans are stationed. Americans, in the story, seem more occupied with entertaining, mixing with only their own kind, and presenting an image of America that frankly is appalling. They cannot mix with the locals in the country to which they are assigned because they cannot communicate with the locals. They cannot find out what's going on in the country in which they live because they cannot speak, read, or write the language of their host country!

They must depend, in most cases, on interpreters who don't always give the correct interpretation because of cultural affectations. They also could be working for the other side.

In the factual epilogue of the book, the authors point out a New York Times story that reported that as few as 50% of the Foreign Service Corps in 1958 had a speaking knowledge of any foreign language. This figure represented those who were completely monolingual. They were being assigned to a foreign country with no ability to communicate in the language of the host country.

On the other hand, 9 out of 10 Russians, the then cold-war enemy, could not only speak the language of the country to which they were assigned but came linguistically and culturally ready before arriving on station. They came ready in the language and were culturally sensitive so as not to offend the host country's occupants.

The point is: not knowing the language, the portal to the culture, is being woefully equipped. Our enemies knew the right strategy. The Americans?

Linguistic and cultural ineptitude can result in grave and maybe deadly consequences in the Foreign Service Field.

I wanted to find out today if America had woken up to the need for requiring their Foreign Service applicants to be fluent in a foreign language. In 1958, there was no requirement for applicants to speak a second language. After all, a character in the book points out, "interpreters are a dime a dozen." This attitude ended up, for real, costing the U.S. a lot in the Cambodian and Vietnamese conflicts. Interpreters were no substitute for knowing the language and it turned out, in 1958, to be lethally inadequate.

The 2007's State Department's Web Site says:

" There is no foreign language requirement to join the Foreign Service. However, the U.S. Department of State welcomes candidates who are proficient in one or more foreign languages. Those who pass the Oral Assessment can raise their ranking on the List of Eligible Hires or the Hiring Register by passing a language test in any foreign language used by the U.S. Department of State." (http://www.careers.state.gov/specialist/join/index.html#6)

Incredibly, there still is no requirement for applicants for the Foreign Service to know a foreign language!

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