US shows a passion for Pashto

March 8, 2002

The United States government has dramatically increased funding for the study of the Middle East, South Asia and other strategically important regions and their languages in the largest such investment since the Vietnam war.

The money will be used to double the number of fellowships for language scholars and to set up four new academic centres and three new language centres at US universities. But some universities are concerned about the involvement of the Pentagon in paying for at least a portion of these fellowships.

The flurry of activity comes after national security agencies were forced to appeal to the public for translators into Farsi and Pashto in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The FBI and CIA were criticised for having few agents who could speak those languages, and US universities for failing to teach them. Not a single American university offered a formal course in Pashto before September 11.

Congress and the White House have agreed to increase government funding for such programmes by 26 per cent, from $78 million (£55 million) to $98.5 million. This will double the number of fellowships for study of languages such as Arabic, Persian, Pashto, Uzbek and Urdu, and increase the stipend per fellowship by nearly 20 per cent.

Four academic centres will be opened at American universities to study the Middle East, Central and South Asia, Russia and the other nations of the former Soviet Union. Three new language centres will also be created, and more money will be earmarked for overseas language study.

The Defense Department pays for 200 undergraduate and graduate fellowships for the study of non-western European languages including Chinese, Arabic, Farsi and Russian. Some universities say they are concerned about increased military involvement in such programmes. Defense Department fellows are required to work for a government security agency when they complete their studies.

The military also plans to set up language institutes at ten universities, each of which will get $1 million a year. The University of Michigan has already turned down a Pentagon grant for language training.

There has been criticism that the funding increase does not include money for the study of African or Southeast Asian languages.

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