In January, South Asia scholar Steven Poulos and several colleagues were in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where they had an appointment to meet U.S. ambassador Mary Ann Peters.

Poulos and his cohorts, all trustees of the American Institute of Bangladeshi Studies, had had many similar visits both stateside and abroad over the years, trying to sell dignitaries on the importance of South Asia scholarship. But lately the U.S.’s ability to communicate with and comprehend other cultures had become a matter of some urgency, and the scholars hoped to take advantage of that.

As the group made its way into Peters’s “incredibly fortified” office, post-9/11 precautions were on full display, Poulos says. “We had to go through several levels of security and God knows what all, but we finally got in.”

The group wanted to convince Peters that the State Department money South Asia scholars had been receiving was being well spent on, among other things, pre- and postdoctoral fellowships. They also wanted to stress the importance of continued financial support from the government, and they knew that a positive report from Peters back to Washington could have an impact on future funding. The ambassador seemed a likely ally: Bangladesh had recently expressed strong disappointment at being included–along with “rogue” states like Iran and North Korea–on the list of countries whose citizens were newly subject to special registration in the United States, and if better relations between cultures was a long-term goal, surely education would play a key role.

The Bush administration was at the time ramping up efforts to alter negative perceptions of America throughout the Muslim world. The government-funded Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language music-and-news station, had hit Middle Eastern airwaves in March 2002, positioned as a hipper version of the Voice of America, and the State Department had launched a $15 million ad campaign in Islamic countries depicting Muslim Americans leading contented, Westernized lives. Peters asked the group if any of their current or prospective funding was going to be used for PR or diplomacy. It was not, the visiting scholars told her. “She wasn’t happy with us,” Poulos says. “She said, ‘What are you doing for us? What are you doing to get Bangladeshis to learn more about the U.S.?’ And I said, ‘You don’t understand. That’s not what our funding is for. We’re trying to teach Americans about Bangladesh.'”

The scholars’ efforts got a boost last year when the U.S. Department of Education gave the University of Chicago $1.6 million to set up the South Asia Language Resource Center, the goal of which is to improve methods for teaching and learning some of the region’s 650 languages–including Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, Pashto, and Persian, tongues spoken in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran respectively. But Poulos’s larger mission–making the study of South Asian languages a national priority–is quixotic, to say the least. In late September 2001, CIA officers were already operating in Afghanistan, but translators proficient in the native languages were in short supply. The agency contacted Poulos last year looking for an “astonishing number” of fluent speakers of Pashto, the language spoken by the Taliban. Poulos told them he knew of none and that the language wasn’t even taught in America. “Does it surprise me that there are intelligence officers running around Pakistan and Afghanistan with no language skills?” asks Poulos. “It doesn’t surprise me one bit. We’ve been arrogant about this.”

Bengali is the eighth most widely spoken language in the world, he says (other experts rank it even higher), and it’s taught by “one, maybe two” institutions in this country. Classes in Punjabi, the first language of 30 to 40 million people, barely exist. And though Pashto is now offered at three levels at the University of Pennsylvania, only four students have enrolled. “As of last year, most of the less commonly taught languages equal about one percent of the foreign languages studied in the United States,” says Alex Dunkel, a Russian specialist and director of the Critical Languages Program at the University of Arizona. “That just tells you we are pitifully, pitifully wanting for the study of the languages.”

Increasing awareness of all things South Asian has been Poulos’s goal for much of the past 35 years. When the New York City native arrived as an undergrad at the University of Michigan in 1958, Ann Arbor had a large contingent of Indian students. Poulos, who was already interested in Asian cultures in general, started taking Hindi and Urdu classes. The more people he met, the more his interest and language skills grew. He eventually earned his master’s and PhD from the University of Chicago before leaving the academic world for a job in high finance. Fifteen years later, in 1990, he was “seduced back to starvation wages and so forth” by the University of California at Berkeley, which saw in Poulos someone with strong academic qualifications as well as the business acumen to raise money.

“It was emotional blackmail,” Poulos says jokingly. “They said, ‘Don’t you want to come back to your roots?'”

He signed on as head of Berkeley’s Center for South Asia Studies. His responsibilities included overseeing the university’s Pakistan-based language program, which had for decades been sending students to Lahore to learn Urdu and study the local culture. The war on terror has changed that–the U.S. government, a significant source of the program’s funding, says it’s too dangerous to continue sending college students to Pakistan. Poulos isn’t so sure: “Are there terrorists there? No question there are. Could Americans be targets? Absolutely. But in 29 years in Lahore, no Pakistanis ever attacked our students,” he says.

The U.S. has a checkered past regarding linguistic education. Twenty-two states actually restricted the teaching of foreign languages until a 1923 ruling by the Supreme Court overturned the laws. In the 1930s some child-rearing manuals told parents that bilingualism would be harmful to their children’s psychological development. The cold war–and rampant fears of being outpaced by the Soviets–inspired the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which was partly designed to bolster the U.S.’s facility with foreign tongues. But even fear of the red menace couldn’t maintain the public’s interest. The 1979 Presidential Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies concluded that “Americans’ incompetence in foreign languages is nothing short of scandalous, and it is becoming worse.”

In the late 80s the government started investing in language centers. Eleven were eventually funded, including the National African Language Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the National K-12 Foreign Language Resource Center at Iowa State University. Then came 9/11, and alarm bells went off in Congress yet again. “The feds realized there had been no pedagogical support for the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia,” Poulos says.

The government offered to pay for three new language resource centers. Rather than compete with each other, South Asia scholars from 18 institutions across the country submitted a joint proposal for the grant money. The University of Chicago offered to host, and in August 2002, on behalf of the consortium, the school was awarded its grant under Title VI. (Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs that receive federal financial assistance.) The U. of C.’s Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations appointed Poulos director of the South Asia Language Resource Center this past May, and in August he made a “completely unrelated” decision to leave Berkeley. “I’d had enough. I said good-bye.” He will continue to be based in California, but plans to visit Chicago regularly.

The SALRC is scheduled to receive the $1.6 million over four years. “I don’t want to say anything nasty about the guys who are giving me money,” Poulos says, “but you know and I know that that wouldn’t paint ‘USA’ on the side of a missile.”

On the other hand, he says, “I wouldn’t even be happy to have $50 million tomorrow. I’m not sure we’d know what to do with it. We have to build toward it and be more inclusive of more institutions, and I think that will happen little by little.”

The problem, he says, isn’t just the lack of students. It’s a lack of anything–infrastructure, proper instructional methods, textbooks, teachers. The grim state of things has prompted some knee-jerk solutions. “After 9/11 every school said we must teach Pashto or Urdu or we have to have languages we think Muslims speak,” Poulos says. “So there were teachers who were yanked off the streets in a few places. They may be speakers and they may have degrees, but they may never have taught American students or learned the latest in pedagogical or technological training. That’s a big challenge.” Ways the SALRC might address that challenge include developing proficiency exams and updating old instructional materials.

Fair or not, the long-term fate of South Asian language programs in the U.S. will likely be determined by enrollment. “The government is very quantitatively oriented,” says Poulos. “They have to show their masters in Congress numbers to justify everything they do.” College administrators need to see numbers too. They have “direct economic impact” on programs, Poulos says, “and when they don’t see 35 people in a classroom–and you won’t see that very often except in Hindi–they don’t think it’s worthwhile.” Which means funding isn’t the only issue. “You can put a lot of resources out there and maybe nobody will come,” he says.

It’s instructive to look at how other foreign languages came into the curriculum, according to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association. The first languages were the classic languages–ancient Greek and Latin–and these were the foundation for a university education. After that, Feal says, the so-called modern languages, including the Romance and Germanic languages, came into the mix as a result of cultural interfaces between various countries. “The German university is the model for the U.S. graduate university,” she says. “German came in also for medical purposes, the language of science, the language of philosophy. French came in as the language of literature and culture.” Russian entered the mainstream curriculum because the government saw it in strategic terms and funneled money into the educational system to promote it.

Though South Asian languages have never been a priority in the U.S. educational system, there are some positive developments. “In the 20th century everyone wanted to become American,” says Poulos. “We Americanized. And some had their children retain a language, but some didn’t.” Now, he says, people seem much more receptive to the idea of getting in touch with their roots and learning their ancestral tongues. In addition, Poulos sees interest among “diaspora kids” and “heritage speakers,” first-generation Americans who didn’t grow up speaking their ancestral languages. There are also university towns that have large ethnic populations. In New York, which has a large north Indian population, Columbia University has seen good-size Punjabi classes. And there’s always what Poulos refers to as the “grandma factor”–which inspires students to learn a language so they can communicate with their relatives on the phone.

“The question is: Where do we see students finding interesting projects to potentially engage them?” says James Nye, director of the U. of C.’s South Asia Language and Area Center and author of the SALRC grant proposal. Marathi, the state language of Maharashtra in central India, and Telugu, a tongue of Andhra Pradesh in southeastern India, “have really deep traditions of learning and literature” and are prime for exploration by archaeologists, historians, and cultural-studies scholars. Some early Marathi literature, for instance, dates back to the 13th century, and plays from the 19th century on have strongly influenced the Bollywood film industry.

But the issue still not being addressed, says Feal, is why the United States doesn’t value the learning of languages enough to make it an ongoing priority. “The educational system here has not been at the forefront in recognizing that knowing a foreign language is a key part of both a secondary and a postsecondary education,” she says. “If you look at the curriculum of just about any other country, including our neighbor Canada, you’ll see that the study of languages other than English is crucial.” Poulos says it’s obvious a lack of proficiency hinders not just national security, but also community outreach, military missions, diplomacy, law enforcement, and international commerce. “You’ve heard about these ghastly gaffes that Americans make in Japan and China and so forth. If they’d only known the right things to say in the right language, everything would have been smooth and the $300 million deal would have been signed weeks before.”

But even with all the money in the world, he says, even with more and better-prepared instructors and more courses at more institutions, “there also has to be a change in attitude in this country toward South Asia. There can’t be a complete ignoring of any area that isn’t at the moment some kind of nuclear hot spot.”

Dunkel echoes this: “America still doesn’t realize that the study of language isn’t just so we can get intelligence about Al Qaeda. Studying a language truly means opening up another spectrum of visibility.”

Approaching languages with something other than a flashpoint mentality, though, is a tough sell in an era when national security has taken on such critical importance. The whole South Asian region is very likely to remain problematic for years to come. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has called Karachi a Pakistani OK Corral, a haven for aspiring terrorists and gun runners; intelligence experts allege that Al Qaeda elements are setting up shop in Bangladesh; the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan is said to be where bin Laden and his allies are hiding; and Iran, a potential nuclear threat, continues to be a serious source of concern.

The CIA recently graduated the largest class of new officers in the agency’s history–three-quarters of whom speak a foreign language with considerable fluency. The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, has added course work in Dari, Urdu, and Uzbek, among other languages, to get military personnel up to speed. And nongovernmental organizations are making their own efforts. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages is focusing on less commonly taught tongues and has declared 2005 the “Year of Languages.” Poulos and his colleagues still hope to capitalize on the climate before focus shifts to the next danger zone.

“I was talking to a Middle Eastern guy with ties to Washington” about future prospects for teaching Pashto, Poulos says. “Afghanistan?” the man said. “That’s yesterday.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.