'Linguists are not spies, technically'

Feb 16, 2014, 10:20 IST | Anu Prabhakar

How easy is it to work for an American intelligence agency? Not too difficult, if you know how to speak, write, read and think in an Indian regional language fluently, according to William Holden, who works within the US defense industry

If recent media reports are to be believed, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s premier intelligence agency, has been hiring native linguists to teach languages such as Pashto and Myanmarese to R&AW officials, for almost a year now. Interestingly, it is believed that the agency took a cue from American intelligence agencies that have always hired Indian linguists — those that speak Hindi, Punjabi, Telugu and Malayalam are popular favourites. William Holden, military intelligence analyst, linguist and CEO of website IntelligenceCareers.com, speaks about what it is like for a linguist to work for an American intelligence agency.

If Posted overseas,  linguists work in the same environment that US troops do — no holidays, 10-12 working hours and they have a limited circle of friends and associates

Do American intelligence agencies still recruit Indian linguists that speak languages like Malayalam
and Telugu?
Yes, they are still being recruited. This practice will probably continue for the foreseeable future.

Why are they recruited? When was the first time there was a request for such a linguist from an intelligence agency? And what kind of response have you received to such job postings so far?
These linguists support a variety of activities focussed on South Asia. The most important role that they play is to help US military and information analysts better understand the cultures of South Asia. Hindi linguists, as well as a variety of other languages used within India and the region, are also in demand ... We did receive a large number of applications from Indian Malayalam linguists, as well as American-Indian speakers of Malayalam.

Apparently, agencies recruit ‘first generation Indian-Americans that grew up in families that still embrace the language and the culture’. What kind of background check-ups are conducted before hiring the candidate?
The US Department of Defense conducts a variety of background checks and investigations of individuals who are considered for employment. This includes their financial and family history as well. For example, where does the individual’s immediate family members currently reside? As for currently embracing their culture, this is rather simple to determine. Does an individual’s family still use their native language at home? Do they belong to social organisations that celebrate and continue the traditions of their forbearer’s homeland or region? Do they live in American communities that are heavily populated by other family that also speak the same languages and have the same traditions?

What does a linguist actually do? Does he, for instance, teach his American colleagues to learn the language?
Teaching Americans to understand the language is possible but not very likely. It is far more common that a foreign language linguist assists in understanding the media, social media and official documentation issued by government, think tanks and even companies. There is a large degree of nuance in language that only a native speaker can comprehend. Meanings are often obscured or hidden — and it takes thinking in the original language to fully comprehend the intent of the media creator.

Fans of conspiracy theories may think these linguists are also spies.
No, these linguists would not be spies. Not technically. A spy is directly involved in the collection of information from either an unwilling source or a source of information that is not meant to be shared with the recipient. All serve in an official capacity and their presence is documented by our government.

A newspaper report about linguists quoted you as saying, “That the Pentagon is looking for someone who speaks Malayalam, suggests American intelligence assets are there”. Are linguists in demand because of the growing Maoist insurgency in Kerala, where Malayalam is spoken?
What exactly these linguists are doing is unknown to me. Their mission is undoubtedly focused on what is considered a threat. The threat can be to either the US or to an ally. Maoists have a long history of terrorism ... Their battle is not with each other but with some established authority. My educated guess is that these linguists are working on ‘regional threat assessment’ projects to determine the stability of both social and governmental norms within the areas where there is instability.

Golden words

>> US citizenship is required for almost all jobs. However, there are some jobs available to official ‘Green Card’ work visa holders

>> Linguists would earn US $85 - $15,000 per year

>> According to Golden, if posted overseas, linguists work in the same environment that US troops do — no holidays, 10-12 hour workdays, limited travel outside of official duties. Work colleagues would probably make up the linguist’s community of friends

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