While knowledge of foreign languages is critical for defense work overseas, a shortage of people that can speak foreign languages fluently is hindering defense department’s ability to work domestically and abroad.
Part of the problem lies in fiscal constraints, which are forcing federal agencies to balance operational responsibilities, said David Maurer, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice team, as reported by Government Executive. The other problem has been that agencies haven’t identified their language needs successfully due to the broad scope of mission requirements and the absence of metrics, which has hindered progress evaluation, Maurer said.
Key departments affected by language capacity include Defense, Homeland Security and State departments, Maurer told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.
“The theory is you can acquire (language skills) at post, but that rarely works," said Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association to Government Executive.
Each department is addressing the language problem through intensive language courses. The DHS is offering a nine-week internship of Arabic language study with intelligence instruction. The Defense department is managing a language training school with immersion and translation programs. The State’s Foreign Service Institute offers numerous language courses including 24 weeks for proficiency in Spanish and French to 88 weeks for Chinese and Japanese. But observers say employees often are pulled out of the programs early to begin work assignments.
Johnson identified other tools and incentives for building language capacity including recruiting job candidates and rewarding employees who have strong language backgrounds. The State department gives priority to job candidates with language skills and DHS offers monetary incentives to law enforcement officers that can demonstrate a certain level of language proficiency.
A bill was introduced in 2009 to create a White House council to oversee national language initiatives, but has since stalled. Yet some agencies have begun to collaborate. The Defense department is working with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Education and State departments to develop language proficiency goals, coordinate outreach programs and measure results.