How badly does the intelligence community need linguists? The answer is in the newspaper. From “Agents Wanted. Should Speak Pashto.” 2003: “CIA Desperately Seeking Linguists.” 2005: “At FBI, Translation Lags.” 2007: “Speaking Arabic, Other Eastern Languages, Is High on FBI’s Wish List.” 2009: “Despite Heavy Recruitment, CIA Still Short on Bilingual Staff.” 2011: “Fluent in Another Language? The CIA Wants You.” 2013: “Government Translation Needs Bring Business to Contractors.” 2015: “FBI Needs to Improve Intelligence Capabilities, Hire More Linguists: Report.” 2017: “FBI Translator Secretly Married Islamic State Leader.” (So there is at least one opening at the Bureau.) Thosea re just the odd-numbered years, and those are just the stories with the intelligence community’s longtime language vulnerability in the headline. The security apparatus of the United States is desparate for people who speak other languages. If you’ve got the skills, you’ve got a job for life. Here is how they recruit, and what you need to do in order to be considered.
HOW TO GET A JOB
The good news is that sixteen years of desperation has left the Defense Department and intelligence community pretty open about what it takes to work for them as a linguist. If you already speak a foreign language upon joining the military, they will give you the Defense Language Proficiency Test, and your score will determine your foreign language proficiency pay. That’s the easy path. If you do not speak another language, all hope is not lost: the military will train you. To get that far, however, they have to know you’re trainable. If your skilled technical scores on the ASVAB are 91 or higher, you will eventually take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, which is a test not of a specific language, but of your ability to learn one. Your scores determine the language you’ll learn. A low score (95/164) means you might learn Spanish, for example. A high score (110/164) means you’ll be learning Chinese or Arabic.
The intelligence community is less forgiving in who they bring on as a linguist. The FBI, in fact, is very up-front about it: getting a language job with them is hard. Even their recruiting videos seem to scream: “Are you sure you want to do this?” For starters, you’re going to have to know your language already. You’ll begin as a “contract linguist,” which means, basically, that you are self-employed and providing services to the FBI. You’ll work from a branch office. In addition, you will have to pass an extraordinary battery of tests that measure your reading, written, and oral language skills in both your source and target languages.
Moreover, you’ll have to know the lower and upper registers of your language—that is: ”Hey howyeh doin?” (as you might say to some guy on the street) and “Hello sir. It is a pleasure to meet you” (as you might say to a dignitary). You’re also tested on translation (an art in and of itself), and if you can pass all that, you still must face the drug screens and polygraphs. This is not for the faint of heart. There are about 1,400 linguists at the Bureau, with the majority contractors. Some are even retirees the agency has brought on to fill the language gap, which should give you some idea of the demand.
The CIA has similar requirements. To be a language officer for the Directorate of Operations, you’ll need to be a U.S. citizen with a college degree and native or near-native fluency. Once you’re part of the Company, you’ll be taught tradecraft and advanced language skills: everything you need to be a spy. The languages most in-demand are exactly what you would expect: Arabic, Chinese, Pashto, Farsi, Russian, and Korean.
Each intelligence agency and branch of the armed services has its own job and language requirements, but one thing unites them: the security screening process. You must be eligible for a top secret clearance. You will be necessarily handling some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets. They’re not just going to trust that you’re a nice person. They’re going to ask around and then they’re going to hook you up to a machine and grill you.
FRINGE BENEFIT: CITIZENSHIP
The key to any language is, of course, nuance, and that kind of understanding doesn’t happen in a classroom alone, if at all. Naturally, the best linguists are native speakers. This presents a quandary to the military and intelligence community. Linguists require a top secret clearance, but foreigners are ineligible even for the lowest level of clearance. The solution to this in the military world is called MAVNI: the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, established in 2009 to solve, among other things, the language gap. Foreign-born men and women enlist with the promise of fast-track citizenship. Sometimes by the end of basic training, service members are naturalized as citizens who are eligible for clearances. They then go through the clearance process and training into their respective programs. MAVNI is currently under review for fears of penetration by foreign intelligence services, though whether it is canceled or reformed is as of yet unclear.
If history is any guide, the demand for linguists isn’t going away any time soon. If you’re looking for a career change and have the basic language abilities, there’s no reason why you can’t sharpen your skills and take a shot at it. It might be the last job you ever have to apply for.