Witnesses before the Subcommittee on International Security, Proliferation and Federal Services said the lack of teachers with skills in foreign languages has made it difficult to train foreign service officers and translators. The panel agreed the shift in focus from the Cold War to other national security concerns has made fluency in languages like Chinese, Serbian-Croatian and Arabic invaluable.
Ruth Whiteside, deputy director of the National Foreign Affairs Training Center-which runs the Foreign Service Institute at the State Department-said finding language teachers to train foreign service officers is a challenge, and often officers need to cut short their training in the United States to head to their posts abroad.
"We are proud of the language capabilities of our Foreign Service corps, but the reality is that we are sometimes unable to provide these individuals with a full course of studies due to urgent staffing needs at our posts," said Whiteside.
The Foreign Service Institute currently teaches 62 languages, ranging from Albanian to Uzbek.
Witnesses said more training in languages prior to and during foreign service is key. But that means hiring more teachers, who are often wooed by private firms offering better pay for their language skills, said Christopher K. Mellon, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for intelligence.
"The intelligence community has a large number of people with appropriate language skills, but their quantity, level of expertise and availability do not always match the ever-changing requirements of the intelligence mission," said Ellen Laipson, vice chairwoman of the National Intelligence Council.
Government agents must be able to understand the slang and colloquialisms in a foreign language, said David E. Alba, assistant director of the FBI's Investigative Services Division. Alba said criminals usually use coded language and slang as a cover for their activities. Agents who are not familiar with the subtleties of a specific foreign language may miss important clues.
For example, Alba said, during the 1993 plot to bomb several New York landmarks, the Arabic word "Hadduta", which literally refers to a child's bedtime story, was used as code for terrorist activities.
"It sounded innocent enough, but it became obvious that something was up when the suspects talked about 'preparing the four Hadduta,' 'renting a warehouse for the Hadduta,' and 'buying oil and fertilizer for the Haddutas'," said Alba.
Intelligence linguists have helped translate and interpret for operations in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and according to Mellon have defused potentially violent situations with foreign military troops in places such as the Persian Gulf and Panama with their language skills.
When Subcommittee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., asked about the government's capacity to translate important documents in difficult languages on short notice, Laipson said the intelligence community is working on creating a database containing information on translating resources that agencies could access.
Laipson said thousands of papers on foreign research and scientific developments go untranslated because the intelligence community lacks the funds and staff to interpret the material. She said many initiatives are underway to alleviate the shortfalls in training, including acquiring automated translation tools for foreign language training and processing. But panelists noted that such tools are designed only to assist humans, not replace them.
"Automated tools can help, but there is no substitute for people who can talk face-to-face and engage others," Mellon he said.
The subcommittee will hold a second hearing on the government's foreign language capabilities next Tuesday.