Lawmakers unveil bills to improve language proficiency

Legislation introduced Wednesday highlights the need for more multilingual workers across the federal government to translate counterterrorism intelligence.

"It is troubling that five and a half years after September 11, the federal government still lacks a coordinated strategy and leadership to increase the number of Americans who are proficient in foreign languages," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce and sponsor of the Senate measure (S. 451).

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., introduced a companion to the National Foreign Language Coordination Act in the House (H.R. 747).

The 2000 Census found that only 9.3 percent of Americans speak both their native language and another language fluently, compared with 56 percent of people in the European Union.

Additionally, the Iraq Study Group reported last month that of the 1,000 American embassy workers employed in Baghdad, only 33 speak Arabic. Of the 33, only six are fluent. The study group recommended that the State and Defense secretaries, the Director of National Intelligence and U.S. officers and personnel about to be assigned to Iraq give language proficiency and cultural training the "highest possible priority."

The bills from Akaka and Baird would prompt the federal government to collaborate with educators, state and local governments, foreign language associations and the private sector to increase the number of Americans who speak and understand foreign languages.

The bill also would establish a National Foreign Language Coordination Council within the Executive Office of the President to develop and oversee the implementation of a comprehensive American foreign language strategy.

In addition, the measure aims to integrate language training into career fields in the government and private sector and increase the number of language-proficient professionals.

Akaka's subcommittee held a hearing last week on the federal government's language strategy.

Dr. Diane Birckbichler, director of the Foreign Language Center and chair of the departments of French and Italian at Ohio State University, testified that "if there is a national language strategy, it isn't very well known." Birckbichler further recommended that the government establish a national language policy to create a language-ready workforce for the future.

"Just as I have advocated the need for deputy secretaries for management at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security to direct and sustain management leadership, I envision a national language director to be responsible for maintaining and leading a cooperative effort to strengthen our foreign language capabilities," Akaka said in a statement.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Going Agile:Revolutionizing Federal Digital Services Delivery

    Here’s one indication that times have changed: Harriet Tubman is going to be the next face of the twenty dollar bill. Another sign of change? The way in which the federal government arrived at that decision.

  • Cyber Risk Report: Cybercrime Trends from 2016

    In our first half 2016 cyber trends report, SurfWatch Labs threat intelligence analysts noted one key theme – the interconnected nature of cybercrime – and the second half of the year saw organizations continuing to struggle with that reality. The number of potential cyber threats, the pool of already compromised information, and the ease of finding increasingly sophisticated cybercriminal tools continued to snowball throughout the year.

  • Featured Content from RSA Conference: Dissed by NIST

    Learn more about the latest draft of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology guidance document on authentication and lifecycle management.

  • GBC Issue Brief: The Future of 9-1-1

    A Look Into the Next Generation of Emergency Services

  • GBC Survey Report: Securing the Perimeters

    A candid survey on cybersecurity in state and local governments

  • The New IP: Moving Government Agencies Toward the Network of The Future

    Federal IT managers are looking to modernize legacy network infrastructures that are taxed by growing demands from mobile devices, video, vast amounts of data, and more. This issue brief discusses the federal government network landscape, as well as market, financial force drivers for network modernization.

  • eBook: State & Local Cybersecurity

    CenturyLink is committed to helping state and local governments meet their cybersecurity challenges. Towards that end, CenturyLink commissioned a study from the Government Business Council that looked at the perceptions, attitudes and experiences of state and local leaders around the cybersecurity issue. The results were surprising in a number of ways. Learn more about their findings and the ways in which state and local governments can combat cybersecurity threats with this eBook.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.