Lack of linguists hampers government's mission, officials say

By Emily Long

October 18, 2010

Employees who can speak a foreign language are becoming more critical to federal missions, but officials say gaps in language capabilities are hampering work domestically and abroad.

As agencies expand their global reach, they are scrambling to shore up language skills. But fiscal constraints are forcing trade-offs with other operational responsibilities, according to David Maurer, director of the Government Accountability Office's homeland security and justice team. The Defense, Homeland Security and State departments in particular are lagging in language capacity, he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia in July.

DHS is addressing its shortage of linguists with a nine-week internship that combines Arabic language study with intelligence instruction. Defense manages a language training school, as well as immersion and translation programs. And State's Foreign Service Institute offers language courses of varying lengths, from 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.

"We still have enough of a staffing gap and enough of a culture that emphasized -- rightly or wrongly -- the critical importance of getting people out in the field," says Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association. "We would rather have a body with no language skills than have no body at all. Sometimes it's critical to have a person. The theory is you can acquire [language skills] at post, but that rarely works." Factors like job responsibilities and the quality of in-country training affect the learning curve, she adds.

Agencies have other tools at their disposal for building capacity, such as recruiting job candidates and rewarding employees who have strong language backgrounds, Johnson says. State assigns extra points for language skills in its hiring process, giving those candidates priority over others. And Homeland Security offers monetary incentives to law enforcement officers demonstrating a certain level of proficiency. Such programs encourage workers to maintain their language skills, DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Jeff Neal said at the hearing.

According to GAO, agencies have failed to incorporate policies for improving language capabilities into their strategic plans because they don't know what their needs are. The broad scope of mission requirements and the absence of metrics make it difficult to evaluate progress on this front, according to Maurer. DHS agencies, for example, are expected to develop their own programs because the department lacks an overarching approach, he said.

"An effective program must be dynamic and responsive to changing situations," said Neal. "In this regard, such a program would be reliant both on a continuous assessment by components of their particular language requirements and on their cooperative work with [headquarters]."

Federal officials and observers stress the need for a consolidated approach to boosting government's language capacity. "If we're going to be developing comprehensive strategies on language needs and requirements, we need more coordination" among agencies, says Johnson.

In 2009, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, introduced a bill to create a White House council to oversee national language initiatives. The legislation has stalled, but some agencies already have begun to collaborate. Defense is working with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Education and State departments to develop proficiency goals, coordinate outreach programs and measure results.

In addition, the Interagency Language Roundtable facilitates discussion among more than 40 federal agencies, as well as academic institutions and nonprofit organizations. Officials from the Air Force, CIA and State formed the roundtable informally in the 1950s, and it became official in 1973. But the group is more focused on big-picture strategy rather than agency needs, all of which are unique, says Scott McGinnis, roundtable coordinator at the Defense Language Institute.

"At the end of the day, it's really understanding what do you need, what do you have and how are you going to fill in the gaps." said Maurer.

By Emily Long

October 18, 2010