Josh Rogin at The Cable discusses an upcoming GAO report on the lack of language skills among State Department personnel: Exclusive: GAO report finds State Department language skills dangerously lacking
The numbers are scary. More than a third of officers in language designated posts to not meet the language requirements for their positions.
Rosin reports: "In the warzones, the problem is much more pronounced. Thirty-three of 45 officers in language-designated positions in Afghanistan, or 73 percent, didn't meet the requirement. In Iraq, 8 of 14 officers or 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Deficiencies in what GAO calls "supercritical" languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, were 39 percent.
Forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions, nor do 66 percent of officers in Dari positions, 50 percent in Urdu (two languages widely spoken in South Asia), or 38 percent in Farsi (which is mostly spoken in Iran)."
And it is easy to see why that is a problem. A telling example was relayed to us during area studies for the Levant. At one point, a diplomat was having a discussion with the then PM of Israel when Sharon comes barrelling into the room yelling in Hebrew. The diplomat did not speak Hebrew...Sharon, seeing him, apologized, and then proceeded, more calmly and in Hebrew, to explain to the Prime Minister that they had just begun an attack. The diplomat was none the wiser.
So I get it. I would not want to go to post without language. and yet, I also get why. We are a small service (remember, there are more musicians in the Army than diplomats in the State Department), and we are generalists. We go all over. Language training generally lasts 1-2 years, and we don't have sufficient numbers for a training float, so it is hard to alot enough time for each person to get the language they need before going to post. The option is to leave positions unfilled (which we also have to do...most posts are staffed at about 70%).
The answer is to do what State is trying to do. They are trying to bring in people with critical languages (and have been for the past 6 years, offering candidates for the service a substantial boost to their oral assessment score if they pass a test in one of those languages). The second part of that equation is that we need more bodies and the number of people we have is controlled by Congress. So while they have recently given us more numbers, we are still trying to recover from the Clinton years, where we hired at below the number of attrition. we made headway in that under Secretary Powell's Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, but that headway was lost with the openning of the massive Embassy in Iraq and now the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan.
I love learning language. Given the time, I am happy to learn any language you want me to. But we have to have the people to allow it, and diplomacy can't wait until we get them.