Tuesday, September 22, 2009

GAO report finds State Department language skills dangerously lacking

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.


voice of reason said...

This is an interesting post, and one that brings up something I was wondering about the foreign service: Is there opportunity/time for formal language training once at post?

Citatus said...

Great article. I have an idea. How about sending people that already have language skills to Posts where their language is needed?

Anonymous said...

> we are generalists. We go all over.

Why? Why does that have to be the rule?

D Biggs said...

I'm just now going through the FSOT procedure (I'll be going to the next round of OA in a few months), so I don't have the experience or on-the-ground understanding of an FSO yet, but it strikes me that Generalists are trained for their first post - language and all - but then don't seem to have much chance after that (that I can tell) to prepare for the next. This seems from my PoV that a new Officer will be trained for, say, Russian, but then her second post will be in Chile with less training. Would it make more sense to keep Officers in regions where their current training will be useful (ad enhanced)? That would lead to generalist becoming very specialized in particular regions, but would that be a bad thing? I ask out of ignorance, mind you. But the way Officers are moved entirely around the world every 2-3 years seems to get in the way of training for posts.

Digger said...

Voice of Reason: yes, posts usually have a post language officer. I served this role in Jerusalem and arranged training for folks in both Hebrew and Arabic.

Citatus: We do send people to posts using their language skills. People coming in with a critical needs language can get a boost in their oral assessment score if they test in that language. but the trade-off is that they have to serve in a country using that language during one of their first two tours. And there are significant financial incentives to return to countries that use those languages.

D Biggs: You often won't get additional training for your second tour, but once you get tenure, you can get additional training. So I got language before my first post and have done a few years in DC since then. Now I am bidding to go back out, and I will get language again. People do roughly specialize in a region, but you don't want to overspecialize in (or over sympathize with) because we do represent the US. The idea is that if you stay too long in a country, you are not as in touch with US interests.

Anonymous said...

Actually, candidates only get the language boost after they pass the orals, by which time it doesn't matter since most people on the Register nowadays are getting an offer. The language bonus can't be used to push an oral score above the 5.25 passing limit if you score below it.

Digger said...

It is true that the boost is once you pass the orals. I knew lots more folks were getting offers these days, but I didn't realize it was nearly everyone who passed (this was not the case when I joined six years ago). Even so, a boost of up to .5 will certainly get you an offer quicker than a barely passing 5.25 will.

hannah said...

The CNL hiring focus is good - when I came into the service in 2007, my CNL language boost took me from 80+ to 7 on the hiring list for my cone, and back then classes were pretty small. However, language training and staffing in EL have to catch up with the hiring.

Out of A-100 I was assigned to a post requiring a 2/2 in Arabic, which I already had, but because of the way the assignment schedule worked out, I was required to take 8 months of Arabic in DC. At the time, there was no advanced Arabic available there, and I was not allowed to TDY to a short-staffed post during the summer moving crunch or to work at a desk somewhere in HST because of funding woes (no one wanted to pick up my per diem, evidently).

I hear things are getting better now - there's no sense in hiring people because they're already proficient in a language and then training them in thumb twiddling!

Anonymous said...

Wow, an incredibly similar report was released in 2006.


Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps. GAO-06-894

Anonymous said...

The language bonus is useless. My friend got a PD offer for the 149th A-100 in October the day after he placed on the register. His score was a 5.3.

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