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America’s Language Challenge: Multidimensional Responses

Secretary Powell has called our diplomatic personnel “America’s first line of offense.”  The overarching goal, therefore, is to get the right people, with the right skills, in the right place at the right time to carry out America’s foreign policy.  One of the skills that is the hallmark of effective diplomacy is the ability to use a foreign language to carry out our responsibilities.  In the wake of the watershed events of September 11, 2001, the press, the public and the United States (US) government have grown painfully aware of the phenomenon that Senator Paul Simon called (in 1980!) “The Tongue-Tied American.” Repeatedly, we see compelling evidence of the critical role of high-level foreign language capabilities in our foreign policy, our international responsi­bili­ties, and our national security. It has become both obvious and urgent for the foreign affairs community to stand up and address the “language challenge.”  

Some Facts: What We Have to Work with to Meet the Challenge


In an article with a stinging title, “Now That We’re Comrades, We Don’t Care Anymore,” Washington Post, November 9, 2003, we learned that:


“The US government is spending 25 percent less today, adjusted for inflation, than it did in 1967 on high-level foreign language training. And that figure includes an additional 20 percent for Arabic and Middle Eastern studies appropriated by Congress after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A Washington-based consultant on international education [noted] that the number of fellowships in all advanced foreign language and area studies declined from 2,344 in 1967 to 1,640 in fiscal year 2003.”


In addition, in the Conference Report accompanying the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003, three key pieces of data are given as reasons to support foreign language education: 


“82 percent of the US population of 255 million people speaks only English. There are very few US households where languages critical for supporting US national security are spoken. For example, only 0.23 percent, or 596,000 of the US population, speaks Arabic at home, 0.13 percent for Hindi, 0.11 percent for Urdu, 0.09 percent for Serbo-Croatian, 0.27 percent for Russian, 0.18 percent for Japanese, and 0.78 percent for Chinese.

Second, less than one percent (about 144,000 in calendar year 2000) of all US students in higher education study abroad. Study abroad program data also show that US students historically have not studied in areas that are emerging as critical to national security. In 2000, 60 percent of US study abroad students studied in Western Europe. Less than 2.9 percent studied in the Middle East (a mere 4,100 students, with 3,900 of these studying in Israel); 2.7 percent studied in Africa (3,900 students), and six percent in Asia (8,800, with 5,600 of these in China and Japan).

Third, modern foreign language class registrations in US higher education are down from a high in 1965 of 16.5 foreign language class registrations per 100 overall class registrations to 7.9 registrations per 100 in 1998.  Spanish accounts for 55 percent of foreign language registrations, while Arabic accounts for 0.5 percent (5,500 registrations), Chinese for 2.4 percent (28,000), and Russian for two percent (24,000).” [1]

In his “Dear Colleagues” letter in November 2003 inviting fellow House members to co-sponsor his bill, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), notes:

“I am introducing legislation, the National Security Language Act, which would significantly expand our investment in foreign language education on the primary, secondary, and post-secondary level.

Al-Qaeda operates in over 75 countries, where hundreds of languages and dialects are spoken. However, 99 percent of American high school, college and university programs concentrate on a dozen (mostly European) languages. In fact, more college students currently study Ancient Greek (20,858) than Arabic (10,596), Korean (5,211), Persian (1,117), and Pashto (14) put together. We need to do more to make sure that America has the language professionals necessary to defend our national security. This cannot be done overnight. We are already years overdue.”

One of the local Washington television garden advisors was asked by a viewer “When is the best time to plant trees?” His answer: “Twenty years ago.” Given the unavailability of a reliable time-machine, everyone is now scrambling to propose their own ways to put good will and good money to work to ameliorate the fact that the American public and the educational system, and, yes, we in the government, have fallen short of anticipating and providing for foreign language capability across a broad range of our population. September 11, 2001, was our generation’s Sputnik. We rose to that challenge in 1957, and slowly we are rising to this one.

While the Department as a whole is not formally considered part of the Intelligence Community (IC), we share with them the need for strong foreign language capability in order to achieve our mission goals, and Congress has shown special interest in the linguistic capabilities not only of the Department of State, but also the IC and the rest of the national security agencies and in what initiatives are being undertaken to meet current and future IC language requirements. How do they and others anticipate language demands for the future, and what is being done to meet the emerging demands?

Leadership on this issue will be required from the highest levels to encourage new programs in the elementary and secondary schools and post-secondary schools and to continue the existing ones such as the National Security Education Program in order to build a talent pool from which the government can recruit candidates. This and more creative ways to tap into America’s rich diversity of “heritage” language speakers can bring more people into the applicant pool for critical roles across the government and in the nongovernmental organization (NGO) and private sectors as well.

The State Department’s Approach

That is the backdrop, and I would note that many of the concerns and challenges are shared ones on which we in the State Department have been very eagerly collaborating much more intensively since 9/11. There are growing fissures in the stovepipes and cracks in the iron rice bowls. And that is a very good thing.

Ameliorating our shared challenges required us to consider how to better exploit and channel existing language resources and how to create new ones. In other words, how do we recruit, train, assign, retain and further develop the cadres with those language capabilities that are needed in all their various guises to enable us to accomplish our mission? That covers a lot of ground, so where do we begin?

The Department of State has developed and started to implement a coherent, integrated strategic plan for meeting its language proficiency goals. This plan involves close collaboration among the Bureau of Human Resources, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), the functional and regional bureaus and posts with foreign language requirements.  Our approach involves targeted recruitment, credit in the hiring process for language proficiency, and incentives to acquire, maintain, and improve language skills to highly advanced levels, and to re-use over a career the critical and difficult languages that are in high demand as we build the needed language cadres. This strategic plan is reinforced by the high value that the Department’s corporate culture places on language proficiency among our Foreign Service employees.

Getting the People

Language training is time consuming, expensive, difficult, and the resulting proficiency is fragile—use it or lose it. The best language training in the world, and we believe that FSI provides that, only works when there are students who can come to training, stay in training for the required amount of time, and use, maintain, and reuse their hard-won proficiency.  But the Foreign Service was “hollowed-out” by the freeze on hiring in the mid-1990s, so Secretary Powell launched a successful move to bring the number of State employees back to what is required to meet critical overseas needs, as well as create a “personnel complement.” That would provide for enough staff resources to make training and crisis response possible. Known as the “Diplomatic Readiness Initiative,” it is bringing record numbers of new employees into the Department, 1,069 over three years in addition to other special hiring for security and consular affairs. This is one factor in a 150 percent rise in the amount of language training delivered in the past six years.

As I noted, one way to increase language capacity is to target the people and places where there are reservoirs of language proficiency. We look to the “heritage” community, but conducting background investigations for clearances on native speakers can be particularly difficult, because many of these individuals have lived abroad, in some cases for years. We also target those who, despite the vagaries of the American educational system, have already developed strong skills in critical languages.

There are several important reasons why we do not require language proficiency or set it as a primary criterion for selection into the Foreign Service. The fluidity of language requirements partially explains this. In other words, the Albanian speakers we would have hired three years ago would not necessarily help us meet today’s needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Rather, the Department has identified core skills and qualities, which we call “dimensions,” that are far more indicative of a candidate’s long-term prospects for contributing successfully to the conduct of American foreign policy over a full career.  These dimensions have proven essential to conducting a long career in an ever-changing environment. They represent skills that cannot be taught easily, if at all: cultural adaptability; leadership; initiative; judgment; composure; interpersonal skills, etc. A person without these skills would not make an effective diplomat even if he or she spoke Chinese just as well as a native speaker.

However, once our applicants have passed the rigorous written and oral examination process, they are placed on a selection register and then can take a speaking-only telephone test to determine whether they are at a “threshold level” at least S-2 in a hard or S-3 in a world language. If so, they are then moved higher on the selection register for possible earlier entry into the Foreign Service. A recent change in that program provides even more bonus points for certain languages and language families designated as “critical needs languages” for national security. As a result, a recent entering class of entry-level Foreign Service Officers (March 8, 2004) is comprised of a majority of candidates who have passed a preliminary screening test in designated languages and who received the extra bonus points for entry into the Foreign Service. (Reinforcing the observation about when to plant trees, it was interesting to note that most of the new officers who came into the Service with strong Japanese skills were not heritage speakers, but likely benefited from the teaching of Japanese in the public schools in the 1980s and 1990s, when the issue was global economic competitiveness.)

These pre-existing skills—in any language—will then play a major role in bids for their first assignments. In general, officers entering with language skills have more options than those who enter with none. With proven language learning ability, they generally make better candidates for more difficult languages, like Arabic or Chinese, and more often are assigned to training for positions requiring proficiency in such languages.

Once hired, and irrespective of whether they enter with language proficiency or not, new officers are acutely attuned to language training issues as part of their overall career development. Entering officers must achieve proficiency in a foreign language to gain tenure, and later in their careers, those desiring to become senior officers must have achieved a professional level of proficiency (S-3/R-3) to cross the senior threshold.

Throughout, employees’ career paths are influenced in part—and in many cases, very significantly—by their language skills. When possible, the Department’s goal is to assign officers who already speak languages not commonly spoken or studied in the US to a number of tours in which that language may be used. Particularly for the most difficult languages (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), the Department’s goal is to ensure that officers with relatively rare language skills or those able to take long-term language training are given priority for assignment and re-assignment to posts where those languages are spoken.

Generous Language Incentive Pay (LIP) is available for those using designated hard languages while on assignment. Additional bonuses are paid for substantial improve­ment in proficiency and for repeat tours that use the same language. And I also would like to believe that the state-of-the-art language training delivered by the Foreign Service Institute is in itself an incentive to the motivated foreign affairs professional.

The Language Continuum: Developing the Needed Cadres

The immediate challenge of 9/11 for our diplomats abroad is to have the language skills to competently and credibly convey America’s message to often skeptical and even hostile foreign audiences, to understand the positions of our interlocutors—allies and adversaries alike—and to advance US policy goals and interests. The “Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World,” created at the request of Rep. Frank Wolf and the House Appropriations Committee and chaired by Ambassador Edward Djerejian, issued a report on October 1, 2003, recommending steps to strengthen public diplomacy. A major recommendation of that group was a very substantial increase in our capability in Arabic. And it is true that after 9/11 we had to call one of our best Arabic linguists out of retirement to go on Al-Jazeera and debate and present America’s story to an Arab audience. While we do have many competent Arabic speakers, we are still too thinly staffed, and there are too many critical jobs for them to fill in the Middle East and elsewhere. And to do what amounts to the equivalent of “Crossfire” or “Meet the Press” in Arabic will take more than a basic course—or even an advanced course in Arabic. It’s going to take enormous commitment and effort and experimenting with new approaches.

Over the years we had already been consciously and thoroughly increasing the professional relevance of our language training, and after 9/11 those efforts were redoubled, especially in the areas of consular tradecraft language and public diplomacy practice for all students, not just those in the public diplomacy cone.  The “training float” has permitted us to make intensive targeted language training become more of a reality as those outside the Department as well as visionaries within it have put greater emphasis on language proficiency. The electronic wizardry of new multimedia technology and the Internet have allowed us to expand our reach beyond the school house and provide continuing language education—a mandate that was laid on us by Congress some years ago and remains yearly in our authorization.

As a proactive step in response to the national language challenge, FSI peered ahead and saw beyond the status quo, and in January 2004, we published our Language Continuum that parallels FSI’s other career and training-related continua. This strategic plan lays out in a coherent fashion a broad range of formal and informal language learning options that have existed as independent elements into the fabric of a Foreign Service career and assignment path. A collaborative effort with the personnel system and the operational bureaus, this Continuum outlines for the Department and its employees a way to meld the principles of strategic workforce planning and the “Open Assignments” system, by serving as a roadmap to weave language proficiency development and use into a successful career progression. Some of the elements are opportunities beyond FSI/Washington, such as post language programs, distance learning programs that maintain the hard-won proficiency of those serving away from the area where the language is spoken, FSI’s full-time language training programs at overseas field schools, and highly-advanced training at regional universities abroad.  The Language Continuum is designed to help Foreign Service personnel, including Foreign Service Specialists and eligible family members, plan a long-term integrated approach to language learning and use, leading the motivated and talented more often to attain the advanced language skills that are so difficult to achieve, so fragile to maintain, and so critical to the nation. This is a prudent leveraging of our investment in language training and can build the advanced language cadres that 9/11 and subsequent developments have made so critical to the well-being of the United States and its citizens.

The key to America’s success in meeting the global language challenge will be, like the Language Continuum, a weaving together of complementary and mutually supportive dimensions of action in Congress, the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence Community, the broader federal government, NGOs, and the state and local educational establishments. Only then will America cease to be tongue-tied.

[1] Section 333 of the Conference Report accompanying the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003, H. Rpt. 107-789, H.R. 4628, which adopted section 309 of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003, H. Rpt. 107-592.

Issue Date


Director, Foreign Service Institute;
United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Lesotho, 1998-2001