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Is American Security Being Lost In Translation?

“The United States [US] today carries new responsibilities in many quarters of the globe, and we are at a serious disadvantage because of the difficulty of finding persons who can deal with the foreign language problem.”

John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State, 1953

What was true in the post-World War II world of 1953 is true in the post-9/11 world of 2004. Our national deficiency in the languages and cultures of critical areas around the world is compromising American security interests at home and abroad. In addition to diminishing our opportunities economically and culturally, the deficiency is making our troops overseas more vulnerable and the American people less safe than they should be. We must eliminate the severe shortage of language professionals in our diplomatic corps, our military, and our intelligence agencies. Almost three years after the events of September 11, 2001, we still fail to address one of the most serious security problems facing this nation. So far, the approach has been superficial or temporary, with Congress and senior Administration officials exhorting agencies to hire more linguists. That is not enough.

The current shortage of language professionals is well documented throughout the federal government. In January 2002, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) reported that “diplomatic and intelligence officials have stated that lack of staff with foreign language skills has weakened the fight against international terrorism,” while at the Federal Bureau of Investigation “shortages of language-proficient staff have resulted in the accumulation of thousands of hours of audiotapes and pages of written material that have not been reviewed or translated.” More recently, the 9/11 Joint Inquiry reported last July that our intelligence community is at 30 percent readiness in languages critical to national security, while a State Department commissioned report from October found that our government has only 54 genuine Arabic speakers working in the entire Foreign Service.

When I recently asked David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, how many of his 1,400 member-team spoke Arabic, he could count the number on the fingers of one hand. I posed similar questions to some members of the Special Forces who have been combing the mountains of Afghanistan looking for Osama bin Laden. I asked them how much Pashto they spoke. They responded that they had “picked up some” during the year they had been there. Although our Special Forces represent some of the best trained soldiers in the world, we’re clearly not giving them all the skills they need to be successful in their mission.

While the Defense Department, the State Department and our intelligence agencies have recently turned their attention to the language problem, their approach remains focused on immediate needs. They’re stepping up recruitment efforts and expanding their respective language education programs. These are promising and necessary changes, but they only scratch the surface of what is fundamentally a national problem.

Federal Language Schools: A Tool, Not the Solution

The federal government long ago recognized that our public education system alone could not provide the advanced language specialists that it required. As a response, the government established language schools to train its own people in the languages of the world. I recently visited the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterrey, California, where each year approximately 3,700 members of the armed forces study languages ranging from Arabic to Chinese to Spanish. DLI touts itself as the country’s largest center of foreign language study.

Indeed, DLI is a remarkable educational facility. I watched students there learning in the classroom from smart boards connected to the Internet from which instructors could call up, highlight, and use text, audio and video streams, and from specially formatted MP3 players (e.g. iPods) to replay foreign news broadcasts and music directly into their headphones. DLI is certainly on the cutting edge of educational technology, but technology alone cannot surmount the challenges of learning a language. I also have visited the language schools of the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department (Foreign Service Institute), and have talked with many officers with the various agencies they serve.

The problem these federal language schools have is two-fold. First, the schools react specifically to the immediate needs of the agencies they serve. If the army needs Arabic speakers, then the DLI hires Arabic teachers. The other schools operate in much the same way. They do not plan for the long term. When a language is no longer designated “high-need,” teachers lose their jobs and training in that language is cut back. In short, we are not preparing to meet the potential needs of the future. There is no built-in system to adapt to future and emerging linguistic needs. Unfortunately, as any linguist will tell you, it’s simply not possible to produce adequate speakers of difficult languages in a short period of time no matter how good the faculty or how advanced the technology. They take years of training and immersion to cultivate.

Second, the federal language schools alone simply cannot meet the language needs of the armed forces, the State Department, our intelligence agencies, and the larger federal government. Too often, their students have a limited foundation in foreign languages and are starting their language classes with little or no previous language training. This makes them very expensive to train and many of them finish their one-year programs with only basic language skills. As a result, they can only make a limited contribution to the agencies they serve. Ultimately, the language problem cannot be solved at the federal level because the root problem lies in public schools throughout the country.

The Root Problem: Our Schools

If we are to address adequately the language shortage in the federal government, we have to look past the issues of immediate recruitment and federal language training. Federal language schools are building on a poor language foundation, and the federal government cannot recruit linguists from a pool that does not exist. With this approach, we will always be trying to catch up. We must design and implement a federal language strategy that begins in the earliest years of education and continues through college. 

Consider the following sober facts. Al-Qaeda and like-minded terrorist elements operate 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 few (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, according to figures from 2002. Last year, American universities granted only six degrees in Arabic and eight in Korean, while they granted more than 7,000 in Spanish. We need to improve the numbers in critical languages if we’re going to make sure that America has the language professionals necessary to defend our national security and represent American interests abroad.

National Security Language Act

In Congress, I have introduced the National Security Language Act, legislation that would expand federal investment in education in foreign languages of critical need, such as Arabic, Persian, Korean, Pashto and Chinese. It would provide federal incentives for high school students to study languages into college, give universities resources to expand language programs overseas, and identify Americans with pre-existing language abilities for recruitment. The main provisions of the bill include:

  • The International Flagship Language Initiative (IFLI): Providing federal grants to specific American universities and colleges to establish high quality, intensive in-country language study programs in a broad range of countries around the world. Institutional grants of up to $400,000 per language would be provided to establish new programs. The initial target will be the languages identified by the government-wide needs assessment conducted regularly by the National Security Education Program (NSEP). The NSEP, which already oversees the National Flagship Language Initiative (NFLI), will also administer the program.
  • Science and Technology Advanced Foreign Language Grants: Providing federal grants to institutions of higher education to establish programs that encourage students to develop foreign language proficiency as well as science and technological knowledge. Eligible institutions will develop programs in which students take courses in science, math and technology taught in a foreign language.  Funds will also support immersion programs for students to take science and math courses in a non‑English speaking country.
  • Loan Forgiveness for Undergraduate Students in Foreign Languages who Become Teachers or Federal Employees: Authorizing the Secretary of Education to assume the obligation to repay a total of not more than $10,000 of the principal and interest for a student borrower who has obtained an undergraduate degree in a critical need foreign language. To qualify the recipient must be employed in an agency of the United States government or in a full-time position in an elementary or secondary school as a teacher.
  • Encouraging Early Foreign Language Studies: Establishing grants for foreign language partnerships between local school districts and foreign language departments at institutions of higher education. Also eligible to participate in the partnerships would be state education agencies, an education or teacher training department of institutions of higher education, a business, a non‑profit organization, heritage or community centers for language study, or a Language Resource Center. Priority would be given to partnerships that include a high‑need local educational agency and to partnerships that emphasize the teaching of less‑commonly taught languages.
  • National Study of Foreign Language Heritage Communities and Federal Marketing Campaign: Commissioning a national study to identify heritage communities with native speakers of critical foreign languages and make them targets of a federal marketing campaign encouraging students to pursue degrees in those languages.  Members of heritage communities are a better and less expensive educational investment than non-heritage speakers with no previous language experience. Unfortunately, many heritage communities view knowledge of a language other than English as a problem to be overcome. A federal marketing campaign should educate heritage language speakers about the educational and professional opportunities that their language skills may afford them. 

A Sputnik Moment

A few years after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles lamented America’s lack of foreign language abilities, the Soviet Union surprised America with the launch of the first Sputnik into space in 1957. American leaders vowed never to be second to anyone in proficiency in science and mathematics. In 1958, Congress responded to Sputnik by passing the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which created a generation of scientists, engineers, and Russian linguists who helped win the Cold War.

Immediately after September 11, 2001, Americans found themselves again facing a Sputnik moment. They realized that they were caught flat-footed, unprepared to confront al-Qaeda terrorists. We need a national commitment to languages on a scale of the NDEA commitment to science, including improved curriculum, teaching technology and methods, teacher development, and a systemic cultural commitment. I offer the National Security Language Act as the first part of a solution that will give us a generation of Americans able to confront the new threats we face today.

Issue Date


Member, United States House of Representatives;
Member, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence;
Member, Committee on Education and the Workforce