The State Dept.'s Growing Language Barrier

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GAO recently released a report (.pdf) on "persistent foreign language shortfalls" in the Foreign Service, the diplomatic arm of the State department. 31% of overseas officers stationed at language-designated positions fall short of the speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their jobs. This number rises to roughly 40% when focused on officers serving in locations of strategic significance, like East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The report states, for example:

43 percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions (107 officers in 248 filled positions), nor do 66 percent of officers in Dari positions (21 officers in 32 positions), 38 percent in Farsi (5 officers in 13 positions), or 50 percent in Urdu (5 officers in 10 positions).

This research may not seem revelatory; indeed, inherent in the definition of "critical" and "supercritical" language labels are both the low supply/high demand and the complexity of a given tongue. But this report follows up a similar 2006 report (.pdf)--and today's 31% represents a 2% increase of under-qualified officers in the three interim years. There are mitigating factors to consider, like the increased demand in regions of supercritical languages and the necessary years of training required for language proficiency. Yet it is disturbing that a decrease in foreign officers equipped with the language skills to promote and protect American diplomatic interests has been concurrent with the U.S.'s efforts to shape its global role in the 21st century.

The anecdotal evidence contained within the report shows how this foreign language shortfall impairs the diplomatic mission:

A public affairs officer in one post we visited said that the local media does not always translate embassy statements accurately, complicating efforts to communicate with audiences in the host country. For example, he said the local press translated a statement by the ambassador in a more pejorative sense than was intended, which damaged the ambassador's reputation and took several weeks to correct.

And:

An officer at a post of strategic interest said because she did not speak the language, she had transferred a sensitive telephone call from a local informant to a local employee, which could have compromised the informant's identity.

Since assuming office, neither President Obama nor Secretary Clinton have publicly addressed the shortage of critical language speakers and its effect on diplomacy. (The administration has, however, addressed the shortage in intelligence programs.) Though GAO's numbers speak for themselves, the heated debate about increasing military force in Afghanistan underscores this void. For the success of the U.S., in Afghanistan and around the world, "soft power" forces should be as well equipped as military forces. Otherwise, the "misperceptions and misinformation" about the U.S. to which Obama alludes in his recent UN speech may continue to impede American endeavors for global stability.

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Kerry Golds

Kerry Golds is an intern in the editorial and art/production departments of The Atlantic magazine. She lives in Rosslyn, VA.
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