Government Has Foreign Language Deficit

Here’s a follow-up from the post on the Senate Foreign Language Hearings:

The article is by Joe Davidson in The Washington Post, May 21, 2012:

A Senate panel examined the language deficit during a hearing Monday on “A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government.”

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on government management and the federal workforce, said national security agencies “continue to experience shortages of people skilled in hard-to-learn languages due to a limited pool of Americans to recruit from.”

For example, just 61 percent of the State Department’s “language-designated positions” were filled with fully qualified personnel in 2009, according to testimony by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the department’s director general of the Foreign Service and director of human resources.

That figure jumped to 74 percent this year, a notable improvement. But that leaves more than a quarter of the positions not adequately filled. The need is particularly great for Near East, South Asian and East Asian languages.

“Over the past several years, we have had to make critical choices about whether to leave a position vacant for the time it takes to train a fully language-qualified officer or curtail all or part of the language training,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “These were difficult choices.”

The Defense Department has similar difficulties. More than 80 percent of its language slots were filled in fiscal year 2011, but just 28 percent “were filled with personnel at the required foreign-language proficiency level,” Laura Junor, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, said in her statement. “Although we may be filling the positions, we are not filling those positions with individuals with the requisite proficiency skill level.”

Recruiting and hiring is tough.

“At the outset, it is difficult to identify the right people,” Tracey North, an FBI deputy assistant director, said in her testimony. Not only must they speak the foreign language excellently, but their reputations must survive thorough background investigations. “On average, one out of every 10 applicants gets through the entire contract linguist applicant process,” North said. “Furthermore, there is a limited availability of qualified speakers of vital foreign languages who are U.S. citizens and have the English skills to support our requirements.”

People such as Shauna Kaplan, a fifth-grader at Providence Elementary School in Fairfax County and one of three students at the hearing who spoke about their foreign language experiences, are changing that.

Shauna presented herself well at the hearing, delivering parts of her testimony in fluent Chinese, which she translated for her audience.

“That means: Thank you everyone. I am happy to speak some Chinese today. Learning Chinese is not hard. You also can learn Chinese.”

She did so well that she earned applause. Too bad Uncle Sam can’t hire her — yet.

 
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