US agencies still lack basic language skills, says new report

GAO report

GAO report

A major US government audit into the performance of national security departments and agencies has once again criticized the substantial absence of skilled foreign-language speakers. According to the Government Accountability Office’s latest assessment (.pdf) of the US Department of Defense and the Department of State, not only has the availability of foreign language fluency not improved, but has actually deteriorated during the past few years. The situation is especially desperate in the State Department, says the report, where the percentage of “generalists and specialists in language-designated positions” who fail to meet essential language criteria increased from 29 percent in 2005 to 31 percent last year. Speaking before a Congressional panel last week, John H. Pendleton, who authored the latest Government Accountability Office review, said that the Department of Defense also “lacks a comprehensive strategic plan for addressing its language skills and regional proficiency capabilities”, especially in non-Western language groups, such as Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, and Tamil, among others. In July of 2009, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued similar warnings about the lack of trained foreign-language speakers in the US intelligence community, noting “the continuing lack of critical language-capable personnel in the Intelligence Community, and the need to address this shortage”.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

3 Responses to US agencies still lack basic language skills, says new report

  1. John says:

    That’s because the DOD does not like to spend money on sending people to a language school such as the DLI.

  2. Marco says:

    Further to John’s comment, I think part of the problem here is a lack of emphasis on the field of applied linguistics in post secondary education.

    It is entirely possible to create an environment which yields a skilled pool of language experts, but it needs protracted effort. The Soviets did this successfully.

    I’m currently taking a major in linguistics at a Canadian university, and there is very (almost zero) little official opportunity for this type of study.

    For instance, credits obtained from completing foreign language courses do not count as linguistic credits towards a degree. Also, departments that do instruct languages are isolated on various ‘regional studies’ islands without any contact from the linguistics department. There is no academic path for students to pursue applied linguistics.

    There is apparently no shortage of resources (or students) for important courses such as ‘language and gender’ or ‘language in society’.

  3. John says:

    Appreciation of applied linguistics and the cross-linguistic similarities of language is a large part of the problem but may be a bit too hard for our American education system to tackle that issue. The larger issue is our primacy in world politics and being at least 3,000 miles away from the nearest country that doesn’t speak Spanish.

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