A Fall Re-Run: Language Shortfalls at the State Dept

Foreign Language PosterImage by SplaTT via Flickr

The GAO has just released its latest report on the foreign language shortfalls at the State Department. Since 2002, six reports have been issued altogether on this topic alone. This is beginning to look like a TV series with a return engagement every fall-winter season.

The full report has not been posted yet but here is a summary:

Proficiency in foreign languages is a key skill for U.S. diplomats to advance U.S. interests overseas. GAO has issued several reports highlighting the Department of State’s (State) persistent foreign language shortages. In 2006, GAO recommended that State evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to improve the language proficiency of its staff. State responded by providing examples of activities it believed addressed our recommendation. In this report, which updates the 2006 report, GAO (1) examined the extent to which State is meeting its foreign language requirements and the potential impact of any shortfall, (2) assessed State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements and described the challenges it faces in doing so, and (3) assessed the extent to which State has a comprehensive strategy to determine and meet these requirements. GAO analyzed data on State’s overseas language-designated positions; reviewed strategic planning and budgetary documents; interviewed State officials; and conducted fieldwork in China, Egypt, India, Tunisia, and Turkey.

As of October 31, 2008, 31 percent of Foreign Service officers in overseas language-designated positions (LDP) did not meet both the foreign languages speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions. State continues to face foreign language shortfalls in regions of strategic interest–such as the Near East and South and Central Asia, where about 40 percent of officers in LDPs did not meet requirements. Despite efforts to recruit individuals with proficiency in critical languages, shortfalls in supercritical languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, remain at 39 percent.

State trains staff in about 70 languages in Washington and overseas, and has reported a training success rate of 86 percent. Moreover, State offers bonus points for language-proficient applicants who have passed the Foreign Service exam and has hired 445 officers under this program since 2004. However, various challenges limit the effectiveness of these efforts. According to State, a primary challenge is overall staffing shortages, which limit the number of staff available for language training, as well as the recent increase in LDPs. State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach.

State officials have said that the department’s plan for meeting its foreign language requirements is spread throughout a number of documents that address these needs; however these documents are not linked to each other and do not contain measurable goals, objectives, or milestones for reducing the foreign language gaps. blur Because these gaps have persisted over several years despite staffing increases, we believe that a more comprehensive, strategic approach would help State to more effectively guide its efforts and assess its progress in meeting its foreign language requirements.

The GAO report makes two recommendations:

Recommendation: To address State’s persistent foreign language proficiency shortfalls in the U.S. Foreign Service, the Secretary of State should develop a comprehensive strategic plan consistent with GAO and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) workforce planning guidance that links all of State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements. Such a plan should include, but not be limited to, the following elements: (1) clearly defined and measurable performance goals and objectives of the department’s language proficiency program that reflect the priorities and strategic interests of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy (2) a transparent, comprehensive process for identifying foreign language requirements, based on objective criteria, that goes beyond the current annual process, to determine which positions should be language designated and the proficiency level needed to enable officers to effectively perform their duties; and (3) a more effective mechanism that allows State to gather feedback from FSOs on the relevance of the foreign language skills that they acquired at FSI to their jobs, and mechanisms for assessing the effectiveness of State’s recruitment of critical needs foreign language speakers, and language incentive payments, as well as future efforts toward closing the department’s language proficiency gaps.

: To address State’s persistent foreign language proficiency shortfalls in the U.S. Foreign Service, and to more accurately measure the extent to which language-designated positions are filled with officers who meet the language requirements of the position, the Secretary of State should revise the department’s methodology in its Congressional Budget Justifications and annual reports to Congress on foreign language proficiency. Specifically, the department should measure and report on the percentage of officers in language-designated positions who have tested at or above the level of proficiency required for the position, rather than officers who have been assigned to language training but who have not yet completed this training.

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An FS candidate (declined to be publicly identified for fear of adverse reaction) who has a 5/5 in a superhard language wrote to Diplopundit not too long ago. The candidate made it to the orals but scored a teensy weensy point short of the score needed to pass (we’re talking less than a full point). But here’s the contortion in this entrance process that is out of step with current realities – the candidate’s language skills only came into consideration after the applicant passed the orals (by getting a 0.4 – 0.5 boost on the Register). State HR apparently treats a 2/2 in hard and superhard languages the same way as a 5/5 in the application process (QEP and post-orals). But… but … the difference between an elementary 2/2 and a native speaker 5/5 is almost like an ocean, yes, the Pacific one. Can you really order a beer and also explain our foreign policy in Afghanistan with a 2/2 in Dari? I think not.

A 5/5 in superhard languages like Chinese, Korean, Arabic and Japanese is rarely achieved through a couple of years of training at FSI and even getting to a 4/4 takes years of constant practice. So — because the FS entry process is wedded to the 1950’s, we instead hire somebody who has no Chinese, no Korean, no Arabic and no Japanese, spend time (a luxury we don’t have) and money (we don’t have, and thus borrowed) training him/her for a language that he/she may never use beyond 3/3 for the near future. In US Embassy Yemen’s example, a senior official complained that a level 3/3 speaking/reading proficiency in Arabic is not enough for mission officers to participate in debates about U.S. foreign policy in Arabic.

And there my friends is a bullheaded strategy for you.

See my previous posts on this topic:

Related Items:

Department of State: Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls | GAO-09-955, September 17, 2009

State Department: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps | GAO-07-1154T, August 1, 2007

Department of State: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps | GAO-06-894, August 4, 2006

State Department: Targets for Hiring, Filling Vacancies Overseas Being Met, but Gaps Remain in Hard-to-Learn Languages | GAO-04-139, November 19, 2003

Foreign Languages: Workforce Planning Could Help Address Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls: GAO-02-514T, March 12, 2002

Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls | GAO-02-375, January 31, 2002