Image by nofrills via Flickr
In late October, President Obama signed into law H.R. 2647: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. Sec.529 of that Act authorized the establishment of language training centers for the Department of Defense.
The program authorized includes the recruitment of native and heritage speakers of critical and strategic languages under the program into the Armed Forces and the civilian workforce of the Department of Defense and to support the Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps.
Like the CIA, there appears to be a recognition here that the agency cannot train itself out of the language gap in the Department’s workforce.
The State Department on the other hand has what it calls, Diplomacy 3.0, a multi-year effort to increase the size of its workforce by 25 percent and aims to bring on board 1,200 new Foreign and Civil Service employees above attrition in fiscal year 2009 and another 1,200 in fiscal year 2010. The Director General of the Foreign Service, Nancy Powell writes that “In the short-term, we are working to identify and establish at least 200 new positions by December and more in 2010. With these new positions, we can also build a language training float, particularly for priority languages, such as Arabic, Chinese and Urdu.”
At a recent congressional hearing on diplomatic readiness, Ambassador Powell also says:
“More targeted recruiting can also help address the current challenges, and we are recruiting aggressively for certain critical language proficiency skills at this time. Those with these language proficiencies who pass our stringent Foreign Service Officer written exam are given preference points in the hiring process. Through this program, we have hired over 400 officers since 2004. For current employees, we have incentivized hard and super-hard languages such as Chinese, Pashto and Hindi. Such incentives underscore the value placed by the Department on obtaining capacity in our most challenging and needed languages.”
The exact number is 445 officers. That’s an average of 89 officers per year in the last 5 years. According to State, officers recruited for their proficiency in supercritical and critical needs languages are obligated to serve at an overseas post where they can use the language during their first or second tour. Officers recruited since 2008 are also required to serve at a post where they can use the language a second time as a midlevel officer. The State Department, however, told the GAO that it could not yet assess the program’s effectiveness because the program, which started in 2004, is still new and the department does not have sufficient data to perform such an assessment.
Of course, what we don’t know is how many of those recruits came in with a 2/2 or with a 5/5 native level skills. We do know from a series of GAO reports that even FSOs admit that 3/3 is not enough for them to effectively engage with their foreign audience on US foreign policy. We also know from this report (page 19) that “some officials noted the department believes it is easier to train individuals with good diplomatic skills to speak a language than it is to recruit linguists and train them to be good diplomats.“
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that today’s learners will have 10 to 14 jobs by their 38th birthday. I think that State’s recruitment and training practices are still stuck in the career paradigm of the 50’s, of growing everyone from the bottom, of training everybody from scratch, of one career for life – and I can’t help but wonder if it will ever be able to climb out of this hole to face the next round of challenges in five years or the new challenges in 2030.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” That’s Albert Einstein. But they are…using the same kind of thinking, that is.
And now, it is not even far off to imagine that in 5-10 years but maybe much sooner, the Defense Department will also have far more linguists than the State Department.
And what happens then?
Now that I have shocked you into walking down this corridor…
I should note that the bill the President signed into law was the authorization bill; it sets limits on funds that can be appropriated, but does not grant funding which must be provided by a separate congressional appropriation. Only after the president signs the Defense Appropriations Act does the program have budget authority (i.e. can incur obligations and make payments). The Defense appropriations bill, H.R. 3326, is still in conference committee as of November 8.
Below is the text from the authorization bill that had been signed into law; this won’t have teeth until the appropriations bill becomes law:
SEC. 529. LANGUAGE TRAINING CENTERS FOR MEMBERS OF THE ARMED FORCES AND CIVILIAN EMPLOYEES OF THE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE.
(a) Program Authorized- The Secretary of Defense may carry out a program to establish language training centers at accredited universities, senior military colleges, or other similar institutions of higher education for purposes of accelerating the development of foundational expertise in critical and strategic languages and regional area studies (as defined by the Secretary of Defense for purposes of this section) for members of the Armed Forces, including members of the reserve components and candidates of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs, and civilian employees of the Department of Defense.
(b) Elements- Each language training center established under the program authorized by subsection (a) shall include the following:
- (1) Programs to provide that members of the Armed Forces or civilian employees of the Department of Defense who graduate from the institution of higher education concerned include members or employees, as the case may be, who are skilled in the languages and area studies covered by the program from beginning through advanced skill levels.
- (2) Programs of language proficiency training for such members and civilian employees at the institution of higher education concerned in critical and strategic languages tailored to meet operational readiness requirements.
- (3) Alternative language training delivery systems and modalities to meet language and regional area study requirements for such members and employees whether prior to deployment, during deployment, or post-deployment.
- (4) Programs on critical and strategic languages under the program that can be incorporated into Reserve Officers’ Training Corps programs to facilitate the development of language skills in such languages among future officers of the Armed Forces.
- (5) Training and education programs to expand the pool of qualified instructors and educators on critical and strategic languages and regional area studies under the program for the Armed Forces.
- (6) Programs to facilitate and encourage the recruitment of native and heritage speakers of critical and strategic languages under the program into the Armed Forces and the civilian workforce of the Department of Defense and to support the Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps.
(c) Partnerships With Other Schools- Any language training center established under the program authorized by subsection (a) may enter into a partnership with one or more local educational agencies to facilitate the development of skills in critical and strategic languages under the program among students attending the elementary and secondary schools of such agencies who may pursue a military career.
(d) Coordination- The Secretary of Defense shall ensure that the language training centers established under the program authorized by subsection (a) are aligned with those of the National Security Education Program, the Defense Language Institute, and other appropriate Department of Defense programs to facilitate and encourage the recruitment of native and heritage speakers of critical and strategic languages under the program into the Armed Forces and the civilian workforce of the Department of Defense and to support the Civilian Linguist Reserve Corps.
(e) Report- Not later than one year after the date of the establishment of the program authorized by subsection (a), the Secretary of Defense shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report on the program. The report shall include the following:
- (1) A description of each language training center established under the program.
- (2) An assessment of the cost-effectiveness of the program in providing foundational expertise in critical and strategic languages and regional area studies in support of the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap.
- (3) An assessment of the progress made by each language training center in providing capabilities in critical and strategic languages under the program to members of the Armed Forces and Department of Defense employees.
- (4) A recommendation whether the program should be continued and, if so, recommendations as to any modifications of the program that the Secretary considers appropriate.