Tillerson’s Staff Reduction Plan Threatens Gains in Bridging @StateDept Language Gaps

Posted: 4:03 am ET
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The ability to speak and read foreign languages is a key Foreign Service competency. All FS Officers (Generalists) and some FS Specialists are required to reach general professional (3/3) proficiency in at least one foreign language during their careers. In 2016, the State Department said that its  success in staffing positions with officers with the required language proficiency was due, in great part, to the increased resources received in the Diplomacy 3.0 initiative.

Last year, the agency developed a plan to continue to bridge its language gaps — to “continue to expand the training complement, as resources are made available to enhance foreign language skills.” The Department said that it’s language requirements “are much greater today than before 9/11″ but it also noted that the budget environment threatens to reduce the significant progress the Department has made. Even before Rex Tillerson happened to the State Department, the agency already warned last year that “without funds to hire staff above attrition, the Department is not likely to make significant progress in increasing the number of LDPs [language designated positions] filled with fully qualified officers.”

A good number of our readers already know about language training in the State Department, but we also have readers who are not familiar with it, so this part is an explainer. The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) grouped languages into four broad categories based on their difficulty to learn:

Category I Languages include the most English-like or the easiest languages for native speakers of English to learn. Included in this category are the Romance languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese, as well as other Western European languages, such as Swedish and Dutch. On average, these languages require 24 to 30 weeks of full-time study to achieve the 3/3 proficiency level.

Category II Languages generally take 36 weeks of full-time study to achieve the 3/3 proficiency level. Included in this category are Indonesian, Swahili, and German, among others.

Category III Languages generally require 44 weeks of full-time study to achieve a 3/3. These languages are substantially harder to learn because they are less like English. Among the Category III languages are Hindi, Dari, Persian, Russian, and Urdu.

Category IV Languages are the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. This category includes Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, which require training for roughly 88 weeks, including a ten-month language immersion in country, to obtain the general professional (3/3) proficiency level.

The general professional (3/3) proficiency level means being able to use the language with sufficient ability participate in most formal and informal discussion on practical, social, and professional topics. It means being able to conceptualize and hypothesize. An 0/0 in speaking/reading indicates only a cursory level knowledge of the language while a 5/5 proficiency means highly articulate, well-educated, native-speaker proficiency. If you want to send a diplomat to a radio station to better explain U.S. foreign policy to host country nationals, you don’t send somebody with “basic” language skills. If you send a DSS agent to a high threat post without appropriate language training, it can limit not just his/her communication with the local guard force but also situational awareness and his/her ability to protect the mission.

The State Department defines priority languages as languages that are of critical importance to U.S. foreign policy, languages that are experiencing severe shortages or staffing gaps, or present specific challenges in recruiting and training.  So for example, Mandarin Chinese, Dari, Farsi, Pashto, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, and Arabic—all are languages spoken in China, Iran, India, Korea, and throughout the Near East—and are considered priority languages.

It took the State Department 12 years to get from 303 to 475 Chinese Mandarin speakers. Persian-Iranian speakers increased from 14 in FY2003 to 44 in FY2015, an increase of 214.3%. Persian-Afghan speakers went from 12 in 2003 to 85 in 2015, a 608% increase. Hindi speakers went from 12 to 75 or a 525% increase. The State Department’s Arabic speakers increased 47% between 2003-2015, from 232 to 341. Let’s not forget Korean speakers, where State had 76 3/3 speakers in 2003 and 102 in 2015.

In 2013, State/OIG estimated training students to the 3/3 level in easier world languages such as Spanish can cost $105,000 while training students in hard languages such as Russian can cost $180,000. Training in super hard languages such as Chinese and Arabic can cost up to $480,000 per student.  Students learning super hard languages to the 3/3 level generally spend one year domestically at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and then a second year at an overseas training facility.  The OIG’s estimates were reportedly developed based on the FSI weekly tuition rate, the standard number of weeks for 3/3 raining, the salary of a midlevel FSO, benefits based on Congressional Budget Office  figures, and per diem based on 14FAM 575.3 and Federal Travel Regulations. Cost estimates for super-hard languages were developed using the above methodology for the  domestic portion of training and data provided byEmbassy Beijing and NEA and data in State’s standard overseas support cost model for the overseas  portion of language training.

Is we use the OIG cost estimate of $480K to train a student in super hard language, it means U.S. taxpayers already spent $48M to train 102 diplomats to speak Korean.  We don’t know who are planning to take the buyouts, but let’s say for the sake of argument that all 102 Korean speakers take Tillerson’s buyouts. That’s $48M down the drain. How about the $163M taxpayers already spent on 341 Arabic speakers? Or the $228M spent to train 475 Chinese Mandarin speakers? Or $84M already expended the last twelve years to train 175 Japanese speakers?

What happens when they leave? Does the State Department then hire contractors on an “as needed” basis to track and report the goings on in the Korean peninsula and everywhere else where the U.S is planning to shrink its presence?

It is important to underscore that these gains in the Foreign Service’s language capacity did not happen overnight. And when people leave, as projected in Mr. Tillerson’s reported plan, replenishing their ranks, skills and experience will not happen overnight. Congress can appropriate new funds in the future, of course, but there is no currency that can buy the U.S. time.

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