Saturday, April 10, 2010

The perpetual problem of language

While I'm hardly the seasoned veteran posting on long-term trends in the Foreign Service, I've noticed a fairly significant amount of criticism directed at State recently pertaining to language training and fluency, or lack thereof.

Starting, perhaps, with the Government Accountability Office's report, and more recently John Negroponte's public criticism, there's been a good deal of talk lately about how well and how widely this job is performed.  Specifically, Amb. Negroponte spoke recently at the AFSA, and stated:

"There is no substitute for recruiting, training, deploying, retaining and retraining," officers in languages and geography so they "develop the contacts, the knowledge, the insight, the local and area expertise" needed to help develop America's foreign policy.

FSOWannabe posed a question related to this in a recent post, asking if the criticism was valid and what needed to be done about it.  I started posting a monster of a comment on his entry, and decided it might be better served by some additional space.  So, FSOWannabe, here's what i have for you.  This is what you get for posting in my comments section :)

The recently posted FY2011 A-100 schedule shows that State will be training another 800 officers this year, which should at least start making a dent in that 70% persistent staffing shortfall that Digger mentions.

That being said, Negroponte's point can be taken one of three ways.  The FS is either deficient in:

A) Hiring trained speakers of phenomenally difficult mega-languages like Arabic, Mandarin, and Hindi.

B) Training existing employees to fluency in very difficult languages


C) Training employees to proficiency in any of the myriad spoken languages that the FSI does not currently train in, namely smaller ethnic and tribal languages in regions cohabited by speakers of more common languages. 

Meeting problem "A" might require a major policy shift, as any SCNL or CNL speaker who passes the OA is virtually guaranteed a spot in the service.  Getting more native speakers might necessitate relaxing the entrance requirements further for existing speakers, or creating some sort of position to dedicate an employee to a region.  I've no idea how that would look, but it's interesting.

Problem "B" is one of resources.  800 officers per year stretches FSI to capacity, so additional facilities and programs are necessary, as are codified career benefits to extensive language training.  That all means money, but not nearly so much money as is already invested in foreign infrastructure, which is woefully underutilized even today.  There are so few problems that benefit from simply having money thrown at them, but this surely is one.  I'm not certain who or what lobbies for State's interests at a congressional budget level, but I would hope that this is foremost on their minds.

Problem "C", like "B", is one of resources, but furthermore it's one of priorities.  India alone speaks more languages than the FSI instructs in for the whole world.  How many of these should be covered?  How many dialects?  Surely, more is always better to anyone underserved, but there is undoubtedly a point of diminishing return.  I am in no position to analyze where that point is, but I'm also in no position to say that is correct where it currently stands.  This one's tricksy, in short.

So there you go, FSOwannabe, how's that for an answer three times as long as the original post? 


fsowannabe said...

Some deeper analysis on the language issue! I wonder how difficult it really is to train people in the SCNL languages. Certainly, they are more difficult than a Romance language for English speakers to pick up, but the prior comment on my blog that it would take 10 years to become fluent in Arabic seems extreme. I, however, have little experience with Arabic, so maybe so.

I certainly think the issue really is a matter of decision-making, resource allocation and the willingness to commit to what it might take to meet those needs. It seems like State is starting to make these changes in part with it's hiring surge (which I imagine, over the long-term, means FSI will have to increase its capacity).

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