A recent report released by the GAO, “Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls” (September 2009) announces that Foreign Service Officers do not have the necessary language skills they need to do their jobs effectively. While GAO has reported before that State Department personnel working overseas are in profound need of language skills it is disturbing that this trend has continued. According to the report: “As of October 31, 2008 31 percent of officers in all worldwide language designated positions did not meet both the foreign language speaking and reading proficient requirements for their position.”
Worse, the language deficiency has increased since 2005 when 29 percent of language designated positions were insufficiently trained. The language shortfalls are particularly staggering in the Near East and South and Central Asia. Nearly 40 percent of officers in language-designated positions failed to meet their requirements. In Afghanistan, 33 of 45 officers did not meet the requirements and in Iraq 8 of 14 officers were not language-qualified.
Part of public diplomacy is the ability to communicate. However, sending State Department officials whose jobs are to be equipped with specific language skills is like a crew team rowing without oars. According to GAO, past reports by
State’s Office of the Inspector General, the Department of Defense, and various think tanks [including The Heritage Foundation] have concluded that foreign language shortfalls could be negatively affecting U.S. security, diplomacy, law enforcement, and intelligence-gathering efforts.
America’s public diplomacy will not improve if her ability to communicate with the local officials and population is absent. Such shortcomings are unacceptable and will only hinder America’s engagement in the areas of most strategic importance.