Friday, April 9, 2010

Language Proficiency and the Foreign Service

For those interested in federal agency news, the Washington Post's Fed Page is a great resource. The other day Joe Davidson had an interesting opinion piece on a speech by John Negroponte regarding the challenges that the Foreign Service faces.

Unsurprising, since it seems to be a consistent criticism, the main challenge according to Negroponte is "the need for officers who can speak the languages of the world." As anyone who has spent even a little time trying to learn a language, it's a challenge to rewire your brain, not to mention the part about learning new words, grammatical constructions, and alphabets (or not so much alphabets with certain non-phonetic written languages - I'm looking at you Japanese and Chinese!).

But I wonder how big a problem this is. It's not like there isn't a Foreign Service Institute, which has a specific goal of training FSO's in whatever languages are needed. And I imagine most FSO's are pretty thrilled about learning new languages. If language acquisition and fluency is a problem in the FS, a key portion of the article explains why: "Another challenge is the widely held perception among Foreign Service officers that State's promotion system does not consider time spent in language training when evaluating officers for promotion, which may discourage officers from investing the time required to achieve proficiency in certain languages," the report said. Although HR officials dispute this perception, the department has not conducted a statistically significant assessment of the impact of language training on promotions."

Not to be blunt, but if this is a valid criticism, then the State Department would need to really commit to the additional expense and time necessary for appropriate training. Any FSO's out there have any thoughts on this?


A Daring Adventure said...

It's Friday, and that means that the Two Month Blogiversary of the Weekly State Department Blog Roundup is up - and you're on it!

Here is the link:

(If I quoted your text or used your photo(s) and you would rather I had not, please let me know. Please also be sure to check the link(s) that I put up to you, in order to verify that they work properly. If you would rather that I had not referenced you, and/or do not want me to reference you in the future, please also contact me.)


Digger said...

I think it is a problem to a degree. Yes, there is the perception that time spent in long-term language training hurts your chances at promotion. I have no idea if it is true...ask me again after I spend a year in Estonian.

The bigger issue, I think, is how understaffed we are. The DRI brought our numbers back up following the huge cuts we took during the Clinton years (we hired at less than attrition, and people who leave the FS for other federal agencies are not considered in the attrition numbers). But then the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan ate up that training float.

So now, most posts are staffed only at about 70%. So posts are desperate to get people to post and will pressure them to come without language training or with less training than they are entitled to. That problem will only go away as we bring in more officers, but it will affect the mid-levels for years.

Sam said...

Whenever you hear anyone (congress, GAO, State) talk about language deficiency at State, they don't mean French or Spanish, but languages in countries where we have real security threats, namely Arabic. The problem with Arabic is that it is very hard to learn. You need 10 years or more to get close to a 4/4, which is the minimum you need to actually conduct most business freely. Anything below that and you basically need a translator. Not to mention the wide variations in dialects between countries, which for a non-native speaker, is as hard as learning a completely different language each time.

Valdysses said...

I started writing an obscenely long answer to your question here, but decided I'd refrain from clogging your page with nonsense. If you're interested, my response is here:

AKB said...

I agree with what others have written-- the bigger problem is less getting basic training, and more being able to advance PAST a 3/3, even in basic languages like Spanish-- FSI simple does not seem like it is designed to bring people all the way.

I also have met people who spoke Russian and what have you, but lose it after serving one tour in a Russian speaking country and never going back! The phenomenon appears to be that each new language you learn replaces the previous one-- I believe some studies have been done to show that long-term retention is worse when you study them in a condensed time.

fsowannabe said...

Thanks for commenting everyone.

Sam, would it really take 10 years to get to a 4/4? Don't most people get to a 3/3 after 44-52 weeks of training? Would an additional 6 months, or training in Arab speaking countries, help bump up the next level in a quicker/more efficient manner?

AKB - thanks for the comment, I never considered a structural reason for the difficulty in getting past a 3/3. I certainly understand the wiring with respect to going for more than 2 extra languages. When I tried to learn Spanish I often felt I had to empty my brain of the Japanese in order to use it.

Anonymous said...

Languages like French and Spanish are treated by the State Dept. as some cake-walk you can pick up as an adult in 22 weeks. FSI is great at teaching the basics of grammar, but 4 hours of class and a couple of hours in the language lab a day is just not going to bring someone from 0 to "fluent" in a few months.

Also, a 3/3 in any language is a very long way from perfect, and what a 3/3 means varies widely from language to language and even from test to test. There are other irregularities too, like a large native speaker bias that gives no credit for that person's vastly larger vocabulary, increased speaking speed and fluidity, perfect accent, use of idiom, etc., and still leaves them scoring worse than someone who's been taught to the test for weeks and can give a better-organized off-the-cuff speech about recycling or abortion rights.

I think that you should be expected or even required to use each foreign language you know on multiple tours (or at the least, a closely-related language). I also think there should be incentives in "easy" languages to maintain and improve your skills. I know they don't want to just hand out extra money for us to continue doing our jobs, but language skills atrophy quickly from lack of use and lack of motivation to keep them up. When you actually see how weak some FSOs' language skills are, it's scary to think that they're the front line in gathering and assessing critical information, and promoting our work and image overseas. If we can't even handle romance languages, we really are screwed for Arabic et al. That said, the new Chinese language pilot is a great idea, with its back-to-back Chinese language postings and guaranteed additional training. We need to specialize more not just for language skills but also to build up cultural and political knowledge of a country or region.

Nickname unavailable said...

There's another solution to filling the language need that wouldn't cost a dime. I just passed the FSOT and am disappointed to learn that I can only test in one language. I had hoped to test in 3 or 4. That would put me on par with someone speaking Arabic at just level 2. Wouldn't this seem logical? With 3-4 languages, I'll fit in more posts and I'll learn the next language in half the time that most other candidates would.

I even thought about going to Argentina to brush up on Spanish but there's no point in doing that since I'll only test in German.

With this apparent defect in the application process, it just doesn't seem that State appreciates language ability. In other countries, diplomats are required to speak multiple languages. That we don't require at least one is simply wrong in my opinion.