Senator hopes to bridge feds foreign language gap

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

For Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), foreign language proficiency by federal workers isn’t just a luxury – it’s mission critical.

“Foreign language skills are necessary to provide vital services to people with limited English abilities. Because of the rich cultural and linguistic diversity in my home state of Hawaii, I understand well the need to communicate about disaster relief, social services and other government programs in a variety of languages,” says Akaka Thursday during a hearing.

And that’s why Akaka, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, convened yesterday’s hearing exploring how Congress and agencies can close the language gap and improve the government’s foreign language capabilities. It’s his latest in a series of hearings spotlighting this deficiency.

“Understanding foreign languages is also vital to our economic security as Americans compete in the global marketplace,” he says. “According to the Committee for Economic Development, American companies lose an estimated $2 billion each year due to inadequate cross-cultural skills. Moreover, foreign language proficiency and cultural understanding are essential to protecting our national security.”

Akaka says the deficiencies in language proficiency at the Pentagon, the Homeland Security Department and several other agencies are well known, having been documented in a number of studies by the Government Accountability Office, and dating as far back to the report of a Presidential Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies more than three decades ago.

A year ago, Akaka tried to begin the process to fix this long-standing shortfall. He introduced the National Foreign Language Coordination Act to set up an effort across government to battle foreign language deficiencies. That bill is currently pending in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

David Maurer, GAO’s director of the homeland security and justice team, found little progress over the years. Auditors found the State Department suffers from an ongoing shortage of foreign language skills.

“In September 2009, we found that 31 percent of Foreign Service officers could not meet the foreign language requirements for their overseas positions,” Maurer says. “With such key shortfalls in such languages as Arabic and Chinese, State has several initiatives to address the short falls including language training and pay incentives.”

State did not send an official to testify at the hearing or respond to GAO’s report.

At DHS, Maurer says the situation is mixed.

“On the plus side, DHS has a variety of foreign language programs and activities,” Maurer says. “For example, new border patrol agents are expected to learn Spanish. However, we found that DHS has taken limited action to assess its foreign language skills and activities, and identify its potential short falls.”

As part of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon recognized the need for American troops to be able to communicate with local citizens in those countries. But again, Maurer’s report paints a decidedly mixed picture on the topic at the Department of Defense:

“In June 2009, we reported that DoD had made progress in transforming its language capabilities, but lacked a comprehensive strategic plan to guide its efforts,” he says. “Some of the department’s foreign language goals are not measurable. Linkages between goals and funding priorities are not clear.”

Jeff Neal, DHS’s chief human capital officer, acknowledged that foreign language proficiency is vital in many parts of his huge mega-agency. He says employees need everything from Spanish proficiency for Customs and Border Patrol Agents to the ability for Federal Emergency Management Agency staff to communicate with the large community of Vietnamese fishermen affected by the Gulf oil spill.

Neal pledged to lawmakers that DHS will take steps to improve its performance when it comes to foreign languages:

  • “I will ensure that DHS-wide language policies and processes are incorporated into our Human Capital Strategic Plan;
  • “My staff will work with the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis to identify best practices and to ensure the coordination of our intelligence community responsibilities for the management of DHS language requirements; and
  • “I will work with the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to establish a DHS Joint Language Task Force consisting of those components and offices which have language needs in order to identify requirements and assess the necessary skills; recommend a system so that the department can track, monitor, record and report language capabilities; and identify the functional office responsible for managing DHS-wide language capabilities.”

Nancy Weaver, director of the Defense Language Office at the Pentagon, described one interagency language initiative in which her agency is participating, saying DOD was involved with the departments of State and Education, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in a task force to discuss new initiatives to combat the problem of foreign language deficiencies and exchange best practices.

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