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Requirements for Linguists in Government Agencies

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As part of the war on terrorism, it is widely recognized that the U.S. government has a substantial and growing need for personnel with knowledge of foreign languages and especially languages that may be spoken in limited and remote areas of the world. In 2002, the federal government employed about a thousand translators and interpreters in four agencies responsible for security-related functions. In addition, these agencies employ nearly 20,000 staff in positions that require some foreign language proficiency. Yet there is a widespread consensus that requirements for foreign language qualified personnel are not currently being met. The report issued by the 9/11 Commission in July of 2004 makes several references to this deficiency and suggests corrective action to address it.

Government agencies have addressed requirements for linguists in several different ways. Persons with existing foreign language expertise can be hired on a full or part-time basis. Employees can be trained in a foreign language either in a government training program or by an academic or commercial institution. Language skills can be obtained by contract or by use of a linguist reserve corps. Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages. There are significant costs associated with each of them.

Taken together, these approaches have helped agencies react to the changing requirements of the past decade. Few observers believe, however, that they are adequate to what appears to be likely escalating requirements of coming years. In particular, greater human intelligence collection, widely advocated by intelligence specialists, creates a need for officials with near-perfect qualifications in local languages or dialects.

Persons with existing foreign language skills generally fall into two categories -- those who have learned the foreign language at home and those who acquire foreign language skills in schools or colleges. Given growing requirements for skills in a wide variety of less commonly taught languages, federal agencies are increasingly turning to persons who have learned foreign languages at home. Foreign language instruction at U.S. academic institutions has tended to concentrate on a small number of languages, especially Spanish, French, other Romance languages, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian, along with classical languages. In general, there are far too few graduates who have acquired language skills currently needed by federal agencies and fewer still whose skills enable them to interpret or engage in complex conversations.

To a large extent finding language qualified personnel for government agencies is a responsibility of the Executive Branch, but Congress must appropriate funds for agency efforts, and it conducts oversight of programs. In addition, funding for foreign language instruction in civilian institutions originates in legislation. At the present time, a number of issues in regard to foreign language capabilities appear to be receiving congressional attention. This report addresses many of these issues and is intended as background only and will not be updated.


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