Government still trying to catch up on foreign language capabilities

Senators are exploring ways to improve U.S. agencies' ability to understand and translate foreign languages, as experts and government reports express continuing concerns that the foreign-language deficiencies may undermine national security.

A Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee will hear from experts on the subject and government officials at a hearing on Thursday. The subcommittee will explore deficiencies in federal foreign language capabilities and ways to improve them, according to the office of Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the subcommittee chairman.

"Changing threats to U.S. national security as well as the increasing globalization of the U.S. economy have greatly increased federal agencies’ needs for personnel proficient in foreign languages," the senator's office said in a release.

The concerns come on the heels of two Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports from 2009 that found that some U.S. agencies were ill-equipped in foreign-language translation. The hearing will be one of many in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which highlighted a shortage of foreign-language expertise in the government.

One GAO report found that the Defense Department lacked a strategic plan for addressing language skills. Meanwhile, the other found that 31 percent of State Department officials in language-heavy posts were not qualified for their positions in 2009, up two points from 29 percent in 2005.

Numerous other government reports and audits since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have also suggested similar problems. Some government agencies, such as the FBI, have had sizable translation backlogs, which means many pieces of foreign-language intelligence have gone unreviewed.

Experts and officials say that agencies have made varying levels of progress in bolstering their language capabilities in the last decade. But they add that there is no single quick fix and that the problem runs deep, with a lack of interagency coordination and not enough emphasis on foreign languages in U.S. education.

Adding to the problem are a lack of coordination among agencies, the frequent switch in emphasis to other languages, and a continually increasing volume of data that intelligence and national security agencies must handle.

"Federal strategies are a lost cause, because you're always playing catch-up," said James Carafano, a national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The strategy is either acquiring contracting services or educating people. It takes a lot of time to build up capacity in any of those."

And experts have repeatedly cautioned that until the U.S. education system shores up in foreign languages, the government may continue falling behind.

"The U.S. education system ... simply has not made the investment in language required to provide the government with an adequate pool of linguistic expertise from which to recruit to meet its needs," Richard Brecht, executive director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Languages at the University of Maryland, said in written testimony at a 2004 House Armed Services Committee hearing.

Brecht, who will testify at Thursday's hearing, said in a phone interview that this problem has occurred in part because of lack of national investment in foreign-language education in schools.

He also said that despite the Defense Department's recent efforts to invest in foreign-language instruction at the university level, there's not enough instruction going on at the elementary and secondary levels. That means the field of qualified linguists is smaller and the government ends up using more resources for training.

Carafano said that government linguists also often lack full cultural awareness, a skill they need so they can put what they're translating into context.

Defense has made perhaps the biggest improvements, Brecht said. And Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and one of Congress's staunchest advocates of boosting nationwide foreign-language proficiency, said he's also pleased to see language skills being factored into military promotions.

But Brecht said Homeland Security and other departments have struggled to improve, and he suggested that they centralize their foreign-language standards and policies.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said in a statement that the department, which fulfills its language needs through hiring, training and contracting, "is considering the implementation of a more consolidated approach to the Department’s diverse foreign language needs."

Akaka and Holt have advocated legislation aimed at bolstering the federal government's language capabilities, increasing interagency coordination and widening language instruction in schools. Only a few of their proposals have made it through, however.

Holt has authored several proposals aimed at increasing the national focus on foreign languages, including a K-16 partnership in which schools and universities would collaborate to build longer sequences of language learning. He also wants to continue funding the National Security Education Program's language programs, and maintain tuition incentives for people who become language teachers for five years.

"It's not just for the military or the intelligence community," Holt said in a phone interview. "We want to do this throughout all school systems. The earlier you start, the better."

Akaka, meanwhile, has proposed establishing a committee to deal with and coordinate foreign-language matters at the federal level.

But Brecht said that legislative progress has been scarce because "we have national security needs that are a federal requirement, but language education is a state and local issue and we've never been able to bridge this in a significant enough way."

Experts say the marriage of human skills with technology may help relieve some of the pressure down the road. But they add that while machine translation can help to an extent, the current technology is imperfect and lacks contextual understanding, Carafano said.

For now, experts and policymakers say, the federal government's need to play catch-up will continue.

"We'll be playing catch-up for years to come until it becomes a part of American society that any educated person should know foreign languages and foreign culture," Holt said. "We're not at that point now."