State Dept. staff abroad lagging on languages

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Aug 12 18:27:55 UTC 2006

State Dept. staff abroad lagging on languages
Nearly 30 percent of those in posts where proficiency is required get a
failing grade, according to a GAO report.

By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Nearly 30 percent of State Department employees based
overseas in "language-designated positions" are failing to speak and write
the local language well enough to meet required levels, a report by the
Government Accountability Office says. "We have a shortage of people with
language skills in posts that need them," said John Brummet, assistant
director for international affairs and trade at the GAO. "If people do not
have the proper language skills, it is difficult to influence the people
and government and to understand what they are thinking. It just doesn't
get the job done." Languages described as "superhard" by the report are
proving particularly difficult. Four out of 10 workers in posts requiring
Arabic, Chinese and Japanese fail to meet the requirements.

The levels are even higher in some critical postings. Sixty percent of
State Department personnel in San'a, Yemen, and 59 percent in Cairo,
Egypt, do not meet language requirements, the report said. Even levels set
by the department could be too low to do the jobs properly. According to
the GAO, embassy officials in China and Yemen said the speaking and
reading levels asked for were "not high enough and that staff in these
positions were not sufficiently fluent to effectively perform their jobs."

Not all the news is bad. The report - which has been sent to Sen. Richard
G. Lugar (R., Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee - said
there had been positive steps: "State has made progress in increasing its
foreign language capabilities, but serious language gaps remain." Still,
the GAO found that many posts, including some critical to antiterrorism
efforts, were vacant or filled by inexperienced workers.  Brummet said
shortages included "visa officers, political officers, economic officers,
substantive reporting and consular affairs."

"We are looking for the State Department to rethink the assessment system
and do things they are not currently doing to fix the problem," he said.
"We are pleased they have agreed with the recommendations and are thinking
of making significant changes. The question is: How far is the department
willing to go?" All the way, officials said. Justin Higgins, a spokesman,
said the State Department had worked with the GAO on the report, which
took a year to compile. "We are already making the changes that will
address many of the concerns noted in the report,"  he said.

More staff will be employed to ensure additional training opportunities in
critical languages such as Arabic. Higgins said efforts to close remaining
gaps had been "hampered by an expansion of our mission, including in Iraq
and Afghanistan." The report says some postings are not long enough for
staff workers to build up skills in certain languages.

Read 65-pg. GAO report on language skills at


 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.


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