Senator Proposes a White House-Based National Foreign Language Council

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka

An important change is happening in Congress’ view of Americans’ ability to speak other languages – a perception that could help especially Spanish-heritage speakers gain priority for top civil service jobs.Other language skill is increasingly seen as not only important for academicians, researchers and diplomats, but as a critically necessary capability for professionals and American workers of all levels – especially in government services.

“Language capability is needed to provide vital state and local services for growing U.S.populations with limited English abilities.Understanding other languages is also vital to U.S. economic security as American companies must compete in the global marketplace. And it is becoming a major factor in national security as threats become more complex, interconnect-ed and unconventional,” said Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce.

Tracking and improving Americans’ foreign language capability has been a passionate inter-est of the soft-spoken legislator, who is the only Chinese-American in Congress and who always uses the traditional greeting “Aloha.”

“Because of the rich cultural and linguistic diversity in my home state of Hawaii, I under-stand well the need to communicate about disaster relief, social services and other government programs in a variety of languages,” he says.

The good news is that because of broad new approaches to early language learning and an increasing variety of opportunities for overseas language immersion (even for the very young),growing success can be measured.

“To the extent that Americans undertake the study of the major world languages in extended course and program sequences that provide adequate opportunities for overseas immersion study (preferably at younger ages, as well as in the university), many Americans may now expect to attain full professional level proficiency in those languages, and the real possibility of using their language knowledge to enhance their future careers in an increasingly globalized U.S. work force,” reported Dan E.Davidson, president of the Joint National Council for Languages (JNCL).

But recent reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveal language shortfalls that harm government effectiveness,competitiveness and undermine national security, according to Akaka. In 2009, a GAO report found that almost one-third of all State Department positions abroad are filled by Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who do not meet the job’s language requirements. In addition, 73 percent of FSOs serving in Afghanistan and 57 percent serving in Iraq do not meet the language-proficiency requirements of their positions. “I fear that we are failing to create a long-term solution to the nation’s foreign language demands,” Akaka said.

The Hawaiian native held a hearing in mid-summer to discuss Closing the Language Gap: Improving the Federal Government’s Foreign Language Capabilities. Two panels of government and language experts agreed with Akaka’s legislation (S1010) that would establish a National Foreign Language Coordination Council in the White House. It would be headed by a National Language Advisor appointed by the president.

The council would oversee and implement national security language-training initiatives,develop and monitor the implementation of a national foreign language strategy, and conduct a survey of the status of federal agency foreign language expertise and agency needs, among other things.

To demonstrate the almost universal need for other language speakers in government, Akaka suggests that a number of agencies be involved in the council. The legislation proposes that the secretaries of Education, Defense, State,Homeland Security, Labor, Commerce, and Health and Human Services as well as the attorney general and the director of National Intelligence be represented on the council.

“Developing a strategic language recruitment,training and implementation plan for all of these agencies must also be tied in with the core mission of each agency,” said the director of the GAO Homeland Security and Justice Team, David Maurer. “A good example is the Department of Defense, that does it through their integrated defense team approach,” said Maurer.

“The Defense Department is building a Total Force with skills in foreign languages of strategic importance,” said the director of the Defense Language Office at the U.S. Department of Defense, Nancy Weaver. “These capabilities are needed to support today’s military operations, which require our forces to understand the languages and cultures of the regional population. How the indigenous population perceives our presence and our work will influence our success. Being able to communicate with them in their language is a strategic and tactical enabling factor.”

“However, acquiring the necessary language and cultural skills is a time intensive process,”Weaver continued. “Once gained, these skills tend to deteriorate rapidly if not used frequently.Just as importantly, these skills do not translate easily from region to region. We have made great progress in providing basic language and cultural training to our deploying personnel, but still are working to build a better foundational capability that provides more individuals with true expertise, professional-level language skills,and advanced levels of regional expertise.”

Another agency with very broad other-language needs is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “The department’s mission touches many individuals in the United States who may lack English-language skills and, in addition,has some 2,200 employees stationed abroad. As such, the ability to communicate effectively is a topic of vital importance to DHS,” said Jeff Neal,chief human capital officer of the DHS.

“At this time, we do not have an overall,departmental foreign language program,” Neal admitted. “Certain components, such as U.S.Customs and Border Protection (CBP), do require proficiency in foreign language, most frequently Spanish, and these components screen candidates for employment for their proficiency in, or ability to learn, languages. For example, applicants for the position of CBP officer must take either an Artificial Language Test or a Spanish Language Proficiency Test. These tests measure current proficiency in Spanish or ability to learn Spanish.

“For Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), foreign language ability is considered a collateral duty, and employees self-certify their proficiency in languages other than English. As to personnel assigned abroad, when the position or the U.S. ambassador has required foreign language skills, DHS Components and offices select officers who already possess the foreign language capability and/or have provided officers with foreign language training. Generally, the components are fulfilling their language needs internally, through their own hiring or training programs, or through contract arrangements. A more consistent department-wide approach,however, could prove beneficial,” Neal testified.

“The DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) has delegated authority to enforce an Executive Order to “Improve Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency.” It requires federal agencies to examine the services they provide and implement a system by which Limited English Proficiency (LEP) persons can meaningfully access those services, without unduly burdening the fundamental mission of the agency. “Far from burdening DHS’ mission, language access can enable more effective and efficient screening and immigration processing at our nation’s ports of entry and fair administration of customs rules and citizenship benefits. It is also essential in areas such as detention and asylum adjudication,” said Neal.

There are ongoing studies of best practices for language personnel recruitment, training and implementation programs such as “the highly successful Flagship programs,” according to JNCL President Davidson. He points out that elements of successful programs include articulated (universally recognized and transferable) curricula across schools and colleges; dedicated programs for heritage speakers; Internet-based language learning; intensive months-long overseas language immersion components and adult language speaker maintenance programs that feature content-based university courses in the language.

“Currently, students who participate in the Flagship Programs, whether or not they have had the opportunity to study the language in school,have the real possibility of attaining three-level proficiency by the time they are ready to enter the work force, upon graduation. This is clearly a model that should be disseminated generally, for it guarantees a capacity and an ongoing source of well-educated U.S. speakers of all the major critical languages,” said Davidson.

“This kind of model should be expanded to serve government personnel language capacity building directly. Akaka’s legislation in support of a National Foreign Language Coordination Council would provide a much-needed national strategy that would advance much that has been recommended,” he concluded.

The former under secretary for personnel and readiness in the U.S. Department of Defense agreed.

“It is critical that the Cabinet secretaries speak about the imperative of language back-grounds of their personnel,” David Chu said.“They need to hold their appropriate sub-Cabinet officers responsible and to apply Cabinet resources to make sure the language capacity in their agencies is being built and maintained.Some kind of formal arrangement like that would be a very powerful way to set a federal priority for building language capability.”

“A good model for the White House-based Language Advisor is the Office of Science and Technology that has existed in the White House for well over a decade,” said Richard Brecht,executive director of the Center for Advanced Study of Language, at the University of Maryland.“It is a bully pulpit for building science and technology capability in the country. Education and research is a big part of their mission.”

Davidson was not so sure that the model was apt. “Science has a face validity in the public that foreign languages may not have,” he said. “There needs to be a strong public information mission for the White House Foreign Language Advisor’s office to enable people to understand what a foreign language career might look like. Getting young people overseas as early as possible can provide a strong driver for career visioning.”

But Davidson reported some surprising findings in latest research on critical-language acquisition. “Americans throughout the country are interested as never before in learning critical languages, as is evidenced by the notable growth of K-12 programs in Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Russian. The public needs to know about the successes Americans are making in long-term study of world languages, just as their counterparts in other parts of the world are doing in unprecedented numbers.

Davidson recommends that state and local jurisdictions incorporate foreign language training in career-training programs through all levels of education institutions, including continuing education for lifelong language maintenance.He also urges increased federal support for proven models of long-term language proficiency programs for students and teachers at the secondary and college level, especially those with overseas language immersion programs. He stressed the need for content-based course offerings at advanced and superior language levels as well as continued research in the field of world language acquisition.

Despite the determination of Akaka to pass legislation and to motivate departments to plan for increased language capacity recruitment,training, tracking and maintenance, little has happened since the July hearing. A strategic language plan that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had asked to be rewritten,made more concise and ready for her to sign and be published by fall apparently hasn’t happened. Akaka’s legislation was read twice and assigned to the Senate Education Committee(H.E.L.P.) in May but was never brought up.

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the supposed answer to the Pentagon’s QDR), which was previewed in late November,gave priority to U.S. civilian as well as to the Agency for International Development’s role in conflict management, especially for President Obama’s two main foreign aid initiatives in health and agriculture. The plan includes civilian nation-building and peace-promoting operations to complement military efforts in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. But the language-training component was not emphasized.

n December, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported that an officer-training program that would enable certain officers who trained in learning the Dari, Pashto or Urdu languages to receive preferential consideration for assignments commanding battalions and brigades in Afghanistan had lagged. It is a program that the admiral strongly supports and which, according to Mullen, “like most good initiatives, can only stay good with hard work and going through the growing pains.”

In December, The New York Times reported that colleges throughout the country were suspending undergraduate degrees in languages.The State University at Albany was reported to have stopped new students from majoring in French, Italian, Russian and the classics due to budgetary reasons. At Louisiana State University,officials cut majors in German and Latin and basic instruction in Portuguese, Russian, Swahiliand Japanese, after losing $42 million in public funding that had supported those programs the past two years.

Still, the Modern Language Association reported that college language classes are actually up over 2006, when the last survey had been conducted. One reason is a surge of interest in languages such as Arabic and Spanish.

Akaka plans to reintroduce his White House-based Foreign Language Council proposal in the new 112th Congress. It comes just at a time when the Obama administration reportedly plans to issue a Presidential Directive to increase federal workplace diversity. Currently, Hispanics hold only 3.6 percent of senior-level federal positions.