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Foreign Languages--A Vital Role in the Federal Government

Published: Jan 01, 1981. Publicly Released: Jan 01, 1981.
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GAO has reviewed various aspects of the U.S. Government's foreign language needs and programs during the last 7 years. The most recent review, which appeared in the GAO Review, Vol. 16, Issue 2, Spring 1981, showed that the U.S. Government has over 30,000 positions that require proficiency in at least one of 45 foreign languages. The education and assignment systems are not meeting the demands for skilled bilingual personnel. Foreign service personnel must deal with such diverse issues as economics, agricultural assistance, trade, energy, military affairs, foreign diplomacy, and international terrorism. The Federal Government has not satisfied its overseas foreign language requirements. Overseas language-designated positions are often staffed by persons who do not have the required foreign language qualifications because of the pressure to fill vacancies quickly due to medical emergencies, retirements, and changing conditions in a host country. Agencies have little control over these types of problems because of limitations on money and positions. Many agency personnel policies also contribute to the problem such as mandatory rotation, waivers of language training prior to reporting to a new assignment, lack of career enhancement through language capabilities, disincentives to study hard languages, and lack of monetary incentives for language proficiency. Changes are needed to train more people in foreign languages before assignment overseas, to assign the right person to the right job, and to offer incentives to employees to acquire and maintain their language skills.

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