More Competence in Foreign Languages Needed by Federal Personnel Working Overseas

ID-80-31: Published: Apr 15, 1980. Publicly Released: Apr 15, 1980.

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Concern has been expressed as to whether the foreign language skills of U.S. personnel assigned abroad are less than needed to carry out U.S. interests effectively. Eight principal Federal agencies have positions abroad which require Americans with foreign language skills for programs in educational and cultural exchange, agricultural assistance, military sales, and the general conduct of foreign affairs. Exclusive of Peace Corps volunteers or domestic positions about 16,700 Federal overseas positions require a competency in at least one of over 45 foreign languages. During 1979, Federal agencies spent $30.2 million training 6,235 people in foreign languages. Another $7.4 million was spent training 4,560 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees overseas.

Foreign language competence among Federal employees has improved since the early 1970's, but improvements are still needed. Federal agencies' systems and procedures for defining foreign language skill requirements are inadequate or nonexistent. Most agencies that require a large number of people with language proficiency use general criteria to determine their actual needs. Agencies with lesser language skill requirements have no review procedures or criteria for identifying the language competency needed for overseas positions. In cases where employees did not have the language competency required for their jobs, supervisors said that low foreign language proficiency limited job performance. Factors reducing agencies' ability to meet the foreign language competency needs include the fact that language capability is only one of many qualifications needed by an employee and the potential for career advancement is based largely on elements other than language ability. Efforts to improve agencies' abilities to meet language needs are hindered because: preassignment planning is inadequate and agencies fail to assess alternatives to assigning personnel with less than required language skills; standard training periods at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) do not always allow enough time for students to attain the required proficiency for their assigned positions; and language courses do not meet job-related needs of certain assignments.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, Director of the International Communication Agency (ICA) and the Administrator of the Agency for International Development should ensure that language waivers, allowing nonlanguage qualified officers to occupy language designated positions (LPD), are issued only under genuine emergency conditions; require an annual report on the reasons why waivers were issued and the emergency conditions that required waivers; give greater emphasis to language proficiencies in promotion decisions; require that LPD designation procedures be reviewed to allow for timely updating, feedback to posts on their recommendations, and expeditious recording of changes on all official documents; and direct post officials to ensure that underqualified incumbents of an LPD are encouraged to attend post language classes and are given sufficient time to do so. The Secretary of State should direct the FSI to continue its efforts to make language training more relevant to the jobs the students assume at post; encourage more intensive in-country training after the officer completes training in Washington but before he assumes total job responsibilities; and improve post language programs by increasing funding, services, and guidance to posts. The Director of ACTION should establish language proficiency standards for Peace Corps volunteers and staff; increase language training for staff and volunteers; improve language training programs for volunteers; and consider establishing additional regional training officer positions overseas. The Secretary of State and the Director of ICA should base LPD employees and their proficiency level exclusively on job needs; eliminate artificial prohibitions against designating positions above certain levels; arrange for periodic independent review; identify all secretarial positions which require world and hard language skills, and establish a formal and more comprehensive program of language training for secretaries; and direct the Chiefs of Mission to identify and review language needs for all agencies at that post and report such needs to a focal point within the Department of State.

    Agency Affected:


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