The Washington Post

Government has foreign language deficit


Uncle Sam certainly talks a lot, just not in enough languages.

A Senate panel examined the language deficit during a hearing Monday on “A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on government management and the federal workforce, said national security agencies “continue to experience shortages of people skilled in hard-to-learn languages due to a limited pool of Americans to recruit from.”

For example, just 61 percent of the State Department’s “language-designated positions” were filled with fully qualified personnel in 2009, according to testimony by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the department’s director general of the Foreign Service and director of human resources.

That figure jumped to 74 percent this year, a notable improvement. But that leaves more than a quarter of the positions not adequately filled. The need is particularly great for Near East, South Asian and East Asian languages.

“Over the past several years, we have had to make critical choices about whether to leave a position vacant for the time it takes to train a fully language-qualified officer or curtail all or part of the language training,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “These were difficult choices.”

The Defense Department has similar difficulties. More than 80 percent of its language slots were filled in fiscal year 2011, but just 28 percent “were filled with personnel at the required foreign-language proficiency level,” Laura Junor, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, said in her statement. “Although we may be filling the positions, we are not filling those positions with individuals with the requisite proficiency skill level.”

Recruiting and hiring is tough.

“At the outset, it is difficult to identify the right people,” Tracey North, an FBI deputy assistant director, said in her testimony. Not only must they speak the foreign language excellently, but their reputations must survive thorough background investigations. “On average, one out of every 10 applicants gets through the entire contract linguist applicant process,” North said. “Furthermore, there is a limited availability of qualified speakers of vital foreign languages who are U.S. citizens and have the English skills to support our requirements.”

People such as Shauna Kaplan, a fifth-grader at Providence Elementary School in Fairfax County and one of three students at the hearing who spoke about their foreign language experiences, are changing that.

Shauna presented herself well at the hearing, delivering parts of her testimony in fluent Chinese, which she translated for her audience.

“That means: Thank you everyone. I am happy to speak some Chinese today. Learning Chinese is not hard. You also can learn Chinese.”

She did so well that she earned applause. Too bad Uncle Sam can’t hire her — yet.

Long odds for DPBO

Gay and lesbian advocates cheered last week when a Senate committee advanced legislation that would allow employment fringe benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees.

The Human Rights Campaign, which pushes for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, issued a news release saying it “hailed” and “applauds” the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approval of the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act (DPBO).

But that might be where the bill stops, at least for now.

Action by the full, Democratically controlled Senate is uncertain, and chances the Republican-ruled House will vote on the bill are not good.

“Given the fact that the House is controlled by conservative Republicans, this legislation is unlikely to become law this year,” said Fred Sainz, HRC vice president. “And that does not speak well of the federal government as an employer.”

Leonard Hirsch, president of Federal Globe, an organization of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender federal employees, said chances that the House will consider the bill are “bleak at this point in time. Until the election, I would be surprised to see anything move in the House, given the personalities that would have to move it.”

A spokesman for one of those personalities, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said no vote on the bill is scheduled.

Under the legislation, same-sex partners in committed relationships with federal employees would be eligible for benefits including health, long-term care and life insurance; retirement, disability, workers’ compensation and death benefits; and family medical and emergency leave.

Contrary to information provided by Capitol Hill last week, the measure would apply to same-sex couples in married and unmarried unions. The legislation requires couples to file affidavits stating, among other things, that the individuals generally have a common residence, share responsibility for each other’s welfare and finances, and are not married to or in a domestic partnership with anyone else.

Bob Hall, retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, said he is “pleased to learn that DPBO covers legally married same-sex couples. All we want is to be treated fairly and equally, nothing more.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at
. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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