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GAO: State Department Has 'Notable Gaps' in Foreign-Language Capacities

The U.S. Department of State continues to have persistent shortages of staff with critical language skills, despite the fact that such skills help to advance U.S. policy and economic interests around the world, says Jess T. Ford, the director of international affairs and trade for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in testimony released last week by that office. He says the gaps are particularly high in Afghanistan, where 33 of 45 officers in language-designated positions don't meet the requirement, and in Iraq, where 8 of 14 officers lack adequate language skills.

The statement gives several specific examples of how some State Department staff are not best able to represent the United States because of their lack of language skills, including the fact that officers aren't invited to certain events that would enable them to expand their contacts. It also says intelligence gathering may be hindered because local informants are reluctant to communicate through local interpreters.

Ford recommends in his statement that the Secretary of State create a comprehensive strategic plan to meet the nation's foreign-language requirements.

The report makes no mention of how elementary and secondary schools could possibly help to increase the number of people in this country who speak both English and another language that is critically needed for State Department posts in places such as Afghanistan or Iraq.

But the National Research Council, an entity chartered by the U.S. Congress, criticized the U.S. Department of Education in a report two years ago for not having a "master plan or unifying strategic vision" for the teaching of foreign languages and culture.

So now we have recommendations for at least two federal departments to create strategic plans for this area of education.

Ford's statement in the GAO letter doesn't emphasize financial resources. But every time I talk with people in K-12 education about the need to create a pipeline of students with high proficiency in foreign languages, they express the need for the federal government to step in with more funds for foreign-language programs.

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