Senators are exploring ways to improve U.S. agencies' ability to understand and translate foreign languages, as experts and government reports express continuing concerns that the foreign-language deficiencies may undermine national security.
"Changing threats to U.S. national security as well as the increasing globalization of the U.S. economy have greatly increased federal agencies’ needs for personnel proficient in foreign languages," the senator's office said in a release.
One GAO report found that the Defense Department lacked a strategic plan for addressing language skills. Meanwhile, the other found that 31 percent of State Department officials in language-heavy posts were not qualified for their positions in 2009, up two points from 29 percent in 2005.
Experts and officials say that agencies have made varying levels of progress in bolstering their language capabilities in the last decade. But they add that there is no single quick fix and that the problem runs deep, with a lack of interagency coordination and not enough emphasis on foreign languages in U.S. education.
"The U.S. education system ... simply has not made the investment in language required to provide the government with an adequate pool of linguistic expertise from which to recruit to meet its needs," Richard Brecht, executive director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Languages at the University of Maryland, said in written testimony at a 2004 House Armed Services Committee hearing.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said in a statement that the department, which fulfills its language needs through hiring, training and contracting, "is considering the implementation of a more consolidated approach to the Department’s diverse foreign language needs."