Language Training and Skills

Language Training and Skills


Language skills are critical to the performance of intelligence, diplomatic, and military duties of many types, both inside the United States and overseas. In this regard, the historic world dominance of English-speaking nations—first the British Empire in the nineteenth century, then the United States in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—has proven a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the fact that much of the world speaks English offers many advantages, but on the other hand, this fact has kept Americans from learning foreign languages to the extent to which Europeans or other foreign nationals have accomplished the task.

The need for foreign language skills. Foreign language skills play a significant role in work for the State Department or its international information programs. These are also vital to HUMINT and SIGINT (human and signals intelligence respectively) work ranging from undercover operations to analysis of raw data captured by eavesdropping. Likewise, military organizations—particularly elite groups such as Delta Force or the Navy SEALs—often look for personnel with a good working knowledge of a language or languages.

In many cases, particularly military or intelligence work, knowledge of obscure languages is likely to be in demand. A diplomat stationed in a West African country, for instance, may speak French to most contacts in the capital city, but intelligence or military operations are likely to take personnel deep into the hinterlands or the underbelly of urban society, where only local languages or dialects are spoken. For example, during the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan in 2001 and thereafter, proficiency in Pashto, Dari, Tajik, and Farsi, the dominant languages in that country, was greatly in demand.

High demand, small supply. Coupled with heavy demand is a slim supply of available workers trained in multiple languages. Whereas students in many other countries are required to study English from elementary school onward, few American students are compelled to take more than a few years' worth of a language in high school or college.

Of the languages offered to American students, almost all are Western European tongues. French and Spanish dominate the foreign-language programs in U.S. high schools, and at least these are good starting places for students who hope to work overseas; the vast colonial reach of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, and of the French thereafter, created a world in which millions of Latin Americans speak Spanish, while French is spoken throughout much of Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and selected parts of the New World.

The other languages offered in high schools are not as likely to prove useful to intelligence or military personnel. German, despite its great significance in intellectual history, is seldom useful as an international lingua franca because Germany united too late (1870) to develop a significant colonial empire. Only in Central and Eastern Europe is German widely spoken. Latin, the other major language offered in most high schools, is useful as a key to studying the Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese) derived from it—but there have not been any indigenous Latin-speaking populations for many centuries.

Colleges offer a somewhat broader program, with the other Romance languages, as well as perhaps Russian and even a language or two outside the Indo-European family—Japanese, for instance. The higher a language is on the scale of obscurity, however, the lower (by a great degree) the number of students engaged in its study. According to a 1998 Modern Language Association study, a relatively high number of American college students—25,000—were studying Russian. But Farsi, which is an Indo-European language widely spoken throughout Iran and central Asia, had only 600 students nationwide. As for Tajik, common to many forces of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, fewer than 10 American students every year were studying it.

The federal language education system. The federal government has two major language facilities: the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, and the Foreign Service Institute School for Language Studies in Arlington, Virginia. Additionally, the Defense Language Institute, or DLI, maintains an English Language Center in San Antonio, Texas, for foreign military and government personnel studying English in the United States.

Languages are tested through the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) or the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT). Whereas the latter tests proficiency in a particular language, the first test is for job candidates who do not already know the language in question, or perhaps any language other than English. It simply tests language-learning potential, and the only way to prepare for such a test is to master English grammar and syntax, so as to have a good basis for learning an unfamiliar tongue.

Depending on one's score for the DLAB, a candidate may be allowed to progress to a particular course of study at DLI. Below are examples of languages, categorized according to degree of learning difficulty for a native English-speaker, and the score required in order to qualify for that language program:

Category I (Dutch, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese): 85

Category II (German): 90

Category III (Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Slovak, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese): 95

Category IV (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean): 100

Another system of grading, used by both the government and the educational system in the United States, grades proficiency on a scale from zero to five. Level two is referred to as minimal working proficiency, allowing an individual to function in daily life. Level three, working proficiency, would qualify a person to work as a doctor, professor, or engineer within a foreign culture. Level five is extremely rare in non-native speakers of a language, and indicates full ability to function on a level equivalent to that of a native speaker.



Molloy, Thomas. "Why Some In-Country English Language Programs Do Not Work." DISAM Journal of International Security Assistance Management 24, no. 4 (summer 2002): 125–130.

Peters, Katherine McIntire. "Lost in Translation." Government Executive 34, no. 5 (May 2002): 39–45.

Reppert, Barton. "Training the Tongue-Tied." Government Executive 34, no. 4 (April 2002): 66.


Defense Language Institute English Language Center. < > (April 4, 2003).

Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center. < > (April 4, 2003).

Foreign Service Institute. < > (April 4, 2003).

National Foreign Language Center. University of Maryland. < > (April 4, 2003).


Delta Force
Department of State, United States
DOD (United States Department of Defense)
Enduring Freedom, Operation
Intelligence Community

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