Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 16, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

SPEAKING ARABIC....Why do we have so few diplomats fluent in Arabic? In the Washington Post today, Jennifer Bremer explains that the State Department classifies language ability on a scale from 1 to 5, and the key distinction for effective diplomacy is the transition from level 3 (OK at one-on-one conversation) to level 4 (fluent even in fast moving, hostile situations).

Currently, though, we have a grand total of 27 diplomats who are trained in Arabic at level 4 or 5. Bremer says the reason is primarily bureaucratic. Diplomats can't get training in Arabic until after they've been assigned to a "language-designated" position, and by that point the hiring embassy just wants to hire someone. They don't want to wait around while their preferred candidate goes to school:

This set-up creates a strong disincentive to designate positions as requiring language skills. No embassy wants to restrict its search to the comparatively few officers already qualified in Arabic or, even worse, effectively give up the position for the two years required to train an officer to a level 3 and carry them on its budget the whole time they sit in language classes.

So no posts are designated above level 3, which means, naturally, that the Foreign Service does not offer training beyond the 3, either. If 3's want additional language training to improve their skills to a 4, they have to do it on their own time and their own nickel.

In addition, there's not much incentive to spend a lot of time learning fluent Arabic, since it neither boosts your pay nor helps your career. In fact, Bremer says, taking a few years away from mainstream diplomatic posts to sit in language classes "could even be a career-stopper."

Your federal bureaucracy at work. For recommendations on what to do about this, read the article. Her proposals sound pretty sensible.

Kevin Drum 1:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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