By Guest Contributor Ken Yates
The subject of language ability has dominated the discussion of the Foreign Service for much too long to the exclusion of other desirable abilities particularly on Capitol Hill where heart-rending comparisons are made of the US Foreign Service with those of other countries where language competence seems so much better. But is this wise? It sounds logical, but is intensive language study to a sophisticated level the sine qua non of the competent FSO?
What Came Before…?
I spent my three decades(+) of a Foreign Service career mostly at hard language posts and was subjected to a variety of endlessly patient linguists who tried to implant in my resisting brain some sort of competency in local parlance. Some things stuck, others did not. But, in tour after tour abroad, I came to the conclusion that becoming really competent in a local language and putting it to effective use in the day to day business of the Foreign Service, although a laudable goal, was not often achieved even by others who displayed above average language skills. For me, training in Japanese, Korean, Dari, Icelandic and Mandarin Chinese, in that order, resulted not in approaching the desired level aspired to in Congressional speeches, yet it did help to sensitize me to the important cultural and personal understandings that were essential to developing and maintaining professional contacts.
It soon became clear to me that just about all of my most important contacts had English competence far beyond what I could realistically hope to achieve in my scant months of study of their language. After all, many had studied English from their early school days, or even studied abroad. My linguistic struggles were more effective as an "icebreaker" than as a means to communicate substantively. When real substance was discussed, I found it essential to have a competent translator on hand. The advantages to that was a more formal discussion at a slower speed that could focus better on the issue at hand than on the imprecision resulting from my usually lesser competence in their language than they had in mine.
As an Embassy official, I also had the responsibility to maintain a level of decorum and professionalism that the person I was speaking with would take as complementary to his or her own professional status.
But is “Good Enough to Get By” Really Sufficient…?
Certainly, language competence on the part of the Foreign Service Officer, if sufficient, is an added advantage in ensuring accuracy in discussion and a better formulation of responses, particularly in situations where sensitive cultural or political issues are at point. For me, at times it also assisted as a check on the translation and helped to identify unclear issues or outright misunderstandings.
For example, in post-Tiananmen China where meetings with officials usually meant consecutive translation in meetings led to a slower, less rancorous dialogue. In later years in North Korea it provided a chance to weed out commentary that, if delivered too quickly without providing time for reflection, could have been taken as insulting and might have led to a breakdown in negotiations.
One can sympathize with a view that all Foreign Service Officers serving overseas should be competent in the local language. Well-meaning members of Congress have stressed that in impassioned speeches for years. Sadly, except in a broad social context, it is an unreachable goal. One that the pursuit of, sucks away resources that could be more profitably used to other ends. The linguist who pointed out the similarity between the twenty years needed to grow a tree and the time needed to become an effective foreign language speaker is apt.
What is Needed…?
Perhaps only with minor exaggeration , that estimate would mean that I would have had to undergo more than a century of language study before the Foreign Service could have made the successive assignments of me that it did. Possibly I would have been close to retirement age even before my first assignment. The logic of that means that an incoming young officer would be obligated to bring language competence with him or her, and then would only be able to function at one or several posts in the same language family.
The incredible demands of the concentration in Iraq and other situations of urgency make it clear that assembling a "generalist" Foreign Service Officer pool competent to serve in a variety of locations around the globe vitiates such a linguistic goal.
It should also be noted that equally or possibly more essential in any FSO background is a broad knowledge of the historic, ethnic, economic and political factors that comprise an understanding of the context of life in the local society. That alone requires a multi-year effort.
Do the math on language training along with history, social development, economics, and politics, but also add a requirement for a full understanding of the American context of relations with a given nation, a smattering of up-to-the-minute information or American attitudes on political or other issues that would be of interest to the local, attentive person, and top it all off with a clear grasp of official Embassy policy of the moment, and you will be close to achieving the optimum FSO. Understand that these are only the basic criteria. You must also be able to manage a staff, run a budget, write clearly to report on local situations, organize a meeting or negotiation, and work harmoniously with the other super egos who have made similar achievements. Finding success in all these special traits in a single person is a tall, if not impossible, order.
So, What Can We Do…?
Clearly, more thought is needed in the halls of Congress, the West Wing and Foggy Bottom before striking off in any new paradigm for the Foreign Service. There is no single attribute that is the sole, identifying characteristic or ability of a desirable candidate for the Foreign Service. Empathy with contacts, a willingness to work hard under difficult, often unusual, circumstances, an insatiable curiosity to learn, a sense of humor to keep things in balance when in stressful situations, and a desire to represent the best of American life and perspective are all in varying degrees just as necessary.
Yet, as the Secretary discovered recently in the Congo, there is no substitute for careful translation in exchanges in a foreign environment. Language training is an essential part of the preparation of an FSO before assignment abroad, but it is probably less than a third of the total scope of knowledge and experience required of an effective officer abroad. Once abroad, the FSO should have access to the best local consecutive interpreters that are available at Post. When the committees are formed and the decisions made on the shape and future of the Foreign Service, I hope that realism and simple mathematics reassert themselves in the discussion.
Note on the Writer:
Yates is a retired FSO working in Washington for the past decade as a Consultant for foreign governments and businesses. Those duties have broadened his overseas experience particularly in Africa, Eastern Europe and, of course, back in East Asia.