Page 54 - Foreign Service Journal - May 2013

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MAY 2013
All Overseas Positions Should Be Language Designated
Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.
Rickie Ricardo, the Cuban
bandleader character on
the “I Love Lucy” television
show, spoke fuent English.
He ran a business in New
York City, spoke English with
his wife and friends, and
read an English-language
newspaper. But when he was
upset, or counting beats, or
discussing a matter with his
band members, he spoke his
native Spanish.
Why? Because when
people are emotional, or
lost in thought, or sharing a
private thought with some-
one from their own native
country, they speak their own
language. Moreover, where
cultures difer signifcantly,
there are often terms or even
whole concepts that can get,
as they say, “lost in transla-
Foreign Service members
perform the bulk of their
service overseas, in countries
where, for the most part, host
country nationals speak a
language other than English.
Accordingly, the ability to
speak a foreign language is a
primary skill requirement for
Foreign Service ofcers, and
a core precept for retention
of all FS members, regardless
of cone or skill code.
However, because lan-
guage training costs money
and can sideline an employee
for months, deciding who
needs what language—and
to what degree—has become
one of the most contentious
issues afecting an employ-
ee’s career. It is a primary
factor in allegations of elitism
by some FS groups when
compared to others, a pri-
mary factor in low morale for
many, and an issue that has
been fagged by Congress as
a weakness in our Service.
position in
an embassy or consulate
requires some degree of
interaction with host-country
counterparts. Ofcers and
specialists alike are required
to negotiate in a foreign
language and maintain work-
ing relationships with their
local contacts as a basic
component of the job. Yet
for a variety of reasons, the
department is reluctant to
designate language desig-
nated positions.
First, there is the assump-
tion that because an
embassy’s locally employed
staf speak English, a foreign
language is not required in
the ofce. That may be true
in some instances. However,
during my management
career, I have fred LES
members for malfeasance,
detected only because I
understood statements they
made in the ofce in their
native language.
In addition, an LES
member’s ability to trans-
late could be hampered by
limited English-language
skills or lack of technical
knowledge. We have all been
in the position of listening
to a host-country interlocu-
tor speak energetically for
two or three minutes, only to
have the entire speech sum-
marized as “He disagrees.”
Even professional translators
sometimes have difculty
doing simultaneous transla-
tion, while technical jargon
outside their feld may be
unfamiliar to many.
Another reason is staf-
ing. Designating a position as
LDP requires that priority be
given to those who already
speak the language. (Indeed,
those who do not already
have the language cannot list
those positions as core bids.)
At posts that are already
hard to staf, or for positions
in skill groups with a small
number of members, that
requirement can severely
limit the ability to staf those
Because the department
makes decisions about
language training based
on the number of LDPs in
each language and skill
group, and the percent-
age of qualifed applicants
who are available to bid on
those jobs, this becomes a
vicious circle. Reducing the
number of LDPs translates
into a reduction of resources
for training in the relevant
language, eventually reduc-
ing the number of speakers
of that language among the
skill group associated with
the job. This can lead to a
cycle of further reduction in
LDPs, because there are not
enough language-trained
applicants to fll them.
Language training require-
ments in the career develop-
ment plans for Ofce Man-
agement Specialists, among
others, have been reduced
in part because so few OMS
positions are language desig-
nated. This afects decisions
about Language Incentive
Pay, as well. Both of these
issues are currently under
discussion between AFSA
and management.
If the department were
serious, it would require lan-
guage skills as a requirement
for every job, and ensure that
every member, regardless of
skill code, learn a language
before tenure. It would use
the current LDP process
solely to designate levels of
profciency required for each
State should also make
the language designation
process completely indepen-
dent of resource or stafng
factors, basing it on actual
desk audits and observa-
tion of the full range of an
employee’s activities. Does
failure to speak the language
hamper daily activities? Does
it make the employee or fam-
ily members more vulnerable
to terror threats or crime?
Those factors, and those
factors alone, should result
in not just a recommenda-
tion, but a determination,
that a position should be
designated at a given level.
Only then will we be able to
fully engage both diplomati-
cally and socially overseas,
and meet our stated goal of
truly representing the United
States around the world.