Much like technology, the ability to speak a language is becoming, for better or worse, more and more relevant. Whether choosing what language to use for assistance on the phone or while lost while hiking through the Andes, knowing a second language can be a valuable asset.
Foreign language capabilities include a broad range of language proficiency skills and other abilities, such as cultural awareness and understanding, regional expertise, and skill in translation and interpretation. The CIA in particular places a high value on language, and not just for its operations officers (OO) or for getting out of emergencies. In this age of retinal scanners and thumbprint-lock iPhones, language and its use in intelligence operations is the old man on the block.
In the early days of the CIA and its predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the use of foreign languages covered two ends of a broad spectrum. At one end, potential candidates had already mastered a second language, or at least had some understanding of one, based on either their family background (many OSS recruits were taken directly from their native homeland during and after WWII) or from the Ivy League school that the agencies loved to recruit from. At the other end, there were “crash courses” given to OSS and agency officers just before they infiltrated into hostile territory. Often, they would link up with partisans or some other English-speaking native guide who could translate for them, but this was not always the case.
Today, having even a small understanding of a language can be the key to a case succeeding or failing. From the OO out in the street running assets or working the room at a tech expo, to the analyst formulating a white paper based on finished intelligence that came from a source who speaks almost no English, a second or third language is often crucial to getting it right.
At times, just knowing Spanish or Arabic is not enough. When working within a target country or diaspora, dialect is often the difference between getting the right information and having to go back and get it right. Sometimes it’s the difference between finding someone willing to talk to you and being shown the door. And let’s not forget about the CI and security aspect. Claiming to be from one place but using the dialect of another area will land you in a world of “this sucks.”
One of the great resources that the intelligence community makes regular use of are translators and interpreters. Many (including me, until I had to use them) believe that these are one in the same, but that is incorrect. They require two different skills sets, but it is not uncommon for one or the other to be able to do both. According to Accredited Language Services International:
“Translating and interpreting are very different jobs requiring different skill sets, but there are a couple essential characteristics that both good translators and good interpreters share: 1) A deep understanding and near-native, if not native, proficiency in two or more languages, and 2) an interest in languages and in the facilitation of communication between different languages.”
I can say from the extensive work I’ve done alongside these linguists at headquarters and in the field that the translators and interpreters that I have interacted with are a cadre of professionals who are dedicated to the mission.
Within the last 12 -13 years, the intelligence community, and the CIA in particular, have made a big push to recruit language-qualified candidates. Per the current iteration of the CIA website, the agency “is hiring qualified and experienced language instructors of Arabic, Chinese/Mandarin, Dari/Pashto, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian (Farsi), Portuguese, Russian, Serbian/Croatian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu to work in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.”
While this advertisement specifically addresses the language instructor positions, potential hires fluent in any of the above languages would have a leg up over those who don’t for most positions. Having said that, the agency has also made a push to allow those in a position where the use of a foreign language is critical to attend language schooling, often prior to an overseas assignment. This training can be either agency-funded or out-of-pocket reimbursed.
Looking to the future, the IC is making good on its mission statement to increase the number of intelligence officers who speak a foreign language. According to the Director of National Intelligence website, multiple scholarships and incentives are in place to encourage and reward not only the neophyte foreign-language student, but also those who came onboard already possessing language skills and wishing to maintain them.
These range from being awarded up to $20,000 and sent being abroad for “immersion” training for critical country language study (in exchange for at least one year of obligated work for the U.S. government) to awarding grants to U.S. universities recognized as leaders in the foreign-language field for their dedication to enhancing the achievement of upper-level proficiency in critical language skills for students.