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.