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CIA Director Calls for a National Commitment to Language Proficiency at Foreign Language Summit

December 8, 2010

Director Panetta addressing the Foreign Language Summit.

Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon E. Panetta today urged renewed focus on the critical need for Americans to master foreign languages at a national summit that brought together policymakers, members of Congress, Intelligence Community officials, and leading language educators from across the country.

“For the United States to get to where it needs to be will require a national commitment to strengthening America’s foreign language proficiency,” Director Panetta said. “A significant cultural change needs to occur. And that requires a transformation in attitude from everyone involved: individuals, government, schools and universities, and the private sector.”

He urged schools and universities to reach beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic to “the fourth R”: the reality of the world we live in. Language skills are vital to success in an interconnected world, he said, and they are fundamental to US competitiveness and security.

“Language is the window through which we come to know other peoples and cultures,” Director Panetta said. “Mastery of a second language allows you to capture the nuances that are essential to true understanding...This is not about learning something that is helpful or simply nice to have. It is crucial to CIA’s mission.”

Director Panetta has made strengthening foreign language capabilities at the CIA a top priority. In May 2009, he launched a five-year Language Initiative, which aims to double the number of Agency analysts and collectors who are proficient in foreign languages and increase by 50 percent the number of officers with the right language skills serving in jobs that require foreign languages. The initiative received significant start-up funding from Congress and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last year.

Since then, the CIA has made important progress:

  • More than a quarter of CIA’s new hires last year claimed at least some foreign language proficiency.
  • More new analysts and collectors go directly into language training after graduating from analytic or operational coursework.
  • A higher percentage of officers are studying mission-critical languages, including Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, Persian, Russian, Korean, and Chinese.
  • Language skills are now a stricter requirement for promotion to CIA’s senior ranks.

“Since we announced our program, the number of Agency collectors and analysts with a foreign language has grown by almost 13 percent,” Director Panetta said. “And last year, we increased the number of officers proficient in mission-critical languages by 11 percent. That’s solid progress. We need to do more to keep the momentum going.”

Other speakers at the summit included U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley, and U.S. Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey. The event, which was held at the University of Maryland/University College Marriott Inn and Conference Center in Hyattsville, was cosponsored by the CIA and the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language. More than 300 foreign language experts and educators from the public and private sectors attended.

Secretary Duncan focused his remarks on the state of foreign language education in the United States.

“It’s clear to all of us that schools, colleges, and universities need to invest more and smarter in linguistic instruction,” he said, noting that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will be a top priority next year.

“Our proposal to reauthorize goes much further than the existing law in supporting a well-rounded, world-class education,” he said. “The blueprint to reform the law would create a competitive pool of $265 million to strengthen the teaching of the arts, languages, civics, government and other subjects.”

Representative Holt, who has written legislation to increase federal funding for foreign language education, said, “We need to alter dramatically how children learn language at an early age.” To make the most difference over the long term, the United States should focus its efforts on teaching languages in grades K through 12, he said. He commended the CIA, Department of Defense, and Department of State for their ongoing collaboration on improving language proficiency in federal agencies.

“At State, language proficiency has to be an integral part of the work culture,” Ambassador Kennedy said. “Top-notch language and cultural skills are critical to diplomatic success.”

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Posted: Dec 08, 2010 04:51 PM
Last Updated: Apr 29, 2013 01:20 PM