Friday, March 6, 2009

Diplomacy Resources

People often have very unrealistic expectations of U.S. diplomats (known as "Foreign Service Officers"). One is the level of assistance the Embassy can or will give in a legal or medical quandary. If an American gets in trouble in another country, U.S. diplomats generally are limited in what they can do for them. They can verify that that the American citizens are being treated as well as a national of the country would be, help them communicate with family and friends, loan them money (a loan which must be paid back before further foreign travel), and give them a list of local doctors or lawyers to call for medical and legal help. Diplomats do try to visit and assist in various formal and informal ways, but it's not always possible for them to do that. One thing is for sure, the U.S. Embassy is not going to send in the Marines to get you out of a foreign jail for being caught with drugs or on trumped-up charges (often done to extort money out of an American).

Another unrealistic idea of U.S. diplomats is that they all fluently speak the language of the country they are posted in. Or that they have even received instruction in the local language. Of course, there are many diplomats who speak one or more foreign languages extremely well. But through the course of even just a 20-year career, U.S. diplomats can easily live in six different countries. While Foreign Service Officers receive much language training (they typically must attain a "2" level in hard languages and a "3" level in less hard languages before they can travel to their foreign post) at the Foreign Service Institute, working hand-in-hand with them abroad are Foreign Service Specialists who often receive limited or no language training. Also, those 2's and 3's simply don't equal fluency. A 3-level score on an oral exam supposedly means that a person is
  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to grope for a word
  • has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker.
(Source: wikipedia article on the Interagency Roundtable Language scale)

Having worked in the Foreign Service for nearly five years, I can testify that there are many officers who, despite having received that 3 and gone to their foreign posts, regularly grope for words and constantly make errors that interfere with understanding. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who have had unpleasant visa interview experiences with U.S. diplomats who didn't really seem to understand what was being said to them. One of the reasons so many diplomats end up in foreign countries with less-than-expected language skills is the pressure to fill their positions as soon as possible. Vacancies are hard on embassies and consulates, so they will accept someone who is still struggling to learn a language; also, there is a general assumption that language learners will do better once they are using the language every day "in country". The examiners at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) know this. They also know how subjective they are in giving exam scores, even though they try not to be. After all, they are testing people--nice people, who are anxious to get to their foreign posts quickly because of the financial stress that comes with living in the D.C. area on a declining per diem--with whom they have been interacting in the FSI hallways for months.

I think Hillary Clinton just found out in an embarrassing way how language competency in the State Department is not as good as it should be. She gave a gift today to the Russian Foreign Minister that had the wrong word written on it. The word was supposed to be the Russian word for "reset" (as in "this is to reset the Russia-U.S. relationship"), but instead it was the Russian word for "overcharge". (This would have never happened to Condoleezza Rice.) The Russian Foreign Minister told her of the mistake and then mocked her gift a couple times in the press conference following their meeting. Ms. Clinton doesn't have a reputation for being kind to underlings, so I'm guessing that several people on her staff are extremely uncomfortable tonight. Still, I hope it makes her pay more attention to the language needs of the U.S. diplomatic force.

No comments:

Post a Comment