Given its outsized role in international politics and economics, it should come as no surprise that the United States has an interest in having a citizenry capable of speaking a diverse range of languages. In an increasingly globalized world, having connections that span countries and cultures is a significant national asset for businesses expanding into new markets or diplomats de-escalating conflict in hostile regions.

Examples are not difficult to come up with: native English speakers with a working knowledge of Russian or Arabic served as important representatives of U.S. interests during the Cold War and the War on Terror, respectively. Speakers of local languages continue to assist with military and diplomatic initiatives in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Spanish speakers are able to foster business and diplomatic relationships with our Latin American neighbors, and a growing interest in Mandarin language skills will yield both financial and diplomatic benefits as China becomes an increasingly important global actor.

However, the U.S. government has been warning for years that we have a foreign language deficit, which poses a unique and costly problem for our overseas interests. The government has recognized the importance of foreign language skills for decades, but improving those skills has proven easier said than done. Language gaps in the federal government — especially at the Departments of State and Defense — hamper our ability to operate effectively overseas.

This policy brief explores the benefits of multilingualism as well as efforts made by U.S. agencies and institutions to enhance language proficiency. It ends with policy recommendations to capitalize on the language skills of immigrants and refugees for the good of U.S. diplomacy, security, and business.

To read the brief, click here.