2007 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Robert O. Slater and the NSEP Team

Developed a program that enables citizens to develop fluency in foreign languages deemed most critical to national security.

One of the most disturbing findings to come out of the Iraq Study Group’s report was that just 33 of the 1,000 federal employees at our embassy in Iraq speak Arabic, and only six speak it fluently. Unfortunately, our government’s problem of having too few language specialists is not limited to Baghdad. Between 1994 and 1995, the FBI’s backlog of untranslated audio counterterrorism materials nearly doubled to more than 8,000 hours. In addition, 60 percent of the State Department’s critical language speakers are eligible to retire in five years. Dr Robert Slater has stepped up to address this problem, and he is leading our government’s efforts to provide long-term solutions to this shortage crisis.

Dr. Robert Slater and his team at the Defense Department’s National Security Education Program have created The Language Flagship program. This groundbreaking initiative provides selected universities with grants to develop centers—called Flagship Centers—that can produce a steady stream of graduates with professional level competencies in the languages identified as most critical to the nation’s security and global competitiveness. These include Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Farsi, Hindi, Russian and the Central Asian languages.

The Language Flagship is part of the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which was created by an act of Congress in 1991 to address the language gap and other lessons learned from Operation Desert Storm. NSEP and the Language Flagship provide undergraduate scholarships and graduate fellowships to talented students who commit to pursuing a career in a federal agency or office focused on national security. Since 9/11, this highly competitive program has seen a significant increase in applications and a dramatic shift toward interest in Arabic and the Middle East. 

The results of NSEP have been remarkable. Roughly one in three of the program’s undergraduates achieve an advanced or higher level of proficiency, and almost 87 percent reach at least an intermediate level. At the graduate level, 56 percent reach at least an advanced level, while 95 percent test at the intermediate level or higher.

On the federal government’s scale of language ability, professional-level fluency is classified as level 3, or “superior.” Since Congress authorized the Language Flagship in 2004, participating universities have graduated more than 100 students with superior-level abilities, with many more students in the pipeline. 

Securing Congressional approval for the Language Flagship was a major victory, but for Slater and his team this was just a beginning.  In 2005, he conceived and launched a pilot program to establish a K-16 Flagship in Chinese. The initiative seeks to articulate instruction from kindergarten through college. By the end of a participant’s undergraduate studies, she will have achieved professional-level proficiency. Two additional K-16 Flagships—one in Chinese and one in Arabic—have since been created.

Over the course of his 22 years in federal government, Slater has been a veritable canary in the coal mine when it comes to calling attention to the nation’s foreign language crisis. While the U.S. system of higher education is second to none, the dearth of resources dedicated to language learning at the university level is systemic. But thanks to Slater’s leadership and advocacy, the nation is beginning to devote the resources necessary to tackle the problem.

The opportunities for students to serve their country in an international capacity abound, and the need for the best and brightest to answer the call has never been greater. For the future Army platoon leader, USAID agricultural advisor in Afghanistan, Foreign Service officer in Beijing, or CIA analyst—Slater and his team are providing them the language skills needed to carry out their missions and protect and serve our nation.