Speaking the language of an Open Source Officer

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Here's a job title you may not have considered: Open Source Officer. The CIA hires Open Source Officers (OSOs) to collect and analyze publicly available information in foreign affairs to provide unique insights into national security issues. OSOs may specialize in an area of the world (country or region) or a specific topic (like, emerging media technologies or cyber security).

To apply, candidates must be proficient in a foreign language or two (surely, the more the better). The following languages, with relevant area knowledge, are among those desired: Turkish, Farsi/Persian, Kurdish, Hebrew, and Arabic; Spanish, French, Portuguese, and two or more West European languages; East European languages; Russian, Uzbek, Ukrainian, and Central Eurasian dialects; Chinese, Korean, and Japanese; Hindi, Urdu, Dari, and Pashtu.

Kids growing up who may one day be interested in such a job may need some help given the current foreign language curriculum in most American public schools. For those children with parents who speak one of the foreign languages listed above, or who have lived abroad, they may have an advantage. But, what about the vast majority of elementary children who attend public school and come from an English-speaking household and have not lived or travelled abroad?

For many schoolchildren who attend public school, a foreign language is not accessible or available to them until high school. Even then, the foreign languages offered by a school district depends on qualified staff, textbook availability, and local demand or action. I took French for four years in high school because there were many French-Canadians in the town where I grew up; Spanish, German, and Latin were other foreign languages offered in high school at the time, which would have limited the foreign language qualifications needed for the CIA's Open Source Officer position.

Today schoolchildren may have the option to learn a foreign language in elementary school: either through full or partial immersion or a course. A full immersion program would allow children to spend part or all of the school day learning in a second language. Partial immersion programs run on the same principle, but only a portion of the curriculum, such as math and social studies, is presented in the second language.

Immersion programs are becoming popular in the U.S. due to the digital age and an increasingly interdependent global world. Immersion programs attempt to address this point as well as the widely acknowledged point that elementary children have greater potential to learn a foreign language quicker and better than older students or adults. As a result, immersion programs are widely scattered across the country. However, the access and availability to immersion programs varies greatly. Moreover admission to an immersion program is often restricted based on residence or a school lottery system, for instance, thus further limiting the access and availability to them.

In other words, the Open Source Officer position would possibly remain out of future reach for many American elementary schoolchildren if they are solely dependent on their public school system to acquire knowledge in a foreign language.

Congressional effort to extend foreign language education to elementary and high school students has been mixed. In 2011, Senator Lautenberg proposed to amend the Foreign Language Education Partnership Program Act by providing incentive payments to public elementary schools for foreign language instruction.

Since then, Congress has cut spending for foreign languages in higher education. And the Foreign Language Assistance Program (FLAP), the only source of federal funding for K-12 foreign language programs, is slated to be cut or eliminated. Is Congress jeopardizing a child's future and their chance to strive for a position like the CIA's Open Source Officer? 

Open source efforts to extend foreign language education to elementary and high school students could be the solution. Numerous non-profits offer free foreign language opportunities. Numerous MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offer free foreign language opportunities as well. Increasingly, there is open source software like Ling, too.

With the proliferation of free or open source foreign language courses online, a child who is eager and motivated to learn could potentially avail themselves of the opportunity to learn if they simply had access to computer hardware to view them on. This type of self-directed, self-motivated learning of foreign languages would be perhaps more feasible and obtainable in a public library than a public elementary school where access and availability to computer hardware is often restricted and limited.

Yet learning multiple foreign languages is increasingly becoming easier with digital technology. Hyperpolyglot (a person who can speak six or more languages fluently) sixteen-year-old Timothy Doner has self-taught himself an astonishing 23 foreign languages and partly through the use of digital technology. This is not to say that everyone has the potential to become a hyperpolyglot or can learn a foreign language with ease, but that such self-directed, self-motivated learning for foreign languages is more accessible and available with free and open source than previously.

How long will it be before public schools adopt free and open source tools and a position like an Open Source Officer becomes a greater possibility for future linguists? If a young preschool child can learn basic literacy and numeracy skills from watching Sesame Street as numerous studies and research have shown, then it seems entirely possible that an elementary child could learn a foreign language with free and open source software too.

Carolyn Fox is an educator, librarian, historian, and an un/homeschooling mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her UK husband and son.


Ms. Fox,

I think it is important to stress to children and young adults that learning a second language adds another cultural dimension to life, the same way studying the fine arts does. I think it does people a disservice to believe that they will achieve public or private sector employment on the basis of knowing a "critical language". I have a B.A. in Spanish literature (minor Latin American Studies), attended high school in Jerusalem for 3 years (entire curriculum taught in Hebrew). studied both Palestinian and Modern Standard Arabic, can French and Portuguese, and have an MLIS from San Jose State. If I applied to be an OSO I wouldn't get the job. Those sort of jobs would only go to applicants with native or near native fluency in those languages, and have native knowledge of those cultures.

I do agree with you and what you are saying. Unfortunately, many parents do not believe in adding a second language to the curriculum unless it involves something to do with future job prospects whether those are truly realistic or not.

Learning more than one languages is increasing with the bit of time. And this process is no longer difficult. SLA has given us many theory in this regard.

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Spoiler: This is completely offtopic

OH, the CIA - if you want to understand their level of professionalism, plesae read this chapte from tales-of-the-interviews, called: "the CIA interview": http://thedailywtf.com/Articles/Its-All-About-C,-The-CIA-Interview,--Not-People-Like-You.aspx
Maybe you will look differently on the CIA's computer skills ;-)

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