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Getting To Know... Robert Slater

A federal employee is honored for working to close the language gap.

Unlike other countries, many Americans are fluent in only one language: English.

But in recent years, due to an increasingly globalized world, the demand for foreign language speakers, especially within the government and the military, has skyrocketed.

Robert Slater, director of the Department of Defense’s National Security Education Program, is trying to alleviate this language gap.

He has helped to create the Language Flagship Program which gives grants to schools and universities that train their students in languages — such as Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Farsi — that are vital to today’s geopolitical situation.

Slater was recently honored by The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that advocates for federal employees, with its Service To America Medal for his efforts in closing the language gap.

In an interview with the Arlington Connection, Slater talked about how his Language Flagship Program works, about how the U.S. education system fails to teach foreign languages, and about his dreams to become the next Willie Mays.

Arlington Connection: What was it like winning the Service To America Medal?

Robert Slater: The award is important because it represents an important recognition of the significant contributions made by the federal government. I don't really see this as an individual accomplishment as much as the collective achievement of the [National Security Education Program] staff and the leadership that has supported this effort both in the Department of Defense and the U.S Congress.

AC: How did you come up with the idea to create the Language Flagship program? What inspired you to create this program?

RS: The concept of a Language Flagship program came from a collaboration with a close friend and colleague in the field — Dr. Richard Brecht. Dick and I had been searching for ways to challenge the U.S. education system to raise the bar for language learning. The only long-term solution to the language deficit in the U.S. is investing in education, preferably at a very early age. In late 2000, we developed the concept, visited a number of colleges and universities around the U.S. and started with a modest budget of less than $2 million.

AC: How does the Language Flagship program work?

RS: The Language Flagship Program is an important strategic partnership between the federal government and U.S. education. We provide substantial funding to a number of U.S. universities (as well as selected elementary, middle, and high schools) to develop language programs designed to graduate college students at a level of "professional" proficiency in languages like Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Persian, Russian. This has never been done before. We see this as an investment in America's future capacity to more effectively communicate with an increasingly interdependent world. We also provide some funding for students to participate in this program and offer a highly competitive number of fellowships to students who agree to work for the federal government when they complete their studies.

AC: Why are foreign-language speakers in the federal government in such short supply? Is the Language Flagship program the solution to solving this problem?

RS: Professionals with workable levels of language proficiency are generally in short supply not only for the federal government but for all public and private sectors. We don't address languages in the education system as we should. Thus, we don't turn out high school and college graduates with competencies in languages — not only the "critical" languages we hear about so often but also the mainstream languages like Spanish, French, etc.

AC: How do other countries deal with this language gap?

RS: Most other countries have a policy that requires students, at the elementary school level, to learn at least one additional language. We are alone on this based on an assumption that everyone else speaks English. That is simply not the case.

AC: How many languages do you speak? Which ones? How did you learn them?

RS: I studied French in high school and college. I am a classic example of the failure of U.S. language system. I minored in French in college. I could read French novels as well as anyone but drop me in the middle of Paris and I was completely lost. The system simply emphasized (and in many ways continues to emphasize) reading and understanding the literature instead of providing a way to actually be able to converse effectively in the language.

AC: How long have you worked in Arlington? Do you like working in Arlington?

RS: I have worked in Arlington (Rosslyn) since 1994. Rosslyn has changed quite a bit since then. It is an active and exciting place to work.

AC: Where is your favorite place to get lunch in Arlington?

RS: I am not much of a lunch person! We have a small wonderful takeout restaurant in our building, Le Petit Café, and so I usually go there. I also am a frequent visitor to Cosi about two blocks away.

AC: What was your first job?

RS: I finished my Ph.D. in 1974 and was lucky to get a position with a major Princeton, N.J.-based consulting firm. I worked with them for about seven years.

AC: Where did you go to school? Why did you decide to go there?

RS: I went to college at St. Lawrence University in northern New York. I was born and raised in New York City and very much wanted a change to something smaller and more personal. St. Lawrence was a perfect choice.

AC: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grow up?

RS: I think like everyone else at that time I wanted to play baseball. I was a big New York, then San Francisco, Giants fan and grew up watching Willie Mays.

AC: What is your favorite movie?

RS: I am a huge Mel Brooks fan so I would say my favorite movie is probably "Young Frankenstein." Another choice would be "Dr. Strangelove." I am also a sucker for really good sports movies and I would have to put "Field of Dreams" at the top.

AC: If you could take a road trip to anywhere in the world, where would you go?

RS:There are too many places I would like to go so I really cannot identify one. I would have to say, though, that as a child, I had a great time on road trips across the United States with my family. It would be fun to do something like that again. I get to travel a great deal and we often forget how many spectacular places we have to visit in our own country!