Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy reports that government auditors found language skills among foreign service officers to be far more rare than they would hope. On China, he quotes from the unreleased Government Accountability Office report:
In China, officials told us that the officers in China with insufficient language skills get only half the story on issues of interest, as they receive only the official party line and are unable to communicate with researchers and academics, many of whom do not speak English.
The deficiencies are large in war zones, and the article notes serious shortfalls in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only specific data in this article on Chinese posts groups Chinese with Arabic as important languages:
“Deficiencies in what GAO calls ‘supercritical’ languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, were 39 percent.”
The officers I have met in China seem to be in the 61 percent, but the quote above indicates that someone at least in the embassy thinks the 39 percent blocks the staff from doing the best job possible. From me, one vote for more language study (yes, I need it too), and a dream for leaps forward in machine translation.
The other quote from the report on China, which I leave without comment:
In Shenyang, a Chinese city close to the border with North Korea, the consul general told us that reporting about issues along the border had suffered because of language shortfalls.