Michael KreponCareer Counseling

Critical foreign languages won’t make or break a career, but they can help aspiring wonks gain comparative advantage in the job market. Learning a critical foreign language can also lead to great travel opportunities, and travel, as Mark Twain once said, is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. My sense is that the least successful U.S. arms control emissaries are those who are most uncomfortable abroad.

When considering résumés at the Stimson Center, I usually look for language skills and off-the-beaten-track foreign travel as key indicators of a job hunter’s potential success in the field. Trips to the Caribbean, Europe and the maritime provinces of Canada (all great choices) may not be very helpful in this job market.

As far as language skills go, here’s my simple formula: the greater the country’s potential for good or bad consequences, the more important is its primary language. Using these criteria, Chinese, Farsi, Urdu, Russian, Hindi, Arabic and Korean all qualify. French can help if you are looking for arms control work at an international organization or have the good sense to visit France and French-speaking outposts in far-off places.

If you do not have aptitude for foreign languages, do not obsess. I’ve learned and mostly forgotten three foreign languages. You can demonstrate comparative advantage in other ways. But you might also miss out on some unforgettable experiences.

Here’s my story: I had no money to attend graduate school and, at that time, the U.S. Government offered a national defense foreign language fellowship program. The deal was that, by studying and demonstrating proficiency in a critical language, Uncle Sam figured that he would get his money’s worth even if you didn’t become a government employee. I was then interested in the Middle East and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies offered me a free ride, courtesy of an NDFL fellowship. I needed to spend four hours a day during the next two school years learning Modern Standard Arabic. If I could comprehend newspapers, and if I could somehow pass my foreign language and international econ exams, I could obtain my Master’s degree.

That meant, in addition, an obligation for intensive language study during the summer months. Damn. So where might the intensive Arabic language program be located during the summer of 1969? The University of California at Berkeley. As in People’s Park, Fillmore West, Haight-Ashbury, the moon landing, and Berkeley’s incongruent, smoky ambience, a mix of tear gas and marijuana. I don’t mean to brag, but the study of Arabic doesn’t get much better than when leavened with a live performance by Joe Cocker and a sublime female back-up group singing “She Came in through the Bathroom Window.”

The summer of 1970 was even better, studying at the American University in Cairo and visiting other world historic cities, including Luxor (off the charts), Aswan, Alexandria, and Damascus. Modern Standard Arabic didn’t help that much with the vernacular spoken on the streets but to me, that was a mere detail.

My newspaper Arabic atrophied soon after I graduated. It didn’t take real genius to figure out that if Israel continued to stay put and build settlements in the occupied territories, the future of this dispute looked unrelentingly grim, not what I was looking for in a professional career. I gravitated toward U.S.-Soviet arms control, where successes were possible, and after the Cold War ended, started to show up in South Asia, despite language deficiencies.

For some of us, professional straight lines are a luxury, and crooked lines can work out just fine. As Paul McCartney has sagely noted, Sunday’s on the phone to Monday, Tuesday’s on the phone to me.


  1. Jens (History)

    Very motivating!!! I am in New Delhi right now and will go to the IDSA tomorrow.