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Research Questions

  1. Is requiring all officer candidates to achieve, at a minimum, limited working proficiency or general working proficiency in reading and writing a second language before commissioning a feasible and achievable goal?
  2. What potential consequences would implementing a language proficiency commissioning requirement have?

Would it be feasible to require all Air Force officers to attain a specific level of proficiency in a second language at commissioning? Would there be unintended consequences? To find out, the authors asked Air Force officers about their own language-learning experiences, what they thought about language learning and mandatory language proficiency policies, what incentives and disincentives they perceived, among other questions. While the officers felt language proficiency was important for mission success, they were not convinced about its importance for career success. They also noted that the time and commitment required to attain proficiency might interfere with other, more pressing academic demands. The languages most have studied already are not among those most critical to national security, and those who were required to study a language considered themselves less proficient than those who had studied it voluntarily. Language skills were, however, associated with other desirable outcomes, such as greater interest in and tolerance of other cultures and being interested in and capable of learning another language in the future. But requiring all to attain such proficiency before commissioning would mean fewer would be eligible for it. Instead, we suggest implementing a variety of pre- and postcommissioning language-learning incentives and opportunities designed to accommodate learners at all levels (from those just starting out to those who are at more advanced levels) and to increase acquisition of underrepresented and strategic languages. Career-long policies for maintaining and increasing language proficiency would be needed to make precommissioning and early career efforts worthwhile.

Key Findings

The Requirement Is Not Currently Feasible

  • In the short term, it is not feasible to require all officers to reach even the 2/2 proficiency level in a second language. For example, meeting the requirement would likely necessitate completion of at least five semesters of a language, which for many non-language majors would not fit within a four-year degree completion schedule around the coursework requirements for their major. This would be especially problematic for technical degree majors, such as engineers.

Such a Requirement Could Have Both Negative and Positive Consequences

  • Such a policy would likely have some negative consequences: fewer eligible officer candidates; changes in the demographic makeup of the officer corps, including fewer technical degree majors, such as engineers; risk of dissatisfaction among officers and candidates, potentially reducing commitment and increasing turnover; waste of resources if languages are not utilized or maintained after commissioning; and an excess proficiency in easy-to-learn nonstrategic languages.
  • However, positive consequences, such as improved language skills, greater cultural sensitivity, and an interest in and improved capacity to learn other languages could result from the policy as well.


  • Tailor policies to desired outcomes. Include different policies for achieving different desired outcomes.
  • Make second-language requirements for commissioning flexible and include a variety of incentives and opportunities
  • Implement policies for maintaining and enhancing language skills after commissioning and over an officer's entire career.
  • Ensure buy-in from Air Force officers at all levels.
  • Evaluate the success of each new program and adjust accordingly.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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