Linguists Speak Many Languages

April 2, 2010

Often there are communications written in languages other than English and people to be interviewed who do not speak English. The FBI has linguists who can clear it all up for agents and analysts.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello. I’m Neal Schiff, and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. The FBI is involved around the world gathering intelligence and investigating criminal cases. Often there are communications written in languages other than English and people to be interviewed who do not speak English. The FBI has linguists who can clear it all up for agents and analysts.

Ms. Gulotta: “Over 90 percent of our field offices have linguists that work in that field office.”

Mr. Schiff: That’s Margaret Gulotta. She’s the chief of the Language Services Section in the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence office.

Ms. Gulotta: “Well the Bureau's work is really becoming more and more international, and also, there are so many people who live in this country who speak a foreign language. We can't just ignore these people and we can’t just ignore our investigations that take us into foreign areas. So, we need experts who can speak the foreign language and can communicate that intelligence to us in English.”

Mr. Schiff: Do your linguists help out agents in the field who come across people who can’t speak English?

Ms. Gulotta: “Our linguists are actually working all over the field. We have linguists in over 100 locations around the world. They go with the agents on interpretation assignments; to interview subjects, witnesses; and to help out with sources, so our linguists, yes, work right alongside of our agents all over the field.”

Mr. Schiff: How has the Language Services work changed over time? We had 9/11—how has that affected the foreign language mission of the FBI?

Ms. Gulotta: “We have literally doubled the number linguists that we've had since 9/11. In fact, most of the linguists who worked for us today weren’t working for us before 9/11. The focus of our investigations has also changed tremendously. Before 9/11 we were very reactive. Our linguists worked mostly on criminal matters, counterintelligence matters, but now we focus a lot on preventive work, and we work a lot in counterterrorism matters. The work for our linguists has grown in variety and also in scope.”

Mr. Schiff: Can you describe the breadth of skills and experience that FBI linguists bring to bear on FBI investigations?

Ms. Gulotta: “Well our linguists are primarily native speakers of the foreign language. That's not what we recruit, that's what we have. We are very fortunate because it gives us a very rich level of experience in cultural, political, and religious matters. Another thing that's very interesting about our population of linguists is that they come to us from other occupations. Most of them come to us as a second career, and so they bring those experiences with them as well.”

Mr. Schiff: What about comparing the kinds of work linguists did back in the day and today?

Ms. Gulotta: “In years past, our linguists mostly worked with translation matters, but today’s linguists work not only with translations, but also they perform interpretations and they do intelligence analysis. So, the breadth of scope that they bring, the experiences that they bring with them from their former life, before they come to the Bureau, we actually use when they come to the Bureau; Whether it's medicine, politics, law, teaching, whatever job that they've had before.”

Mr. Schiff: What are the FBI’s current and future foreign language needs and what are the requirements to become a linguist for the FBI?

Ms. Gulotta: “Well we always are looking for Spanish speakers, speakers of Chinese, Arabic, and Russian. We particularly are interested in people who are multilingual, that means more foreign languages, in addition to English. One of the first requirements is that the applicant needs to be a citizen of the United States. Then they have to pass a foreign language test battery that includes listening and reading comprehension and the foreign language to English, and also translation skills and speaking in the foreign language and English. Once they pass the language test, then we start the background investigation; we have a polygraph examination, a complete background investigation, and hopefully, when somebody finishes up with all of that, they will get a Top Secret clearance and we can put them to work.”

Mr. Schiff: How do advances in technology allow FBI linguists to get more involved in investigations?

Ms. Gulotta: “Over 90 percent of our field offices have linguists that work in that field office. We're really very unique in the FBI in that we run our program on a national level where we can prioritize the work of the linguists in the field office to make sure they're working on the highest priority matters that the Bureau has. The way we do this is we work virtually. The linguists can have the materials sent to them virtually and the materials, their final products, can be accessed by an agent in another office. We use technology to actually collaborate, and, so the linguists don't have to attend the meetings on site. They can do their work from their home office and they can collaborate through various types of technology. Gone are the days when we used typewriters and paper and pencil.”

Mr. Schiff: You can become an FBI linguist if you’re qualified. Tune in next week and hear from a couple of linguists who can tell you what the work is like, how they became involved, and some cases they worked. There’s more information about the FBI’s Language Services program on the Internet at That’s our show for this week. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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