Language for the Good of All: ATA Members Make a Difference in the National Language Service Corps

Federal government activities often require additional professional language services and cultural competencies on a short-term basis for routine mission work or to satisfy contingency requirements.

Full-time employees of civil, foreign, and military service organizations routinely provide linguistic expertise to support the federal government. However, federal government activities often require additional professional language services and cultural competencies on a short-term basis for routine mission work or to satisfy contingency requirements.

To help address this need, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) launched the National Language Service Corps (NLSC) as a pilot program in 2007 to identify and recruit on-call, volunteer civilian language specialists. Initially, NLSC aimed to maintain a pool of linguists proficient in 10 languages. Since then, NLSC has expanded its capabilities to support over 414 languages and dialects. In 2018, NLSC extended its support beyond DoD organizations to all federal government agencies through formal partnership agreements.

Today, the Defense Language and National Security Education Office administers NLSC on behalf of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. NLSC has matured into an organization of nearly 11,000 highly skilled civilian volunteers who may be called upon to support the federal government, either remotely or in person, for a range of missions in the U.S. and abroad. These support services may include translation, transcription, language instruction, cultural advising, and testing development. Past missions have included:

  • Interpreting for the commanding general of U.S. Africa Command and visiting regional leaders.
  • Simultaneous and consecutive interpreting at the DoD’s U.S. Central Command’s planning conferences and training exercises in Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, and Qatar.
  • Interpreting and translation for the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency in support of searches for missing service personnel in Southeast Asia.
  • Interpreting for the secretary of the Navy in town halls and community outreach forums during the 2010 Gulf Oil disaster.
  • Supporting quality assurance, test validation, and language training across numerous government agencies.

Linguists who would like to volunteer their services must first apply to be NLSC members. Membership is free. Although there is no minimum proficiency level to become a member, applicants must complete a language self-assessment. NLSC uses the Federal Interagency Language Roundtable’s (ILR) proficiency guidelines (the ILR scale)1 to evaluate speaking, reading, listening, translation, and interpreting proficiency. NLSC seeks individuals who can achieve professional proficiency (“level 3”) in multiple language functions. Once approved as an NLSC member, individuals have access to formal proficiency tests. Some participating agency partners require members to submit the results of these tests before being selected for an assignment.

Once a partner requests language support, NLSC queries its membership through email, phone, or member-only social media platforms to find qualified individuals. NLSC then contacts eligible members to verify their interest and availability. If a member agrees to participate in a mission, an NLSC mission support liaison will provide one-on-one assistance to the member before, during, and after the assignment. When NLSC members support government agencies, they’re hired as temporary experts and consultants in the excepted service. Members receive a small honorarium.

Assignments typically range from one day to two weeks but occasionally may be longer. Members can accept or decline opportunities based upon their interest and availability. Declining to participate in an assignment does not negatively impact a member’s standing or access to future opportunities.

So, what’s it like to be an NLSC volunteer? To learn more, I interviewed three ATA members who actively participate in NLSC. I asked them how they learned about NLSC, what motivated them to volunteer, what services they provided, and what recommendations they have for individuals considering contributing their linguistic and cultural expertise.

Susan Dix-Barboza

Susan Dix-Barboza, an ATA member since 1999, joined NLSC in 2012. As a certified Portuguese court interpreter in Florida, Susan was recruited by NLSC at a time when she was also approached for employment by several commercial language services providers. She attributes her interest in NLSC as being less about potential remuneration for her expertise and more about helping the U.S. fulfill language-related commitments.

For NLSC, Susan served the DoD’s U.S. Southern Command as an interpreter during engagements with Latin American officials. She describes this experience as an exciting opportunity “to take a step out of the box” and apply the simultaneous interpreting skills and professional etiquette she developed in her 20-year experience as a court interpreter in an entirely new venue. Susan says she was challenged by certain technical terminology and the intellectual style of interactions within a military setting. She prepared for her mission support role by collaborating with her NLSC counterparts via video conferences and researching videos, literature, and instructions before the assignment.

In a previous assignment, Susan teamed up with other NLSC members to develop Portuguese learning materials for high-level officials on various national security topics, the content of which involved voice broadcasts, transcriptions, vocabulary list development, and translations. She was able to work from home full-time for the duration of the project.

Susan recommends NLSC membership for individuals who enjoy new and unusual assignments. She adds that NLSC missions frequently present challenges that require task research and preparation, which her NLSC support team helped her carry out.

Hua (Barbara) Robinson

Hua (Barbara) Robinson, an ATA member since 2007, joined NLSC in 2011. As a member of the Northwest Translators and Interpreters Society, an ATA chapter, Barbara was recruited by NLSC based on her substantial capabilities and experience as a freelance interpreter and translator in Chinese. As an immigrant to the U.S., Barbara says she was attracted to NLSC by the opportunity to support the country. She was also interested in the career-broadening potential and flexibility to provide varied language services as a member of NLSC.

For NLSC, Barbara has engaged in translation projects on behalf of DoD organizations that often require research and familiarity with the concepts and terminology of technical domains. She also served as a member of the “on-call” staff supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency COVID-19 hotline, where she provided Chinese interpreting services for medical screening and testing related to the pandemic.

Barbara recommends NLSC membership for individuals who have “the volunteer spirit.” She adds that potential volunteers should evaluate if and how active participation in NLSC can contribute to their professional development expectations and career aspirations to determine whether membership is “a good fit.”

Lili Selden

Lili Selden, who became an ATA member this year, was recruited by NLSC in 2019 while a member of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators. Lili is a credentialed court interpreter in Japanese for several jurisdictions in the eastern U.S. She has also been a translator for many years. Lili says she was intrigued by the “unconventional” aspects of NLSC, including the opportunity to meet the urgent needs of Japanese-speaking communities during natural disasters. As a former contract linguist at the U.S. Department of Justice who subsequently taught introductory interpreting courses to federal employees and military personnel, she also looks forward to opportunities to work with dedicated public servants and security personnel on critical missions.

For NLSC, Lili traveled to Guam in February 2020 to provide interpreting, translation, and cultural services for trilateral humanitarian assistance/disaster relief exercises involving military air forces from the U.S., Australia, and Japan. While serving alongside deployed forces in Guam, Lili engaged with both senior staff members and younger troops as an integral part of a military exercise team that featured blended cross-cultural integration. She provided full translations of exercise documentation and supported operational initiatives, which required her to understand and apply the terminology of mission concepts in Japanese and English. Lili enjoyed the intensity of the mission, in which everyone worked on their ability to train effectively together and communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Lili recommends that individuals considering volunteering for NLSC have “a sense of adventure and humor.” She says that NLSC assignments can be viewed as unusual opportunities that could well lead to memories of a lifetime.

Growing Professionally while Serving the Country

Susan, Barbara, and Lili say that membership in NLSC is intrinsically satisfying because it allows them to apply their skills and experiences on a temporary basis to help U.S. government agencies accomplish conventional tasks and manage emergencies and unforeseen circumstances.

Tangible benefits that may enhance the career profile of ATA members also typically accrue from active participation in NLSC, including:

  • Enhancing one’s language industry credentials through temporary employment within the framework of the U.S. government, national security, and foreign-language communities, including W-2 employee status, proficiency assessments through the Defense Language Proficiency Test/Oral Proficiency Interview process, and security clearances.
  • Broadening one’s linguistic and cultural skills and experiences, often through active engagement in extraordinary missions and operational environments.
  • Expanding one’s professional network by working with federal government organizations that value language, diversity, and culture.
  • Having the freedom and flexibility to accept or decline NLSC mission work, including assignments requiring national or international travel.

Okay, How Do I Sign Up?

If you think NLSC seems like a good fit for you, just follow these steps to become a member:

  • Submit the prescreen application.
  • Complete the application and global skills self-assessment.
  • Submit all completed forms.
  • Qualified applicants will receive an acceptance letter.
  • Sign and return the commitment letter and commit to NLSC’s Values and Member Code of Conduct statement.

To learn more about NLSC membership and start your application, please visit www.nlscorps.org/membership.

NLSC program managers seek candidates with proven skills, competencies, and experiences in interpreting and translation, especially if these skills have been endorsed through credentialing or certification. To this end, ATA members should consider if and how voluntary membership in NLSC might align with their language services endeavors and professional development ambitions. If you enjoy new and unusual assignments, volunteering for NLSC could be for you!

Special thanks to our ATA colleagues Susan, Barbara, and Lili for participating in the interviews, and to Elsbeth Clay and Hyejin Hickey at NLSC for supporting ATA’s Government Division’s initiative to develop this article. For more information on the National Language Service Corps, please visit www.nlscorps.org.

Reasons to Join NLSC

Opportunities to Network: With over 10,000 members, you can meet others who speak your language or who may work in a field that you have been considering.

Language Sustainment and Enhancement Opportunities: Hone your existing language skills or work to pick up a new language using NLSC’s free online learning tools and trainings.

Connect with the Language Community: Meet others who are as passionate about language as you are.

Gain Professional Experience: You may be invited to support a federal agency as an interpreter, translator, instructor, or cultural advisor.

Interesting Speakers and Events: From language sustainment to emergency preparedness training, there’s always something new to learn and discuss.

Serve Your Country: Use your language skills, regional expertise, and cultural capabilities to help your community and country.

Government-Credentialed Language Score: Validate your language skills with the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) or the Oral Proficiency Interview, two of the most widely recognized language proficiency tests offered by the U.S. government.

Enhance Your Résumé: Boost your language credentials by adding your membership, service experiences, and DLPT score; learn valuable techniques for marketing your language and cultural skills.

Free Membership: Becoming a member of NLSC is free!

For complete details, check out www.nlscorps.org.

Notes
  1. Federal Interagency Language Roundtable, https://govtilr.org/Skills/ILRscale1.htm.

Rusty Shughart is a retiree of the U.S. federal government and the U.S. Air Force. He is a member of the leadership council of ATA’s Government Division and currently chairs the Government Linguist Outreach Task Force. Contact: russ4ata@yahoo.com.

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