Learning a Foreign Language:
What’s in It for You?

Police officers across the country routinely encounter members of the public who speak little to no English. According to recent U.S. Census figures, 13% of the population is foreign born, and recent trends have seen immigrants settling in rural areas where the impact on small communities is high, particularly on public services like police. Recognizing this as a nationwide issue, the federal government mandates that any agency receiving federal financial assistance is legally required to take “reasonable steps” to provide services to limited English proficiency (LEP) individuals.

With all these changes increasing the demand for law enforcement personnel who speak a second language, there has never been a better time to learn one. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for officers to learn language skills that can help them in both their daily tasks and their careers. 

The Reality of Modern Policing

Immigration politics aside, it is officers who are in the very real position of encountering non-English speakers on a daily basis while working the beat. When an officer initiates a traffic stop and the driver doesn’t understand English commands, the officer’s safety, as well as the driver’s, is compromised. In addition, already cash-strapped cities can be hit with expensive lawsuits if miscommunications take a bad turn. For example, the City of Los Angeles paid out over $13 million to settle lawsuits for uses of force in the 2007 May Day/MacArthur Park melee. One of the main tactical failures cited in the follow-up police report was that the rally’s mostly Spanish-speaking participants were given commands to disperse in English. 

Having language skills also helps solve crimes more effectively. When a victim or witness doesn’t speak English, valuable time is lost waiting for an interpreter rather than apprehending the suspect. While departments attempt to hire more bilingual officers and utilize telephone interpretation services to bridge the communication gap, in quickly developing situations even basic foreign language skills, like understanding descriptive terms and directions, can help. Oklahoma City Police Department Master Sergeant and Bilingual Coordinator Joanie Rupert (FOP Lodge #123), who has been teaching Academy recruits Spanish since 2007, says, “The officers that I train, especially the ones that work in a predominantly Hispanic area, use it almost daily for traffic citations, getting information from people, being able to obtain tag numbers, etc.” (Editor’s note: Click here for an in-depth interview with Joanie Rupert about Oklahoma City P.D.’s Spanish program and how officers benefit from learning another language.)  

Also, with outreach efforts and a focus on community policing utilizing bilingual officers, departments can gain the trust of residents who might otherwise fear police — vitally important for getting individuals to report crimes and provide information for investigations. 

Learning Options

Check out these schools for courses and degrees in the following languages:

Many departments now include language training, particularly Spanish, in their academies. If your department doesn’t offer it, however, there are many other ways to learn basic language skills that will help you on the job. 

The Department of Justice offers a free program for officers to learn Spanish, available online at http://espanolforlawenforcement.gov, with modules on interviews, crimes sciences, motor vehicles and domestic violence. This program is used by the Chicago Police Department to train its incoming officers. 

There are countless other language programs, many of them free, like Busuu, Duolingo and Livemocha, available on the Internet. Associated mobile learning features such as apps, podcasts and even Twitter lessons allow students to learn on the go at their own pace and have fun doing it. 

Community colleges offer an economical and convenient way to take foreign language classes for college credit or as continuing education in a more personal setting, and are often aimed at teaching practical usage for those who serve the community. If your city has a university, extension courses are a similar option. Many university extensions also offer online courses aimed at working adults regardless of location, another way to rack up degree credits. 

For those pursuing degrees, majoring or minoring in a foreign language can greatly increase your qualifications. Several NFOPU Consortium schools offer language studies. While Spanish has always been one of the most widely offered languages, depending on your interests and particular region, you may want to look into other languages. For example, with Asians now the fastest-growing immigrant population, officers with Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese skills are in high demand. 

Benefits for Officers 

Besides improving your contacts with the community and adding to the professionalism of your department, having advanced language skills can really pay off. Incentives vary, but specialist pay ranges from 3% to 5% of salary per year for officers with proficiency. Depending on your career goals, certain languages can practically guarantee a position with federal law enforcement and homeland security agencies, which offer signing bonuses and generous pay differentials. For example, the CIA language proficiency bonus ranges from $200 to $400 per month, with a hiring bonus of up to $35,000 for in-demand languages like Arabic. 

In addition, studies show that learning a foreign language actually improves your communication abilities, which are key to career success and transferability. Among other positive side effects, dual-language speakers demonstrate improved listening skills, working memory, mental calculation, reading, multitasking and attention capabilities. 

With so many potential benefits, and the opportunity to make an even greater impact in your community, it makes sense to look into learning some basic foreign language skills.

Watch for a future FOP Journal article regarding advanced language studies and the opportunities available for those with translator-level skills (and how to get them).


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