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What language should I learn for CIA?

As an aspiring Intelligence Analyst looking to work for the CIA, learning a foreign language can give you a competitive edge. The CIA values multilingual skills since they enable analysts to review intelligence in the original language, conduct interviews without interpreters, and understand the cultural context of the regions they cover. When deciding what language to learn, there are several key factors to consider based on your interests and the CIA’s needs.

Languages Most in Demand at the CIA

The CIA employs linguists in over 120 languages, but some are more sought-after than others due to current geopolitical priorities. Here are the languages consistently in high demand:

  • Arabic – Spoken in the Middle East and North Africa, Arabic is a top priority due to terrorism and security threats in the region.
  • Mandarin Chinese – Understanding China is critical as it grows into a global superpower. Mandarin is the most widely spoken dialect.
  • Russian – Crucial for monitoring Russia’s influence campaigns and analyzing Moscow’s strategic intentions.
  • Korean – Necessary for gathering intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear program and other security issues on the Korean peninsula.
  • Persian Farsi – Important for understanding Iran’s society and political dynamics that impact the Middle East.

Additionally, the CIA looks for skills in less commonly taught languages like Burmese, Turkish, Swahili, and Indonesian depending on evolving priorities.

Critical Languages vs. Strategic Languages

The CIA designates certain languages as “critical” based on their difficulty and how understudied they are in the US. Speaking a critical language distinguishes you as an analyst. Examples of critical languages include Arabic, Mandarin, Korean, Russian and Persian Farsi. Don’t rule out “strategic languages” either – those spoken more widely but still vital for security reasons, such as Spanish, French and Hindi.

Heritage Speakers

If you already speak a language at home, highlight and enhance this skill. Heritage speakers who become fully proficient can provide unique cultural insights alongside language abilities. For example, an analyst from a Korean-American background who learns higher-level Korean will have an edge working intelligence issues on the Korean peninsula.

Language Difficulty Considerations

Certain languages pose more learning challenges for native English speakers. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) ranks languages by difficulty based on hours typically required to reach proficiency:

Language Difficulty Languages Hours Required
Category I Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish 23-24 weeks (575-600 class hours)
Category II German, Hindi, Russian, Persian Farsi 30 weeks (750 class hours)
Category III Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean 88 weeks (2200 class hours)
Category IV Finnish, Georgian, Hungarian, Mongolian, Turkish, Vietnamese 44 weeks (1100 class hours)
Category V Burmese, Khmer, Thai 88+ weeks (2200+ class hours)

While harder languages take longer to master, they are often more in demand. With sufficient immersion and practice, native English speakers can attain professional working proficiency even in very challenging languages like Mandarin.

Your Interests

When choosing a language, also consider your personal and professional interests. Analysts focused on a specific region often learn the main corresponding language(s). For example:

  • Middle East – Arabic
  • China/Taiwan – Mandarin
  • Korea/North Korea – Korean
  • Russia/Eastern Europe – Russian
  • South Asia – Hindi, Urdu
  • Southeast Asia – Indonesian, Vietnamese, Burmese

Learning languages tied to your interests makes the process more motivating and rewarding.

Start Early

It takes years to achieve professional fluency, so begin language learning as early as possible. Those starting in high school or as undergraduates will have an edge. Immersion through study abroad, international internships, or volunteer programs accelerates proficiency. Follow up classroom study with consistent conversational practice and media consumption in your target language.

Earning the Eta Kappa Nu Certification

After becoming conversant in a language, CIA analysts can take an oral proficiency interview to earn certification through Eta Kappa Nu, the CIA’s language honor society. Certification levels include 0 (elementary), 1 (limited working), 2 (general professional), 3 (advanced professional), 4 (fully fluent), and 5 (educated native). Reaching level 2 or higher in a mission-critical language is a significant asset for CIA employment and assignments.

Continuous Development

Language skills must remain sharp through regular use. CIA analysts have opportunities to take immersion courses annually and pursue advanced certification. Some even reach level 5, equivalent to an educated native speaker. Lifelong language learning is part of the culture at the CIA.


Whether starting as a novice or with existing language abilities, focus on languages the CIA critically needs – especially Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Farsi. Heritage speakers of these and other important tongues can utilize their skills. Consider the time commitment required based on language difficulty. Most importantly, choose a language aligned with your personal and professional interests to stay motivated. Start early and continuously develop your skills through immersion, conversation partners, media, and Agency training opportunities. Language expertise will serve you well in a CIA analysis career.