ILR Interagency Language Roundtable
About the ILR

The Interagency Language Roundtable

The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) is an unfunded Federal interagency organization established for the coordination and sharing of information about language-related activities at the Federal level. It serves as the premier way for departments and agencies of the Federal government to keep abreast of the progress and implementation of techniques and technology for language learning, language use, language testing and other language-related activities. Participation in the ILR provides organizations and individuals with: (1) an assured channel of communication and cooperation among agencies that have common interests in foreign language training and testing; (2) a centralized forum for the dissemination of language-related information across the government; and (3) a working network for the mutual sharing of ideas, information and language resources among organizations in government, the academic community, and the private sector. Participants meet every month from September to June to attend plenary presentations by an ILR organization or guest speakers, to discuss common interests in topic-specific committees and special interest groups and to network with professional colleagues. Attendance at ILR meetings is open to any interested individual, government or civilian.

The rationale for what was to become the ILR arose through discussions in 1955 among Howard Sollenberger of the Foreign Service Institute, Clyde Sargent of the CIA Training Division, and James R. Frith, then with the Air Force Language Program and later Dean of FSI’s School of Language Studies, all of whom recognized the need for better coordination and communication in language training and testing among federal agencies. Subsequent meetings included representatives of the local academic community, as well, including Charles Ferguson, then Director of the Center for Applied Linguistics. The ILR continued on a very informal basis until 1973, when a study by the General Accounting Office recognized its value and recommended that it be formally institutionalized.

Since then, the ILR has evolved into its present loosely coordinated network of Federal, academic and NGO language specialists and managers who share a common goal of improving the nation's capacity to learn, teach and effectively use foreign languages in the national interests. Meetings are held in the Washington DC metropolitan area, where the majority of the attendees work. However, several frequent attendees fly in from institutions as far away as the West Coast and Canada. Wherever each participant is from, he or she brings to the ILR a unique perspective on the human skills and technology needed to advance the common service within their own organization. ILR participants find numerous opportunities for sharing information, materials, and expertise across organizational lines in ways that benefit their own agency and the broader ILR constituency. Sharing takes place in committee meetings that precede the plenary sessions, where participants may raise issues of need or concern, or news of an acquisition or accomplishment that may be shared with other organizations.

The ILR plenary meetings are typically attended by from 75 to 100 individuals, representing more than thirty federal agencies and several academic institutions and Non-Governmental organizations. Each plenary features one or more presentations on topics of broad interest within the community. Recent plenaries have been on such topics as language policy in the government, testing high-level speakers, best training practices, analysis of language needs of USG offices, translation standards and distance education and other applications of educational technology. Immediately prior to the plenary sessions, open meetings are held of three standing ILR committees: the Testing Committee, the Language Training Committee and the Committee on Translation and Interpretation. There is also an ILR Steering Committee. The functions of these ILR units are as follows:

ILR Steering Committee consists of the ILR Coordinator, the chairs of each of the standing committees and interest groups, and representatives from the Peace Corps, the National Cryptologic School, the Intelligence Language Institute, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and language-related offices in the Departments of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and Education. The committee is responsible for establishing priorities and planning ILR activities.

Language Testing Committee discusses and shares information and research related to language proficiency testing and performance testing in federal agencies. One major task of this committee is the review and, where necessary, recommendations for revision of the ILR Language Proficiency Skill Level Descriptions. Other interests include the training of effective language testers and the use of technology in testing.

Language Training Committee deals with all aspects of language learning and teaching, including teacher development and training. One of the primary interests of this committee is the use of technology for independent language learning, for distance learning, for language maintenance and for teacher development. Recent interests of this committee have included conversion training (e.g., from L2 to L3 or L4), the teaching of listening comprehension, and the teaching of Heritage language learners.

Translation and Interpretation Committee began meeting in 1999 in response to a widespread interest across the ILR membership in issues related to effective translation and interpretation. Special interests include the appropriate use of machine translation, the evaluation of translation or interpretation ability, and the training and certification of skilled translators and interpreters. Together with the Testing Committee, this committee recently disseminated publicly a draft set of guidelines for assessing translation skill.

In addition to these standing committees, the ILR also currently hosts two Special Interest Groups—a task group to support the national Year of Languages in 2005, and a working group to provide the perspectives of working government linguists and language specialists to the researchers at the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland.
The ILR has no operating budget and relies solely on the cooperative and collaborative spirit of the participating organizations to provide their employees the opportunity to attend ILR meetings and to participate in any task groups initiated at those meetings. Committee and Interest Group chairs spend additional duty and personal time as necessary to perform the liaison and coordination necessary to achieve informative and productive meetings. Projects of primary interest to a single agency are typically funded and carried out by that agency. However, projects having wider applicability may be supported by the pooled resources of several agencies, usually through interagency agreements. Much of the effectiveness of the ILR can be attributed to the longstanding practice of interagency cooperation to accomplish tasks of mutual benefit to the agencies.

Despite its informal status, the ILR has made notable contributions to the language teaching and testing fields from its inception in the 1950's to the present. These include:

  • The refinement and official establishment of federal government-wide Language Proficiency Skill Level Descriptions on a 0 to 5 scale for foreign language Speaking, Reading, Listening and Writing. Adapted from descriptions originally developed for the State Department in the late 1950’s, the “ILR Proficiency Level Descriptions” have influenced the evaluation of foreign language proficiency in the United States and internationally;

  • The development in 2005-06 of new ILR Translation Performance Skill Level Descriptions that are modeled after the Proficiency Skill Level Descriptions;

  • The development in 2006 of provisional ILR Interpretation Performance Skill Level Descriptions that are modeled after the Translation Performance Skill Level Descriptions and that are to be formally approved in 2007;

  • The conduct of a research project through a contract with the Center for Applied Linguistics to compare language proficiency test results among three federal agencies;

  • The development of a widely-used interagency training manual for oral proficiency testing candidates;

  • The sharing among government agencies and academia of materials in a variety of media for foreign language training and testing and for language teacher training and development;

  • The hosting in 2003 and in 2005 of public Showcases of Language Learning and Language Use in the Federal Government, including participation from scholars and practitioners in government, academia, K-12, and others;

  • Co-sponsorship with the National Virtual Translation Center of the “Languages of the World” website

  • Co-sponsorship with the American Translator’s Association and other professional associations of the 2007 Translation Summit;

  • Sponsorship with the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland and the American Translator’s Association of a 2000 study on Translating and Interpreting in the Federal Government.

  • The maintenance of an ILR website ( and an email distribution list for the dissemination and sharing of information about language-related activities, instructional materials, events, policies and writings to interested individuals in all public sectors. Instructions for how to join the email list are found on the webpage.

Numerous activities have been conducted in recent years to highlight the critical national need for high-level language ability and to provide guidance on acquiring a language to those levels.

Any individual with a professional interest in foreign language learning, teaching, and use will find a warm welcome from the ILR. The best ways to learn about ILR events are to check the ILR website and to join the ILR email list.

Copyright 2007 Interagency Language Roundtable