How to improve your chances of being a spy (1)

NB In the modern age, intelligence services are recruiting at almost any age. You are never too old to be of use, in fact the older you are the better your personal cover story is likely to be. After all, if you have sent the past thirty years as, for example, a brain surgeon, that is perfect cover for travelling the world because that is exactly what you are. No-one will break your cover story! So, don’t think that you are too old to be recruited.

And these tips are applicable to ANY intelligence service, every service is looking for the same qualities in their spies. So whether it’s the Mossad, SVR, CIS, STB, DGSE, the CIA or any of the dozens of other services, these are the key skills you need to be thinking about. Here is the first:

1) Learn a Foreign Language

This seems obvious but there is more to it than simply being able to order a martini in a foreign country. The first reason that intelligence service recruiters like this skill is because it indicates that you have a certain flexibility of mind. To speak a foreign language well, you must, to some extent, immerse yourself in their culture, think the way that they think – and that takes three of the core espionage skills: discipline, empathy and creativity.

The second reason why recruitment officers like to see this skill is because it puts you one step closer to being operational. The reason that intelligence officers exist is to recruit sources (agents). You, as a spy, may not be able to walk into an enemy’s top secret nuclear facility – no matter how good your languages skills – but there is a chance that you could recruit someone working there, find their weakness or their desire and then use it. But to make that recruitment, you will almost certainly have to speak their language and speak it well. So, linguistic ability is a key tool.

A third reason that this skill is useful is because once you have learned one foreign language it is often the gateway to others: Spanish and Italian open the way to the romance languages, Arabic to Hebrew and dozens of local dialects, Russian to the languages of Eastern Europe, Japanese to Mandarin and so on. Most regional languages are connected in some way. Learn one and you are on an accelerated path to learning more.

But what if you cannot speak a foreign language? Is that the end of your hopes? Not at all. Every intelligence service in the world puts possible recruits through something called a Linguistic Aptitude Test (LAT). This varies slightly from place to place, but essentially this is an acoustic examination that tests your ability to replicate and distinguish a variety of sounds – the basis of language. Some of the tests will also give you a basic vocabulary in a language, play a recording of it and then ask you what information you have gleaned from what you have just heard. Some people are just naturally good at this. You might be one of them.

As to which languages you should learn, there are a few guidelines: if you do not speak English, start there. This is simply because it is the most widely spoken language in the world. Even if you are not in a country where English is the base language, there is a good chance that someone there speaks it. And the higher the education level of your recruitment target, the more likely they are to speak it as well.

Beyond that, there are a few guidelines. If you are European, look for a non-European language, especially Arabic or Mandarin or any of their sub-variables. The reverse applies if you are from Asia, Africa, the Middle East or some other area. Pick a European language first. Of those, French or Spanish have the advantage that there are widely spoken in Africa and South America respectively.

But if you don’t fancy that, then go for something slightly more obscure: Swahili, Hindi, Farsi, Vietnamese, whatever takes your fancy. There will always be an operation that requires one of these languages – sooner or later. And in the meantime you have all the benefits that speaking a foreign language brings (see above).

One final point: Above all, go for fluency. If you have an uncle that you see every day and who speaks Albanian then learn Albanian. It may not be the most widely spoken language in the world but this will be so much better than learning a language from a book or computer program. In the world of intelligence languages, fluency is the goal.


  1. Joe blogs

    Hello Mr Ferguson, I thought I recognised you! a quick facial recognition software confirmed it! Did you know there are lot of people on the internet trying to look for your 2004 BBC series ‘spy’ (and the 2017 remake for that matter) online, it seems to have been deleted apart from one episode on YouTube. I wonder if you know or can share why? I would also love to learn a bit on Op Kronstadt before I read your book if you have time for a tiktok synopsis?

    1. spyingtoday

      Hi Joe,

      Yes, the world’s most well-known former MI6 officer (thanks to the BBC.) I did not know that people were looking for recordings of “Spy.” My understanding is that the Service withdrew co-operation with the producers and the BBC because of the fallout from the Iraq War and that the BBC had been instructed to make it unavailable in future. I think that is why it is never repeated, even on cable television, and you can’t find it on You Tube etc. Perhaps I should lead a campaign to have it re-shown – I could do with the royalties in my old age!

      As for “Operation Kronstadt” I might put up a piece about it at some point but I don’t much like to “blow my own trumpet” as we say and there are plenty of other things to talk about at the moment. But thanks for the suggestion and I shall definitely put it on the list.

      All the best,


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