What is Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) testing? U.S. Army forms include a request to be administered a DLAB test. These forms describe the program as follows:
“The Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) evaluates the aptitude of a Soldier to learn a Foreign Language.” Not all troops need to learn another language as part of their military duty; those who do are often assigned to jobs in Intelligence, crypto, signals intelligence, data analysis, or work as foreign linguists.
Those who have an interest in languages and want to join the military to explore that interest will need to have a different conversation with an Air Force recruiter, Army recruiter, etc. than those who aren’t sure what they want to do as a military career.
Those who pass DLAB testing are then eligible to attend technical school, advanced training, etc. at the Defense Language Institute (DLI)–those who enter military career fields requiring language proficiency attend classes at DLI which serves as the central language training facility for the Department of Defense.
What do you need to know to decide whether a job requiring language skills is for you? Part of that decision making process involves taking the Defense Language Aptitude Battery test itself to see what kinds of skills are required.
What DLAB Testing Does
There are two kinds of foreign language testing military members are most likely to encounter while serving. One is DLAB–an examination that tests language skills, but does NOT require you to know a second language.
A different kind of language testing happens for service members after they have been tested, approved, and trained in a new language. Language Proficiency tests are administered on a regular basis for those drawing proficiency pay in another language.
Military linguists who have been trained in Mandarin, for example, and use Mandarin in their military work are retested to ensure they still have the appropriate level of proficiency required for the job and for the incentive pay. We are not covering that kind of testing here.
How DLAB Testing Is Different
The idea behind DLAB testing is that untrained and untested candidates are evaluated on their raw ability with language concepts. DLAB testing typically happens at the beginning of a military career, or at the beginning of a new military career for someone who is already serving in a different capacity.
This kind of testing is basically a screening process to find the best candidates with the right language abilities.
How The Defense Language Aptitude Battery Works
The first thing to know about DLAB is that timing is everything. If you want to take DLAB, make sure you have a test scheduled for you prior to going to basic training.
The going advice indicates that new recruits opting for DLAB tests should not let the recruiter schedule you to depart for the Military Entrance Processing Station to ship out to boot camp if you have not taken the test yet.
You should have a conversation about DLAB as early as possible with a recruiter–some may not be as familiar with the program and may need to do research on which forms to fill out, who to schedule testing with, etc.
Last-minute efforts to initiate this process are discouraged. Specialized testing and screening for unique military jobs requires more time than for recruits coming into the military without an assigned career field yet.
The Test Itself
Here’s the part about DLAB testing new recruits don’t know right away–the test itself is a bit of a secret. A few of those who have taken the test and write about their experiences indicate that it is “the weirdest test” some have taken; even military test admins have gone on record acknowledging the unusual nature of DLAB. Why is it so different?
An article about these tests on the Air Force official site quotes an Ellsworth Air Force Base Education Services Officer who says, “The DLAB tests consisting of a mock language designed to measure a person’s language-learning potential.”
A made-up language is just one of the challenges of this test; in spite of not needing to know any second language prior to test day, the scoring rules for DLAB can be quite unforgiving.
How much so? The Army standard for DLAB scores includes a requirement to score 95 or better on the initial test. Those who do not score 95 or better are welcome to retest again following a six-month waiting period. Retests are possible (up to two) but require the approval of the applicant’s chain of command.
Taking The Test
Past descriptions of Defense Language Aptitude Battery tests have included mention of a reading section of the test and a listening portion. Tests are always subject to review, but past descriptions of the DLAB test experience include mention of a 90-minute testing period administered online. There are also descriptions of the test featuring more than 120 questions
Earlier in this article we mentioned the need to discuss scheduling this test with your recruiter before you go to basic training. All recruits must take the ASVAB to enter military service, but not all are required to undergo DLAB tests and your recruiter must make a special effort to get the testing date you need.
If you have not taken the ASVAB at the time you’re considering these options, it’s crucial to ask your recruiter what ASVAB scores are required for you to enter a career field requiring DLAB tests.
If you don’t have the minimum required ASVAB scores or a waiver for your scores, you may not be permitted to take a job in certain fields. Discuss this with your recruiter.
The test itself is secret, but some limited descriptions of the testing experience reveal interesting details. One test-taker advises taking time to prep for the audio version of the test by practicing listening skills–especially for the pitch and tone of people’s voices.
Some new recruits don’t realize that some foreign languages don’t work like western versions do; “tone languages” place an emphasis on the rise and fall of the voice in the same way as the actual consonants and vowels. Listening for the “music” of the human voice seems to be an important study tip for the “listening” portion of the exam.
The same sources say understanding basic grammar and sentence construction is also quite helpful. The ability to visualize words as they are spoken also seems to be useful. But you don’t have to rely on third-party word-of-mouth hints about the testing experience.
Even though the test itself is secret, there are published study guides for DLAB testing that may be incredibly helpful for those who just don’t know what to expect in spite of the information floating around online.
DLAB Study Guides
How do you study for a language test featuring one somebody made up? There are a variety of study guides including:
- The Official DLAB Training Manual: Study Guide and Practice Test: The Best Tips and Tricks to Raising Your DLAB Score by Robert J. Cunnings
- The Complete DLAB Study Guide: Includes Practice Test and Pretest Kindle Edition by William Patton
- DLAB Study Guide by Greg Boban
These guides feature practice tests, pretests, and advice about DLAB.
Let The Test-Taker Beware
The only problem is that your online research for these books turns up lots of them written in 2014 or before–contemporary study guides may or may not be available, and its best to use one of the older guides as a general information source with the understanding that in the years since these guides were written there have likely been many program changes to both the agency administering the tests and the exam itself.
Some report turning to YouTube to find videos addressing DLAB prep but the same rules apply–assume these are for general purposes only and ask your recruiter if there is a test prep guide that may serve as a more up-to-date guide when you are ready to explore the option.
Cross-Training Into A Language Specialty
All of the information in this article has assumed that a potential applicant for DLAB testing is a new recruit. Those who are already serving have the opportunity to apply for cross-training into language specialties. In these cases DLAB and attendance of the appropriate training courses at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California would be appropriate for those approved to do so.
If you are interested in cross-training into a military career field that requires language skills and training, talk to your command support staff, personnel flight, unit orderly room, or Detailer about what is currently required by your branch of service to do so.
Not all can cross-train. If you are currently working in a critically staffed career field you may need a waiver or be applying to an even more mission-critical job than the one you currently hold.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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