Defense Language Aptitude Battery

All About the DLAB

Man writing with a pen on a notepad
It is possible to prepare in some ways for the DLAB.. PeopleImages.com / Getty Images

There are several jobs in the military which require fluency in a foreign language. DOD uses two primary tests to determine whether or not someone can obtain one of these jobs.

The first test is the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT). This test is designed for individuals who are already fluent in a specific foreign language needed by the military. Quite simply, it tests the individual's current knowledge of a specific language.

The test results in a language proficiency rating of 0, 0+ 1, 1+, 2, 2+, or 3, with three being the highest. The newest version of the DLPT (version V) measures language ability on a scale of 0 through 5+, but it will be a few years before this version is available for all tested languages.

The version of the test commonly given at locations other than the Defense Language Institute measures only reading and listening ability.

However, most people trying to obtain a job which requires foreign language proficiency, are not currently fluent in a needed language. In that case, DOD uses the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (or DLAB) to measure one's aptitude to learn a foreign language.

Studying for the DLAB

Many people ask if one can study for the DLAB, or if there are any study guides available. The answers are "yes" and "no."

There are no commercial study guides available for the DLAB, and one cannot study for the DLAB in the traditional way, as the DLAB is designed to measure language-learning potential, not current knowledge.

While one cannot study specific practice questions for the DLAB, one can study grammar and English textbooks to ensure they have a solid grasp of English grammar before taking the test.

As a current Army Linguist puts it: "...in preparation for the DLAB, one can help themselves greatly by ensuring that they have a solid grasp of grammar and syntax in general. One who doesn't know what an adjective is will have serious problems with the DLAB."

According to individuals who have taken (and passed) the DLAB, one can improve their scores by:

  • Having a very clear understanding of English grammar. You will need to know all parts of speech and how they work. You may wish to get your hands on a good college level grammar textbook and study that for awhile before taking the test. Understand how English sentences are constructed (i.e. Subject-Verb-Object). Fooling around with this construction will help you on the DLAB.
  • Be able to recognize accentuation and stress patterns in words. Know where syllable breaks are in words.
  • Have some experience with a foreign language. If you want to be a Russian linguist, it is not necessary that you have experience with Russian. However, if you have some experience with a foreign language, it will help you to understand that different languages use sentence structures differently than English.
  • Be prepared to interpret instructions based on pictures. For example, a picture of a red car is presented with the word "ZEEZOOM". Next, a picture of a blue car is presented with the word "KEEZOOM". Next, a picture of a red bus is presented with the word "ZEEBOOM". You must be able to give the foreign word for a "blue bus".
  • You should also know that on the audio portion of the exam there is no repetition of the questions. Once an item is given there is a brief pause for you to answer and then the next question. Be prepared for this; if you think you can think your way into an answer on any given question you will miss the beginning of the next. This effect can snowball and probably leads to some people with good chances going south due to nerves. Listen carefully and go with your gut. Be ready for the next question.

Qualifying Scores

The DLAB consists of 126 multiple choice questions. Applicable service policies require that each candidate for attendance at the Defense Language Institute be a high school graduate. For admission to a Basic Language Program, the following minimum DLAB scores are required:

  • 85 for a Category I language (Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish)
  • 90 for a Category II language (German)
  • 95 for a Category III language (Belorussian, Czech, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbian/Croatian, Slovak, Tagalog [Filipino], Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese)
  • 100 for a Category IV language (Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean)

Individual services or agencies may demand higher qualifying scores, at their discretion. For example, the Air Force and Marine Corps require a minimum score of 100 on the DLAB for all languages, although the Marine Corps will waiver it to a 90 for Cat I and II languages. The Air Force is not currently approving waivers.

The highest possible score on the DLAB is 176.

Re-Tests

Individuals who fail to achieve a qualifying score on the DLAB can apply to re-test after six months. Requests for re-tests by individuals who have already made a minimum qualifying score are approved only based on documented military necessity, and must be approved by the appropriate commander (ie, recruiting squadron commander).

Taking the Test

The test is divided into two major segments (one audio and one visual).

Audio Segment: The first part of the audio segment tests your ability to recognize stress patterns in words. The narrator on the audio tape will pronounce four words. One of the words pronounced will have a different stress pattern. Your task is to indicate (on your answer sheet) the word which is stressed differently from the rest.

For example, the narrator would state "A - Navy......B - Army.......C - Burger......D - Replace, stressing the second syllable in the word, "Replace").

The next part of the audio segment begins to introduce rules to a modified English language (created for the sole purpose of the test). You may be told that the rules of this language consist of all nouns preceded by verbs, and nouns and verbs will always end in the same vowel sound. You would then translate a given English phrase into a phrase compatible with the modified language.

For example, you may be shown the phrase "The dog Runs," followed by four choices: A-"Runsie, The dogie;" B-"The dogie runsie;" C-"Runie the dogo;" D-"The dogo runa." Of course, "A" would be the correct answer because the verb precedes the noun and both end in the same vowel sound.

The test will then proceed over several sections, in each section adding a few more made-up rules, covering areas such as how to express possession, or how to express a noun acting on another noun with a verb.

The audio Segment finally climaxes by combining all of the introduced rules and presenting entire sentences or long phrases for your deciphering pleasure.

Jake took the DLAB and score a 138. He offers the following advice concerning the audio portion of the test:

A few times when the speaker was giving the answers I would hear the right one, but by the time he finished, I had forgotten which letter it was. It helped to put a little dot inside the one I thought was right as he was speaking. It also helped to close my eyes while he was reading and listen for keywords.

Visual Segment: The tape is turned off, and all of the rules you studied so hard for on the Audio Segment are no longer applicable. In the visual segment, you will be presented (in your test booklet) pictures combined with words or phrases that (hopefully) will give you -- after some contemplation -- a basic understanding of this gibberish on the test page.

For instance, on one page might have a picture of a parachute at the top. Underneath the parachute, there might be something like "paca." Then there might be a picture of a man. The man might be labeled "tanner." Then there might be a picture of a man parachuting which would read "tannerpaca." Then a picture of a man flying in an airplane which might read "tannerpaci."

From that, one can deduct a number of rules of the gibberish language, which you would then apply to the additional pictures on that page of the test booklet.

Unlike the first segment (audio), however, you will then turn the page on your test booklet to see a set of completely unrelated pictures, words, and rules.

This same pattern will be completed until the end of the test, at which time you may take a deep sigh of relief, then go home and punch your recruiter in the nose for telling you that the test was "easy."

(Disclaimer. Please do not really punch your recruiter in the nose, as -- in many cases -- this will delay your enlistment.)

GIUJOE, a member of a forum, took the DLAB and scored a 146. He offers the following advice:

Contrary to popular belief, you can study for the DLAB. I took... some books from the library and after one good night of studying and I pulled off a 146. The problem is that most native English speakers don't know and don't care much about English grammar. If you have a strong understanding of English grammar, how verbs work, how objects work, how adjectives and possessives work, you'll do fine.

You also need to be open to manipulating those rules. If I tell you that from now on, adjectives follow nouns, then it's not a 'blue dog' no matter how many times I say it, it's a 'dog blue.'

Another hard part for English speakers if finding stress in words. English usually has multiple stresses. Here's an easy tip to find stress. Remember in elementary school when you were studying syllables and the teacher had you knock on a desk for every syllable? Do that!

Let's do the word 'aptitude.' Say the word and knock on the desk. You should get three knocks: ap-ti-tude. Now, do it again and make the strength of your knock correspond to the strength of your voice. You'll find that the stress falls on the first syllable: AP-ti-tude. Do that on the test while the speaker speaks. If you're in a room with multiple people, don't do it on the desk just for politeness sake. Use your leg.

Fred, another individual who has taken the DLAB, offers the following advice:

DLAB is more than having a good understanding of the English language. It also helps if you can understand the dialect of other people. A good help is knowing letters pronounced in other languages. Even better is knowing other languages (Russian, German, Farsee, etc.)

Another point to learn before taking the test is that word order is a major factor. There will be parts of the test where they will say that there will be an ending for the noun(car(se)) and an ending for an adverb (yesterday(e)) but the noun has to come before the adverb and only in that order to be correct. The best way to come to the test is over prepared and relaxed.

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