DLAB And DLPT: Military Language Testing (And Pay) Explained

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DLAB And DLPT: Military Language Testing (And Pay) Explained

What are DLPT and DLAB, and what’s the difference between them both?

Today I’ll break it down for you in simple terms.

When it comes to assessing language skills, the military has it down to a science.

Two tools used to measure language skills are the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) and the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB). I’ll explain what these tests are (the difference between the two) and the pay benefits they bring.

Table Of Contents:

  1. DLPT vs. DLAB (in a nutshell)
  2. Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT)
    1. How the DLPT works
  3. Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB)
    1. How the DLAB works
  4. Where to take the DLPT/DLAB
  5. Benefits of taking the DLPT and DLAB
    1. Qualifying for specific roles
    2. Salary (US Military)
  6. Australian Defence Force language allowances
  7. Conclusion

DLPT vs. DLAB

The DLPT and DLAB serve entirely different purposes. Developed by the Defense Language Institute (DLI), the tests differ as follows:

  • The DLPT measures one’s proficiency in a specific foreign language
  • The DLAB measures one’s ability to learn foreign languages

Think of DLPT as a military equivalent of CEFR (European languages), JLPT (Japanese), HSK (Chinese) and so on.

The defense language tests are generally used by the US Department of Defense and administered to native English-speaking military personnel. However, because of their unique attributes, other agencies and countries occasionally use the tests as well, for various purposes.

Australia is one country that uses DLAB, and I’ve shared my personal experience taking the test in a previous post.

Defense Language Proficiency Test

The military uses the DLPT for two main reasons.

The first is to ensure that personnel working within linguistics career fields are qualified and current on their skills.

In the US Army, this enlisted career field is called Cryptologic Linguist. The Air Force calls them Cryptologic Language Analysts, while the Navy uses the term Cryptologic Technician Interpretive.

The second use of the DLPT is to test speakers of other languages who aren’t working in a linguistics career field.

Such persons can serve in an auxiliary capacity to fill gaps when needed. In other words, they hold a primary job but may occasionally get tapped to perform linguistics work, too.

Members who obtain a satisfactory DLPT score are eligible to receive incentive Foreign Language Proficiency Pay (FLPP).

How the DLPT works

Per DLI’s Foreign Language Center, the DLPT’s most current version is the DLPT5.

This web-based test is 3 hours long and utilizes audio and written components to test one’s listening and reading abilities.

Test takers wear headphones for the audio portions, listen to snippets of audio recordings such as news or conversations, and answer questions based on their comprehension of what they heard.

The written part requires reading long passages of various content types, then answering questions related to the text.

Some questions are multiple-choice while others require constructed-response test responses (meaning the answer must be written out).

Certain languages are rated as more difficult than others.

For scoring, the DoD defers to Interagency Language Roundtable guidelines. Proficiency scores are assigned to both the listening and reading portions. Scores can range from 0+ to 3 for lower-range (i.e., “easier”) languages or up to 4 on upper-range (more difficult) languages.

To ensure currency, linguists take the DLPT every year.

Defense Language Aptitude Battery

The DLAB tests how well a person could theoretically learn foreign languages.

It actually has nothing to do with any specific language.

Instead, the DLAB uses various constructed languages to see if the test taker can determine functional grammar and usage rules. In short, it tests what’s called your “metalinguistic awareness”.

This test is based on the idea that some people have more latent ability in this area than others or that their life experiences predisposed them to be good with languages. That said, with exposure to foreign language-learning concepts, most people can increase their score on the DLAB.

The military administers the DLAB when a person desires to qualify for training in a linguist career field.

This applies to new military entrants as well as those already in the service who are looking to retrain.

Generally, unless one is already fluent in a language that the military needs linguists for, they may not always get to choose which language they’ll be asked to learn.

The DLAB helps the military determine the level of language difficulty one could expect to excel in, based on their scores.

How the DLAB works

The DLAB is a web-based exam featuring 126 multiple-choice questions spread across six sections. The first five are audio, and the test taker wears headphones to listen to prompts and mark their answers. The sixth section is visual only, with some questions featuring scenarios that the test taker must complete.

As mentioned, the test doesn’t use real languages; it uses bits of fake languages, which the test taker has to decipher in some manner (depending on the type of question).

For example, a question might start by saying that, in the target language, the word “dheb” means “book.”

It then notes that to make a word feminine, the suffix “-a” must be added. Meanwhile, to form a possessed noun, one must add the suffix “-la.”

After this information is presented, the test offers multiple choice answers to a question such as: “Which word refers to ‘her book?’”

(The answer: “dhebala.”)

Languages fall under four different categories of difficulty.

Each has a minimum passing DLAB score associated with it. Thus, in order to train into a specific language, the test taker must achieve a specific DLAB result to qualify. For instance, a score of 85 is needed for Category I languages like French or Italian.

A score of 100 is needed for Category IV languages such as Arabic or Chinese.

Where to take the DLPT/DLAB

For those seeking entry into a military branch, a recruiter can guide you on taking applicable tests to qualify for a linguist job.

To be eligible for a guaranteed job, tests must be taken and scores received before a candidate leaves for their entrance physical exam at a Military Entrance Processing Station.

For those in the service who wish to retrain as a linguist or qualify for Foreign Language Proficiency Pay, the military personnel section can schedule these exams locally.

They are typically done at a proctored testing facility on-base, where test takers can access the necessary materials and be monitored.

💵 Benefits of taking the DLPT and DLAB

Qualifying for specific roles

The main benefit of taking either test is, of course, to qualify for a particular job.

Depending on the position desired, one must either prove they are proficient in a specific language or are capable of learning a foreign language. Military linguist training schools are notoriously difficult and have high washout rates.

That is why candidates are required to demonstrate their abilities before attendance.

Those with sufficiently high scores in a foreign language may not be required to attend Defense Language Institute courses.

Instead, they may proceed directly to the technical training portion where they’ll learn specific duties such as how to operate applicable equipment.

However, many accepted students are required to take at least several weeks, if not months, of immersive language training at a DLI center to ensure 100% preparedness for their pending jobs.

Salary

It should go without saying that the other nice benefit of scoring well on the DLPT is the extra pay.

FLPP rates vary depending on your score and on the language itself (languages on the Strategic Language List are considered more critical; thus it pays extra to know them).

Generally, FLPP ranges from $100 up to $500 a month, per language.

This means that people who are proficient in multiple foreign languages may qualify for multiple FLPP payments (up to $1,000 per month).

Here are the current languages on the DoD SLL (subject to change obviously):

IMMEDIATE INVESTMENT (highest demand & highest paid)EMERGING LANGUAGES (rising demand)ENDURING LANGUAGES (important)
Levantine ArabicAcholi (spoken in parts of Sudan and Uganda)Moroccan Arabic
Yemeni ArabicAmharicAlgerian Arabic
Balochi (Iranian language)AzerbaijaniTunisian Arabic
PushtuBengaliLibyan Arabic
DariBurmeseEgyptian Arabic
FarsiHindiSudanese Arabic
SomaliKirghizSaudi Arabic
UrduPunjabi (Western)Lebanese Arabic
TadjikJordanian Arabic
UzbekIraqi Arabic
Mandarin Chinese
Korean
Russian

The Defense Finance and Accounting website lists current payment rates, as outlined in DoD FMR Vol. 7A, Chapter 19.

I’ve made a simplified table that explains monthly salary bonuses a little clearer:

Reading, Listening and Speaking proficiency level combinations*Immediate / Emerging languages and dialects salaryEnduring languages and dialects salaryAll other languages (not on DoD SLL) salary
1 / 1$100$0-100$0-100
1+ / 1+$150$0-150$0-150
2 / 2$200$0-200$0-200
2 / 2+$250$0-250$0-250
2+ / 2+ or 2 / 3$300$0-300$0-300
2+ / 3$350$0-350$0-350
3 / 3$400$0-400$0-400
3 / 3 / 3 or 4 / 4$500$0-500$0-500

*The numbers here represent levels, with 1 being the lowest. So “1/1” could be, for example, Speaking Level 1/Reading Level 1, whereas 3/3/3 would be Speaking Level 3, Reading Level 3, Listening Level 3.

DFAS offers a few provisos that are really important.

They’re not easy to understand so I’ll simplify some of the important ones for you:

1. The table doesn’t show all possible proficiency combinations.

In some cases, you might have a proficiency level that “falls between” two levels. In this case, you’re paid at the lower rate.

2. Some languages don’t have all modalities/skills.

What this means is that some languages may not have an official writing system (e.g. Arabic dialects), so “Reading” isn’t an option. In this case, they’ll test your Modern Standard Arabic reading level instead and count that.

However, they still may only pay you for one level (they’ll make that determination).

3. If you’re getting Cat A pay for one language, they may only pay you Cat B pay for additional languages.

It’s entirely at their discretion.

Australian Defence Force language allowances

I thought it’d be good to briefly include language pay allowances for Australian defence force personnel as well (for reference or comparison).

The ADF places a higher value on South-East Asian languages (for obvious reasons). It also places desired languages in 3 distinct categories of “difficulty” (3 being supposedly the most challenging).

Group 1Group 2Group 3
FijianBurmeseArabic
FrenchFarsiChinese
GermanIndonesianJapanese
ItalianKhmerKorean
JavaneseMalay
PortugesePashtu
SpanishRussian
TagalogThai
Tetum (Timor)Urdu
Vietnamese

The annual pay allowances in AUD are as follows:

Low ProficiencyIntermediate ProficiencyAdvanced ProficiencyInterpreter Proficiency
Group 1$1,178$2,358$3,537$4,719
Group 2$1,770$3,537$5,897$8,244
Group 3$2,358$4,719$8,244$11,780
Other languages$1,178

Conclusion

I hope that clears up the difference between DLPT and DLAB, and the benefits these tests can bring to your US defense career.

I’ve included the ADF data as a point of comparison (and also because it’s the one I have personal experience applying for). I’ve sat for and passed DLAB when applying for an Air Force role as an Arabic translator.

In my case, a very small handful of a large group of people were successful.

DLAB isn’t exactly something you can study for (it’s an aptitude test after all), but there is a popular guide by Robert Cunnings that may help you prepare.


Do you have personal experience taking DLPT or DLAB?

Share it in the comment section below.

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic

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Mark McHugh

I was at the MEPS in St Louis back in '82 when i first took the DLAB. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I joined the Army, so said "yes" when asked about taking the test. I was a testing nerd and the DoD knew about my Spanish and German from my previous application for a Naval ROTC scholarship.

They herded the handful of us into a classroom and gave us test books. The proctor explained about the constructed languages. The test then was a mix of audio questions and book work with various linguistic concepts like noun declension/cases, aspect, etc. I remember one audio question asked us to choose the word that was accented differently from the other three.

I got a score that impressed the intake people and was given a list of languages and the bonuses paid after graduating DLI. I chose Russian out of curiosity and concern about the Cold War situation that was heating up. At the time the need for Russian linguists was so great that the DoD opened a second Foreign Language Center just for Russian at the DLI English Language Center at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. At the time they were teaching foreign officers English and US Air Force personnel basic grammar and military terminology as prep before entering DLI. I was in the third class of that new school, RU0183. We soldiers were an oddity on an AFB, but we had a good time with that. ;)

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein