So you want to learn a language?

The Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) is quite possibly one of the most unusual tests in the military. The test is designed to measure your ability to learn languages. The test, however, does not test your ability with a real language…no that would be too easy! The DLAB makes use of a fictional language to test your ability to quickly understand and apply the rules of any language. The purpose behind this testing methodology is to determine how well military students will perform at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Students selected to learn a language for the military are put through short, intense courses on their selected language which creates a high rate of attrition. The test is manageable though if you prepare for it and that is what we’ll be discussing next.

DLAB Organization

The DLAB is a 126 question test conducted on a computer and with headphones. The test use to be accomplished through cassette tape, however this changed in 2009. It’s about time it caught up with the times! The test consists of two sections, listening and reading. Let’s examine the listening section first.

Listening - quick ears and a grammar teacher's knowledge

The listening section is 80 minutes long and is arguably the most difficult portion of the test for many reasons. First, it’s long. Eighty minutes is a long time to try to learn, understand and apply the rules of a fictional language. Second, as I mentioned it is a fictional language and if you try to make sense of the organization of the letters you’re just going to make it much harder on yourself. Your goal for this section is to understand the grammar rules as they are presented, and apply them correctly as the test progresses. An important point to understand is the fictional grammar rules compound, so do not “brain dump” a rule once a new one is presented. Additionally, questions in this section are only presented once. Ensure your ears are tuned in to the speaker and work hard not to fall behind.

Reading - Picture time?

The reading section is 25 minutes long and is a little misleading. This portion of the test requires you to look at pictures and the phrases with them and then apply them to select the correct answer. For example, you may see a picture with two pencils with a phrase and another picture with three books and a phrase. Then the question may present a picture of three chairs and ask you to select the correct phrase. Again, this is still in the fictional language and requires a good understanding of how phrases can be constructed. Since we have gone over the makeup of the test, let’s talk about how to study for it.


Now we will delve into the core of this topic, preparing for the test. There are a variety of steps you can take to provide yourself the best chance possible to score highly. We’ll start with the most difficult step of all, relearning high school grammar.

Relearning English all over again

The single biggest key to successfully taking the DLAB is your understanding and ability to manipulate grammar. If you cannot point out a verb, preposition, adjective or object in and English sentence, then you are going to have a difficult time doing so in a fictional language. I highly recommend finding a great grammar book and refreshing yourself on your high school grammar rules. Make your English teacher proud!

Listen to other languages

If you already know another language, great! Now listen to one you don’t know! Find any language and attempt to identify where the stresses and accents are. Your ability to identify these key aspects of a language will definitely help you differentiate between the answers you’re provided. Youtube is a great resource for listening to other languages. Find a few videos, close your eyes and listen to the speakers as they educate you on Russian punk rock or Romanian poetry. Get your ears use to hearing something you don’t understand.

Commercial programs/guides

The number of test taking guides and programs for the DLAB and other military tests recently exploded and there are many options. If you are someone who likes to see the test before you take it, then I highly recommend you invest in one of these guides. You can find them for $15 or less in a variety of places on the web and they will be well worth your time.

Get the test taking basics right

Get lots of sleep! Your brain is probably going to be fried after taking the DLAB, so ensure you get enough sleep the night before. Also, when you pick your spot in the room, ensure you are free from visual distractions. If you can’t get away from a busy window or are near the door, close your eyes and concentrate when you listen to the question. Do whatever you need to focus your concentration. Lastly, when you sit down for the listening portion, ensure your headphones are on comfortably and you can hear well. You only get one shot at these questions, so ensure your ears are turned on and ready to listen. 

The DLAB - tough but attainable

The DLAB is a difficult test. With a planned approach and just a little effort, you should increase your chances of scoring well and having a wider variety of language opportunities. If you do not get the score you hoped for do not fret. You can retake it in six months which is plenty of time to study and ace it the next time around!

DLAB Study Guide
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A perfect study guide for the DLAB:

- Sample questions that are very similar to the test
- Actual rules from each test section
- Sample questions that demonstrate logic
- Tips on how to eliminate incorrect answers
- Exercises for your preparation