The Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) is the test the US military gives to aspiring translators. It measures one’s aptitude for learning foreign languages. The theory goes that the higher you score, the greater your ability to succeed at language school and become a successful military linguist.
Back in the 1990s, when I was 17, I took the test and scored a 123, which was enough to qualify me for any language taught by the military. I’m not entirely convinced the test accurately measures aptitude, but that’s kind of irrelevant. The test is a requirement to get into certain jobs and programs, so if you’re slated to take the test, it’s important to do well.
Unfortunately, there’s no official DLAB study guide. (There is an unofficial guide on Amazon, but I’ve never used it, so I have no idea how good it is.) The DLAB is notoriously difficult to prepare for, but there are some things you can do.
Please note: You don’t have to use all the tips in this article, but doing even a few should help immensely. Also, in 2009 the test became computer based, and I took a previous version. From what I understand, though, the DLAB’s basic conceit is the same.
1. Study English grammar
During the DLAB, you will basically be taught a fictional language (or if I remember correctly, a couple fictional languages). You will be asked to spot patterns and then produce words, phrases, and sentences.
You’re basically learning a new grammar, so it helps to understand basic grammatical concepts. I’m not talking about tricky stuff. I’m talking about the easy stuff, like the difference between nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions.
Since the concepts are the basics that you as an advanced English speaker tend to overlook, you might benefit from reading a book that teaches English grammar to non-English speakers. Those really break English down to its most basic components.
2. Improve your working memory
Neuroscientists have identified two general types of memory: the working memory and long-term memory. (That’s a gross simplification, but good enough for our purposes.)
The working memory is where you store information temporarily and then manipulate it – like when you remember a string of numbers temporarily to perform a math problem. That’s the memory system that is being taxed during the test. I remember taking the test and having trouble keeping track of all the rules and instructions. They throw a lot at you.
Many researchers believe that working memory can be trained and improved. Check out some free memory workouts at http://www.memorise.org/memory-gym.
3. Study a foreign language
The DLAB isn’t a test of foreign language knowledge, so you don’t get any bonus points for speaking a second language.
Still, there’s benefit in studying a foreign language to prepare for the test. If you’ve studied, say, Spanish, then you’re familiar with conjugating verbs, handling possession (it’s not just adding an apostrophe and s, as in English), dealing with masculine and feminine words, and on and on. You get used to navigating in a completely different set of code and rules.
If you go into the DLAB having never dealt with a foreign language at all, I believe you’re at a disadvantage. Going through even some beginner lessons in a foreign language would help a lot. [Update: If you’re looking for a place to start, check out my 125-page ebook Language Master Key: How to Unlock Your Brain’s Ability to Learn Any Language. You can read about it here.]
4. Play LSAT logic games
One way of looking at the DLAB is as a series of language logic puzzles. The test definitely taxes your analytic thinking.
Brushing up on logic puzzles would be helpful. A couple things to remember, though. I don’t think visual or spatial logic puzzles would be much help here; the DLAB has pictures, but the logic takes place textually. Also, traditional logic puzzles in magazines are long, complex, and convoluted, while the questions in the DLAB are short and sweet.
Your best source of logic puzzles are the logic games in LSAT prep materials. The LSAT is the test that aspiring law students take, and it contains a logic component.
There are plenty online, but you can get a taste here: http://www.griffonprep.com/logicgame.html.
5. Complete Princeton’s linguistic puzzles
If you don’t do anything else, I recommend that you go through the linguistic puzzles put out by Princeton University, available at http://lingclub.mycpanel.princeton.edu/challenge/puzzles.php.
The challenges of working through these puzzles is similar to (but not exactly like) what you’ll see on the DLAB. Also, a lot of the languages covered on that page have unconventional grammar, so you’ll see a spectrum of language styles.
The DLAB is definitely a tricky test. I took the test with 15 other people, and that day I was the only one to pass. During the exam, a guy yelled out, “If this is what the job is going to be like, they can have it!”
But I’ve also met many, many people who passed the test fine. DLAB success is very possible. Try the tips above, get a good night’s sleep before the test, and during the test try your best to relax.
And when you pass and end up going to DLI or another language school, be sure to check back in at my website for more language learning tips.
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