5 Ways to Study for the DLAB

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.

Military students studying Korean.

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.

Wrapping Up

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.

Good luck!


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  • Clayton Luce

    Thank you very much for creating and maintaining this website. I just took the DLAB yesterday and earned a score of 145! I completed some of the Princeton linguistic puzzles and I think they really helped.
    I hope that you can continue to post great new content regularly.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Wow!! Thank you soooo much for the note, and congratulations on a monster score. I’m glad the Princeton puzzles helped, and it sounds like you have a ton of raw language talent. When you get to your program, show up, do your homework, and stay out of trouble (haha) and you’ll have absolutely no problems in your course. Also, a bonus tip: a half hour of passive/free listening to your new language in addition to class work will do wonders for acquisition/long-term retention. Awesome job and good luck!!!

      • Clayton Luce

        Great, thanks for the bonus tip.

  • Harley

    Thanks so much for this massively helpful article (and website)! I’m considering joining the army and (hopefully, if I pass the DLAB) being a 35P. Having something to at least give me an idea of what I’m doing actually makes me really excited to see what I can do.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, I’m glad the article helped. DLI’s a fun place and learning a new language on the Army’s dime is pretty awesome. Let me know how the DLAB goes for you, please!

  • The Real Deal

    The Princeton Linguistic Puzzles are so confusing. I can’t even complete the most basic one… and why the heck do they not give out the answers?? I want to know the answers so I can actually study for it! I think that site is flawed because I know for sure I got the translations correct but it shows up as wrong. I have no idea why..

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I’d say just keep trying. I haven’t seen any blatant errors in the puzzles (but there might have been some I’ve missed). You can also try this book, which I haven’t tried but I’ve heard good things about: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00HUC6RT4/

  • Teannah

    Oh my, I could complete the green circle puzzles but I couldn’t do the first blue square activity. I really want to be a linguist but I’m scared I won’t be able to pass the DLAB because I can’t even do a simple word puzzle. Do you think I should aim for a new career?

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, don’t psych yourself out! You should at least take the test before you give up hope. The puzzles should give you a general idea of what kind of thinking you have to do; your results don’t correlate 100% (or even at all) with how you’ll do on the actual test. Also. practice with those puzzles. I really do think you can get better with practice.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Did you take the test?

  • Vanessa Murillo

    Thank you so much for the links and advice it was much needed! I take the DLAB this coming Monday to hopefully become a crypto linguist for the Army! Everyone tells me how hard it is and I am more than up for the challenge and to prove I have what it takes to succeed in this MOS. Super excited and super thankful for your help!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Vanessa! Sorry, I’m running a little behind replying to comments. How did it go for you?

  • Sav

    I can’t do these linguist puzzles at all I think I am going to fail the DLAB!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Don’t get discouraged yet! First, those puzzles don’t correspond 100% Second, with practice, it might click. I’d recommend doing as many of these kinds of puzzles as possible, though. There are also some additional puzzles in “The Official DLAB Training Manual” on Amazon. I haven’t read it and can’t personally vouch for it, but I do know the author, who’s pretty sharp. And the reviews are good.

  • jaffa

    I have a question what companies or actually how to apply for this test? I found an ad online – global linguist solution – is a spam any experience with them? I have a feeling that the test I will have for a job as polish linguist would be dlab..the only concerns I have is.. does anyone have any experience with them? The weird is they asking me about to sending all personal info like SSN/citizenship certificate/ passport and other to their office …and then after BC check I will have to come and take dlab…is there any organization to help me with it?

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Jaffa. I don’t have any experience with the company. The DLAB is only given by the US military. The DLPT (Defense Language Proficiency Test) is “owned” by the military, but companies on contract with the US government can have people take that test.

      The DLPT is likely the test you’ll have to take, and is much different from what is in this article. It tests your actual language ability in the language–for instance in Polish.

      I don’t know about that company at all, but after I Googled them, they look like they provide contract linguists to the US government. You’re right to be careful about your private info, but unfortunately most of the linguist jobs in the defense/contracting arena will require that personal data since there will be security/background checks. Again, though, I don’t know enough about this company to recommend what to do.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Oh, one more thing. I don’t know for sure, but you might just have to take an OPI (oral proficiency interview). It varies by language, by contract, etc. If you have more questions, you can email me at ron@languagesurfer.com

    • Denverb

      If its military then they need that personal information but even then and with every other situation like a company, I would go into the office before hand and only give out that info in person, never online. That’s obvious though haha

  • Denverb

    Thank you kindly, these are good and comforting resources that you’ve presented. I should be practicing now so. I should be saying… Arigato gozaimasu, gakusei desu Amerika Kara kimashita USMCR, shitte imasu chiisai demo nihongonga hanasemasen. Midori desu…. Kanpai! ( my grammar might is probably off but who can wakarimasu it? )

    • Kaze No Hito

      Hai watashi wa nihongo wo wakatta yo. Demo denverb-san no grama ha chotto warui desu yo. USMCR shitte imasu ga nihongo ga hanasemasen tottemashita deshou. Midori ha green desu. kanpai!