How the military teaches languages

This is a guest post from a military linguist.





This article details my experiences on a full-time year-long language course in the military. For context, this was in the Australian Defence Force, however, I’ve reached out to people from both the US and UK militaries who have been on equivalent courses. I’ve incorporated their experiences and opportunities when they differ from my own so no matter whether you are serving in the US, UK or Australia, you should be able to get a great idea of what to expect during and after your course.


My experience of the year

So how was the year? In short awesome. Think about it...you are paid a full wage and afforded expert instruction and support in learning a new language. People pay tens of thousands of dollars for three and four year degrees in languages - You are getting all that in a shortened time and are getting a great wage at the same time. What’s more, you are paid more on passing the course and then you are in a career where you are afforded multiple opportunities to actually use and reinforce your new language.


Travel is one of the best bits. Once qualified, you often receive offers to participate in different exercises or events in which you are travelling, experiencing new cultures and doing your country a great service at the same time. But travel is also included as part of your language course too!


Don’t get me wrong, the course was difficult and like many difficult experiences, you will look back on it as a great time where you grew a lot as a person. If you are a little intimidated by the workload required, don’t worry, the teachers and other students are there to get you through it. The rest of this article includes some great tips on getting onto your chosen course and then how to make the most of it. I hope you find it valuable.


How to get on course


Recruiting might be the biggest avenue into language schools and, if you are currently a civilian who would like to learn one (or more) languages in the military, it would obviously be best to apply to linguist roles to do so.


In the Australian Military, any member of the Army or Air Force can apply to learn a language at the ADF School of Languages, however, if you are in the Navy, you need to be a linguist or an officer likely to be posted into an attache role. Having said that, there may be other opportunities for Navy members that I’m not aware of.


In the US, West Point students all learn a language but any member of the military can apply to DLIFLC. The UK is similar but actually makes it mandatory that officers must have a basic language skill in order to perform sub-unit command.


So how do you actually qualify for different languages? As some languages are more difficult to learn than others, and language learning in general requires some degree of aptitude, the military will have you sit a test to determine your ability to learn languages. For the US, this is called the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) and for the UK, New Zealand and Australian militaries the test used is the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT). Incidentally though, students will take the MLAT, not the DLAB, on entry to West Point. The MLAT is an extremely difficult test and most people fail it, however, what most people don’t know is that you can study for it and this greatly increases your chances of passing and getting the score you require for your language of choice. You can access over 500 sample test questions here to help get you through.


Course lengths


There are some short courses but the long courses are generally around a year long. Australian courses run from late Jan to early Dec. In the US, it depends on the language as you can see here:


Category I&II languages – 36 week-long courses:

French

Spanish

Indonesian

Category III languages – 48 week-long courses:

Hebrew

Persian Farsi

Russian

Tagalog

Urdu

Category IV languages – 64 week-long courses:

Modern Standard Arabic

Arabic – Egyptian

Arabic – Iraqi

Arabic – Levantine

Chinese Mandarin

Japanese

Korean

Pashto


Australia has similar categories of languages to the US model - the more difficult the language the higher category it is and the more time required to learn it.


So how ‘fluent’ do you get?


From my own experience, I can have a regular conversation with a Chinese speaker about day-to-day topics. My listening, though, is at a standard where I can understand more complex dialogues and, given enough time, can accurately translate audio of a news story.


Course focuses


My course was broken into four main topics - fundamentals, military, in-country training and news. Each of these phases has many subtopics and we completed two of these subtopics each week. Each subtopic contains around 30 new vocabulary/terms and a whole bunch of exercises designed to consolidate those terms. We did all the main focuses of language learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking. More focus was put onto listening and speaking; and with that, interpreting.


A typical schedule for a subtopic went like this:

Day 1:

0800-1000 - Introducing and explaining new vocabulary

1000-1100 - Listening

1100-1200 - Grammar

1200-1300 - Lunch

1300-1400 - Speaking practice (small group)

1400-1500 - Free speaking (unstructured and optional)


Day 2:

0800-0900 - Revision and homework checking

0900-1000 - Reading activities

1000-1100 - Listening

1100-1200 - Speaking games/activities

1200-1300 - Lunch

1300-1400 - One on one speaking

1400-1500 - Free speaking (unstructured and optional)


We were set homework most nights which would be reading or writing tests involving the new vocabulary.


Here is a breakdown of the different phases:


Fundamentals is just that. We had 28 different sub-topics that covered themes like shopping, introductions, visas, travel, family, weather, food, restaurants etc. The fundamentals phase lasted around 15 weeks.


The military phase lasted around 3 weeks and introduced ranks, weapons, equipement and organisational vocabulary.


The in-country training lasted two weeks. Essentially you are paired up with a different native speaker each day and assigned tasks. Some of these are just general conversation tasks and others are active ones such as bargaining at a market. We needed to capture evidence of these activities as they were part of the assessment. The in-country training was difficult for many members of the course as we had gotten used to only speaking with teachers and ourselves and not with anyone in the ‘real world’. Much more, these real-world people barely spoke much English, so you could not fall back on English if you were unsure how to communicate your message. As such, many people had to deal with a little bit of anxiety day-to-day, especially those who had chosen not to do much free talking.


Course completion rate


Of the 18 people on my course, one failed. He just clearly did not have the aptitude for the course. Although he had failed successive summative assessments, he was not removed from course and allowed to see out the year - he made some valiant efforts and was able to hang in there for the remainder of the year. As for other courses, I only heard that Japanese students occasionally fail but for the rest of the languages the completion rate is very close to 100%. After discussions with my US counterpart, it seems that DLIFLC are more willing to remove underperforming students. They also have a higher failure rate across all classes at 10%. You can see some of the pass/fail stats here.


How to get the language you want


Firstly, you need to show that you have the aptitude for your preferred language and this is measured with the DLAB in the US or the MLAT in most other countries (+ West Point). There are multiple sites that allow you to study for the DLAB but only one for the MLAT - this one. There are 5 possible scores you can receive on the MLAT within the ADF: fail, level 1, 2, 3, and 4. Levels 1-4 all correspond to different languages and are sorted by difficulty. You can find more info on this here. If you score a level 2, but really want to do a level 3 language, you may be allowed on to that course.


Pay and conditions


Australia: The language allowance figures increase each year with inflation but here is a table showing current figures. As you can see, depending on your proficiency, you could earn anywhere between an additional $1178 and $11780 per year. To give you some indication of what is reasonable, someone graduating a level 3 language will come out at the intermediate level and therefore earn an extra $4719 per year. You are required to ‘requalify’ in your language proficiency every three years though there are short courses you can do to refresh prior to taking the requal.


UK: There are financial incentives for personnel to have their linguistic skills recorded, ranging from £360 for a lower-level western European language, to £11,700 for a high level, operationally vital linguist. Currently any officer must have a basic language skill to be able to command a sub unit.


US:

The following information is from militarybenefits.info


Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus Installment Rates vary from $100 to $500 per month for a single language, and up to $1,000 per month for two or more dialects or languages. The FLPB amount may not exceed $12,000 per annual certification period for any servicemember. The rate of pay is determined by a combination of:

  • Proficiency in one or more areas of Reading, Listening, and/or Speaking modality of the service’s determination.

  • Proficiency in a language or dialect on the Immediate and Emerging Department of Defense (DoD) Strategic Language List (SLL).

  • Proficiency in Enduring Languages or Dialects as identified by the service.

  • Proficiency in languages and dialects not on the DoD Strategic Language List.





Travel


On the Australian long courses, part of your course includes in-country training. This is a two-week block in which you travel to the country of the target language. There are plenty of assessment tasks included in these two weeks but there is also lots of free time in which you can see the sights. The French course goes to Paris, the Chinese course goes to Beijing and the Japanese course goes to Tokyo...you get the idea. While there, most days you are paired up with a local who speaks minimal English. During your time with them you will need to go shopping, catch public transport and complete other tasks in the target language. You will also need to record you having some basic conversations with them, about such topics as family, jobs, hobbies etc. The in-country training is the highlight of the whole course and includes some great international incidentals too! The US and UK systems have very similar events.


Post study opportunities


Deployments


Once you are qualified, you are placed onto a list of qualified linguists. Depending on your level of proficiency, this may see you act as a linguist on deployments, overseas exercises or for visiting delegations. You may also accompany your home country delegations on their own visits.


Jobs


Obviously, being a linguist will also qualify you for a broad range of roles. These include intelligence, international exchange, international policy and exercise planning.


Travel


In the Australian Army, you are afforded a two week language study tour within a native speaking country of your language every three years. This means that a French speaker can have an all-expenses paid trip to France every three years in order to maintain their language proficiency. Additionally, you can choose to pay your own way and enrol in a short language course in your target country and then claim the expenses on tax.


The Australian Army also offers the opportunity to conduct 6-12 month language study abroad postings where you are essentially a university student in Beijing, Paris, Seoul or elsewhere.


Preparing for your course


Most military language courses take students from zero proficiency in a language to an upper-intermediate level in which they can have simple conversations, translate news reports and write formal correspondence with confidence and accuracy. To achieve this level of proficiency, students need to learn between 1500-3000 words and learn the grammar nuances, sentence structures and pronunciation of these words. This is not easy.


As such, it really pays to do as much learning of your language as you can prior to your course. Here are the three best tips I’ve seen used in order to prep for a military language course.


  1. Download a language learning app and dive in with a set schedule per day - do at least half an hour and ensure you revise prior lessons.

  2. Use language stickers around your home and office. This is a great way to trick your brain into picking up new vocab while needing to put in very little mental effort. MLATstudy.com has established a sister-site to create just these. You can check it out here.

  3. Contact your school to see if you can access your coursework earlier. I wish I had done this myself. As it turned out, I could have accessed vocab lists on Quizlet.com. This would have really helped as I could have learned a few words from each topic - greatly reducing the amount of new information that needed to be pickled up while on my intensive course.


I hope you found this article helpful and are convinced that a military language course might be for you. If that’s the case, then all the best on your language journey!


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