Service members go the extra mile with extra languages

10 Feb 2010 | Lance Cpl. Jonathan G. Wright

One of the biggest obstacles during a military occupation in a foreign country is compensating for the language barrier between service members and local nationals. Occasionally a member of the foreign populace may be on hand for translations, yet most of the time one is not available. In that case the translator may possibly be the Marine carrying a rifle.

That is to be determined by the Defense Language Proficiency Tests; a set of foreign language exams in the areas of reading, listening and speaking designed to evaluate ones’ comprehension of a foreign language of their preference.

“The commandant of the Marine Corps suggests every service member learn a second language to expand their professional skill sets,” said Paul Parker, military testing coordinator for Camp Lejeune Education Center. “That is why when the option to test language skills was opened to all ranks and (military occupation specialties) in 2007; we received an influx of service members testing for various languages.”

Conducted at the Base Education Center, the tests measure ones’ lingual knowledge in any of the 110 languages, ranging from Arabic and Spanish, the two most commonly tested languages, to Wolof, a South African dialect in which only four people have taken.  However, if there is a language not included in the tests that someone may want to take, a request may be submitted to determine whether or not the language can be added.

“The computer generated test has two parts, listening and reading,” said Cpl. Cinderella Tacio, administration clerk with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Training Squadron 204, Marine Air Group 26. “The reading part is not hard since you actually have time to analyze and think about the questions.  The listening portion requires a little more concentration since you only have one chance to listen to the audio and then answer the questions.”

The other form of language testing is the oral exams which are taken over the phone. Testing may take anywhere from two to six hours and the computed exam is retaken every year, while the oral exam is every three years.

Test scores are based on a number scale, ranging from zero to five, which categorizes ones’ understanding anywhere between ‘no proficiency’ to ‘general professional proficiency’.

“The overall purpose for the language tests is to have a record of service members who might act as translators when deployed,” said Parker. “The skill numbers then give commanders an idea of who would be most competent in the country’s language.”

However important it may be for military members to have a secondary language under their belt, the biggest incentive for service members to undergo the language tests is the proficiency pay.

“To be honest, the bonus pay drove me to test,” said Tacio. “Even though that is a big motivator for people, it still puts them in the system of having a second language available for deployment.”

Foreign language proficiency pay can range from $100 to $500 for a single language, and up to $1,000 for multiple languages per month.

In the end, a secondary language in the military can be beneficial both to the overall mission as well as to your wallet. It is an easier process to test someone in a previously-studied language rather than teach someone a specific dialect. Parker says that the Web site offers the language program Rosetta Stone free of charge to aid in the learning and refreshment of a language.

“Behind the deployment benefit and the additional pay, learning another language opens your mind to that specific group of people,” said Parker. “It makes you look at a person differently when learning and speaking their language.”

For more information on the Defense Language Proficiency Tests contact Paul Parker at 451-3092 or visit the Web site