WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
Staff Sgt. Alan Lin knows if you don’t maintain foreign language proficiency, you lose it.
So, Lin, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, enrolls in online language classes, watches Chinese TV shows and even speaks to his wife and kids in his second language at home.
He hopes one day to use his foreign language skills to benefit the Air Force. This is exactly what the Air Force would like too.
The Department of Defense and the Air Force are renewing their emphasis on strong international partnerships, with both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently reiterating the importance of strategic global partnerships and the importance of foreign language skills.
“I think Airmen who possess foreign language abilities are beneficial to the Air Force,” said Lin, a flight kitchen manager assigned to the 509th Force Support Squadron.
Whiteman AFB’s 509th Bomb Wing commander Brig. Gen. John Nichols, agrees.
“The Air Force values the foreign language abilities of its Airmen,” Nichols said. “These skillsets, and the cultural knowledge that comes along with them, are the backbone of the strategic partnerships we have with other nations around the globe.”
For Airmen, foreign language skills can mean increased pay and more career options. It also means taking some pretty rigorous languages tests: the Defense Linguistic Aptitude Battery (DLAB) and the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT).
Military personnel interested in pursuing linguistics professionally must first take the DLAB. This is a multiple-choice test with audio and visual portions that use a gibberish language to test a person’s potential to learn a foreign language, rather than his or her fluency in a specific foreign language, said Linda Bauer, a test administrator assigned to the 509th FSS.
The DLAB is usually required for those who want to go into a linguist field or apply for certain military programs, such as the Olmsted Scholar Program for officers to pursue graduate-level studies overseas.
Meanwhile, the DLPT is an exam the military uses to assess foreign language proficiency. Results are used for operational readiness and training decisions for military members as well as civilian language analysts in the U.S. government, Bauer said.
All ranks from all military branches and civilians may take the DLPT. About 200 people a year are tested at Whiteman AFB. Language experts typically test every one to two years, Bauer said.
The DLPT tests more than 60 languages. Bauer said the most common languages tested at Whiteman AFB are Spanish and Tagalog, which is spoken in the Philippines.
DLPT tests are computer based and include three-hour reading and three-hour listening components. They are administered on base in the Professional Development Center. In some cases, a linguist will take a speaking test, too, called the OPI, or Oral Proficiency Interview. At Whiteman AFB, the test taker would speak on the phone with a language instructor, who rates him or her.
DLPT scores range from 1, which represents language proficiency at an elementary level, to 5, which indicates a native proficiency.
Scores from the DLPT also determine whether linguists receive additional pay for their language-proficiency skills under the Air Force Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus Program. Foreign Language Proficiency Bonus (FLPB) rates can be up to $1,000 per month.
“If a person is in a position that requires them to speak a foreign language, their pay is reflective on how well they test,” Bauer said, adding that otherwise they may qualify to receive bonus pay for their language proficiency, even if it is not part of their job requirements.
Language testing can lead to a variety of career broadening assignments and joint opportunities, including U.S. Embassy Defense Attaché Offices and Security Cooperation Offices; International Health Specialists; Air Force Office of Special Investigations; Exchange Programs; and more.
“These language skills and cultural understandings are critical to the Air Force, and really to our country’s presence on the global stage,” Nichols said. “Our Airmen’s skills ensures the United States has successful partnerships abroad.”
The Defense Language Proficiency Tests include more than 60 languages:
Albanian, Amharic, Arabic (Saudi, Algerian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Levantine, Modern Standard, Sudanese, and Yemeni), Azerbaijani, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Cebuano, Chavacano, Chinese (Amoy, Cantonese, and Mandarin), Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Haitian-Creole, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish (Kurmanji or Surani), Lao, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Pashto-Afghan, Persian (Afghan (Dari) or Farsi), Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian or European), Punjabi-Western, Romanian, Russian, Serbian-Croatian, Slovenian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Tausug, Thai, Turkish, Ukranian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Yiddish, and Yoruba