The Defense Language Institute categorizes languages into four levels of difficulty. Category I languages are easier to pick up, while moving on up through Category IV, language comprehension is more difficult, and the length of courses reflect that.
- Category I languages, 26-week courses, include Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.
- Category II, 35 weeks, includes German and Indonesian
- Category III, 48 weeks, includes Dari, Persian Farsi, Russian, Uzbek, Hindi, Urdu, Hebrew, Thai, Serbian Croatian, Tagalog, Turkish, Sorani and Kurmanji
- Category IV, 64 weeks, includes Arabic, Chinese Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Pashto
“The expectation is that after 26 weeks in Spanish, you’re going to end up at the same graduation rate as someone who’s here for 64 weeks” studying a Category IV language, said Clare A. Bugary, deputy chief of staff for operations.
She said 91 percent of students at DLI are taking either a Category III or IV language.
DLI also assesses students using the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, which bases language proficiency on a scale of 0-5. While Level 5 means someone has a complete fluency of the language, DLI focuses mainly on getting students around Level 2 in overall proficiency.
“Level two to three is typically where our language professionals are,” Bugary said. Common, everyday conversations – even in English – are usually around Level 2.
Under the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap (DLTR) and Proficiency Enhancement Program (PEP), the goal is for DLI graduates to be at 2/2/1+ meaning their comprehensive listening proficiency in their target language at Level 2, reading is at a Level 2 and speaking at 1+. For the future, the target is 2+/2+/2 for listening/reading/speaking with the ultimate goal of 3/3/3.
Students are held to such a high standard that those with a 3.0 grade point average may not even pass the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT), Bugary said. The DLPT is given to students to determine their proficiency in their target language according to well-defined linguistic tasks and assessment criteria.
“We’ve mapped what a GPA means in a particular language to success on the DLPT,” she said. “There’s an assumption that if you have a 3.0 GPA, you’re golden. When in fact in Arabic, if all you have is a 3.0, you’re probably not going to make it. You really need to have a 3.5 to 3.6 to have a comfort level that you’re going to do well on the DLPT.”
Even in a Category I language like French, Bugary said it was remarkable how “starkly clear it was” that students with a GPA under 3.0 were likely not going to pass the DLPT.
“You really have to apply yourself here to be successful,” she said. “You just can’t be the mediocre, get-by kind of student and pass.”
Baryalai “Barry” Arsala, a Dari instructor who is a native of Afghanistan but has also lived in Iran and India, said “nowhere in the world, anyplace they teach language, is this intensive.”