Saturday, November 13, 2010

Say What?

You find yourself in a nondescript room, # 2 pencil in hand, clock ticking on the wall.  From somewhere unseen, a voice is speaking.  It sounds like some language you may have vaguely heard in a restaurant somewhere, only now you have to answer a question based upon what you just heard.  But it was gibberish... Can you distinguish between the subtle vowel sounds?  Can you guess where the stress of the word falls, without actually understanding the word?  There isn't time to logically consider an answer because the voice is already moving on to the next audio sampling for the next question.  Picking one of 4 choices you have no idea why you selected the one you picked-it just feels right.  You suddenly realize why your dog tilts its head at you that way when you speak, because now you are doing the same thing...Back and forth your head keeps shifting as though it will help.  It doesn't.  The other parts of the test involve learning a made up language whose rules are dispensed to you one piece at a time.  You are suddenly grateful for all of those diagrammed sentences.  Or, you find yourself wishing you bothered to learn the difference between an adverb and an adjective because now your future career is depending on it. The third part of the test involves looking at pictures with garbled captions. You then get to choose between 4 other pictures with differently garbled captions the one that is supposed to somehow make sense with respect to the first picture.
Finally, either you finish the test or run out of time.  Most walk out of the room without completing the test, heads still shaking side to side.
Unlike any other test you may have taken, you have no idea how you may have scored.   You don't even remember why you picked the answers you picked.  If ever a zen experience in the modern world could be defined this is it.  You heard the sound of one hand clapping and followed it, suspended midair as it pointed you down the path towards the answers.  
 Welcome to the DLAB!  The Defense Language Aptitude Battery-the test administered by the DOD that is used to determine an adult's ability to learn a foreign language.  Previous fluency in 2 or 3 or even more languages is still no guarantee you will score well enough to be admitted into the Defense Language Institute (DLI).  It doesn't test what you already know.  It tests (or attempts to predict) how well you learn.
Depending on your branch of service, and the degree of difficulty (known as Category I, II III or IV or Cat for short) for the language you may potentially be assigned you need to score in the upper percentiles.
Language school at D.L.I. was the most intensive and challenging academic environment I had ever experienced.  I spent a year there with the expectation that I would be fluent in Russian in that time. The pace of learning was relentless.   All the teachers were native speakers.  I presumed mine were all KGB agents.  I was in school, every day, 8am-3pm. After the 1st week we had to toss a quarter in our class leader's hat for every English word spoken.  Approximately 2 hours worth of homework each night kept us busy.  The fear of falling behind and being dumped into another career field not of your choosing (Rocking out) kept us motivated.  I would get up at 5 am for a 3-4 mile run, conjugating Russian verbs in order to distract myself from the 10% grade hills found all over the Presidio of Monterey. 

I felt tired in parts of my brain in ways I never felt before.  Which brings me to some interesting observations of the place.  The Air Force treated us differently than the trainees at its other tech schools.  We were regarded as intelligent but eccentric, a breed apart. Weirdos.  We were.  
We didn't have to march to class, and by comparison, we had minimal military obligations.  For the neurologically inclined, I noticed that nearly half the people in this place were left handed.  Almost everyone either played an instrument, sang or had some other unusual skills.
 I met some of the most wonderful, gifted and engaging people there and am grateful for the experience.
Makes me wonder what else the DLAB tests for and who created the test.


Harp Girl said...

That test left me unable to drive for several hours. It was fascinating from the perspective of one who is neurologically curious. And I couldn't agree more about the calibre of people I met at DLI. You are at the top of my list of favorite, eccentric, illuminating individuals met during my tenure there. Thanks for taking me back.

ehowton said...

My wife's ex-husband was similarly moved from DLI to a PI. And yes, he was left-handed too :P

Of course speaking entirely selfishly...I'm glad you did!

Katie said...

DLI, ah the memories. I had a perfect score on the DLAB and I think my recruiter almost passed a brick. Funny thing was, I wanted to be EOD ... but that test changed everything. Well, at least I still have all my fingers, right?

Katie said...

Ah the memories! I had a perfect score on the DLAB, which I took on a lark, and my recruiter went nuts. Funny thing was I wanted to be EOD ... that test changed everything. Well, at least I still have all my fingers.