Uses of Language Aptitude Tests

Selection & Placement

Language aptitude tests are used by government agencies in the United States and in other countries to select personnel for language training, and in particular for intensive language training programs.  When the cost is high and the number of employees who can be accepted into an  intensive language training program is limited, government agencies often select only or mostly personnel with above-average language aptitude (as shown by a language aptitude test), because they will benefit the most from the government’s investment in language training.  For example, if in a group of employees, the third with the highest aptitude scores can learn the learn to a specified and defined level of comprehension and oral fluency in one year, while others will take longer, such as 18 months or 2.5 years, then the agency can satisfy its needs more readily and at less expense by selecting from within the top third.

Aptitude tests are also used by government agencies to place personnel in training for different languages.  If an individual scores high on a language aptitude test, he or she might be placed in a more difficult language, i.e. one with less similarity to English (that is, such as Arabic or Chinese).

Corporations and missionary organizations also use language aptitude tests for selection and placement.  A language aptitude test can help a company or missionary organization assign an individual to a language of appropriate difficulty, and then use the results of the language aptitude test to estimate how much training to provide before assigning the individual to the field in a non-English speaking country.  If an individual scores high on a language aptitude test, then they will not take as long as an individual with a lower score to reach the required level of proficiency in a new language.

Elementary schools, intermediate schools, middle schools, high schools, private schools and institutions of higher learning can also use language aptitude tests for placement.  If a language program has more than one class, schools can use language aptitude test scores to place students in the appropriate classroom or section.  Students with high language aptitude will be able to learn a language at a quicker pace while students with lower language aptitude can be placed in a class that moves at a slower pace or that is taught via different methods, so that they will be better able to absorb the material.  It is inappropriate to use language aptitude tests to screen a student out of a language course that the child wants to take.  Given good instructional support, plus enough time and exposure, virtually all children can learn a foreign language.  Furthermore, any child can benefit from foreign language study.

Diagnosis of Foreign Language Learning Disabilities

An increasingly important use of language aptitude tests is to aid in the diagnosis of a foreign language learning disability (FLLD).  An individual whose language aptitude test scores are significantly below their scores on other measures of aptitude, such as general intelligence tests, may have a FLLD.  Additional evidence can come from poor past performance in language courses while performing at an average/above-average level in other academic areas.  Language learning aptitude tests can also be taken at multiple points during a child’s schooling to build a record of consistently poor performance on language aptitude measures dating from childhood to adulthood.

Educational institutions deal with a diagnosed FLLD differently. Sometimes a cognitive-academic disability is defined as an aptitude score below a certain percentile, such as the 20th percentile, the 10th percentile, or the 5th percentile.  Whether the cutoff point is made on a case-by-case basis or set for the purpose of establishing a policy for a particular school, the decision must be made by a qualified professional as part of a comprehensive diagnostic procedure.  Some schools that have a foreign language requirement will waive the requirement or have the student take a substitute class in anthropology, linguistics or the history of a language in order to fill the foreign language requirement.

Language aptitude tests can also be used to rule out the possibility of a FLLD.  If a student exhibits difficulty in learning a foreign language, a low score on a language aptitude test would point towards a language learning disability.  However, if the student’s score is average or above-average on the language aptitude test, this would help eliminate the possibility of a foreign language learning disability so that further testing could focus on remediation, making up for voids in necessary educational background, teaching good study habits, etc.

To read two articles at LD Online about foreign language learning disablities, click on the following links:

Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning, by Robin L. Schwartz
Foreign Language Learning and Learning Disabilities: Making the College Transition, by Sally S. Scott and Elaine Manglitz


Language aptitude tests can be used in school to aid teachers and counselors in providing guidance to students.  Language aptitude tests given to young students can help a counselor determine whether or not a student is ready to start studying a foreign language or if it might benefit the student to wait one or more years to take a foreign language course.  Taking a language aptitude test can also help identify students who are likely to excel in foreign language studies.  In this case, guidance counselors can have them start studying a language at an earlier age or recommend a more challenging language to study.