Maybe you've heard this one before: If someone who speaks three languages is called trilingual and someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks one language? An American.
The joke may be on you if you don't prove it wrong, experts say.
* Languages skills pay now. You don't have to be linguist to earn extra cash for knowing a second language. Foreign Language Proficiency Pay for active-duty service members ranges from $300 to $1,000 per month and tops out at $500 a month for members of the National Guard and Reserve.
* Language skills pay later. Hiring managers value language skills even for jobs that don't require them. Research suggests those who speak at least two languages have an average annual income $10,000 higher than those who don't.
* Language skills set you apart. Top leaders say building second-language savvy among the ranks is a top war-fighting priority. Career advancement will increasingly hinge on second language skills, military career experts say.
* Language training is free. From full-time immersion classes to at-your-own-pace online courses, the military provides all kinds of ways to pick up language skills for little or no cost.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen recently told a group of troops that in the coming years the military will be "fundamentally different in how we train, fundamentally different in terms of educational requirements and, in fact, fundamentally different in how we promote career paths."
The first thing he listed among those changes: learning a foreign language.
The trend is similar in the civilian workforce.
"More companies than in the past are likely to require stronger emphasis on international business knowledge, and foreign language skills are becoming a competitive advantage," stated a recent report by the Graduate Management Admission Council's 2010 Corporate Recruiters Survey.
That advantage is often subtle and perhaps not even stated as a job requirement, said Melanie Holmes, vice president of the international employment agency Manpower Inc.
"If I were looking at résumés and I had two strong people, even if the job didn't call for it, I would probably give a leg up to the person who spoke another language, because of the discipline and what it takes to become fluent in another language," Holmes said.
Learning another language is no small task, but the military offers a lot of help.
A good place to start is the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, which you can take for free at your local education center. Using a made-up language, the two-hour test drills into your ability to absorb different rules of grammar and vocabulary.
"The DLAB doesn't measure whether you're capable of learning a second language — most people are — but it does measure how fast you'll be able to absorb another language," said Brian Lamar, a spokesman for the Defense Language Institute.
The services use the DLAB to determine what language future linguists will study, but even if you just want to study a language on your own, it can offer a good reality check on which one to pick. In the Army, for example, a score of 85 qualifies for the easiest-to-learn languages such as Spanish and French, while 110 is needed for high-end tongue-twisters like Arabic and Chinese.
Maybe you studied a language in school or picked up some local lingo after a tour or three downrange. Don't be shy about getting tested. To qualify for bonus pay, service members must take the Defense Language Proficiency Test, which is typically offered at base education offices. Even if you don't rate the bonus, this free tool will assess where you stand. And you might be surprised at how close you are: A few classes or some online study could put you over the top.
The test is divided into listening, reading and speaking. To rate the foreign language proficiency bonus, you have to hit the right scores in at least two of the categories. Qualifying languages and DLPT scores vary by service so check with your personnel office for details.
If you decide to get out of the military, keep in mind several federal agencies — including the Defense Department and the CIA — offer similar monthly bonuses for language skills.
Know your options
With unprecedented pressure to build language expertise, the military is making it easier to pick up a second language.
Here are some of your options:
The Defense Language Institute
With a good score on the DLAB and a record clean enough to rate a security clearance, service members finishing up a first enlistment can often reclassify into a language-based specialty and get into the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.
This reboot of the old listen-and-repeat Headstart program fuses games, audio, videos and avatar interaction to teach 750 of the most commonly used phrases and expressions in a language.
"It's not like playing Halo, but some of the games are actually pretty fun," Lamar said. Designed to give deploying troops a leg up on language and culture, the courses can be useful for anyone beginning to learn a language. They are free for all service members http://fieldsupport.dliflc.edu/products/headstart/index.html">and can be used online or downloaded to your computer or iPod.
The Global Language Online Support System is designed for independent learners with at least rudimentary foundation looking to increasing their proficiency. Developed by DLI, http://gloss.dliflc.edu">the free online lessons offer thousands of reading and listening modules in more than two dozen languages using real-world articles, TV clips and radio broadcasts.
Known for its rebroadcasting of native language programming from TV stations around the world, SCOLA also offers http://www.scola.org">online resources for language learners, including "insta-classes" in 37 languages. Free for anyone with a .mil and .gov e-mail address.
Language-enabled airmen program
The Air Force recently launched a program to provide ongoing language training for airmen who don't work in language-based specialties. The intent is to help those who have already developed some basic language skills build on them. Although currently open only to cadets and junior officers, LEAP eventually will be offered to as many as one out of every 10 airmen, officials say.
Service members in the Army and Marine Corps can take any of Rosetta Stone's 31 popular online courses for free. Active-duty soldiers earn one promotion point for each five hours of training credit. http://usarmy.rosettastone.com">New courseware with military-specific content is now available for Dari, Pashto, Urdu, Iraqi Arabic, Swahili and Bahasa Indonesian.
Active-duty service members can use tuition assistance toward off-duty language training. "I took Spanish for a semester at the University of South Carolina when I was stationed at Fort Jackson. The Army paid for everything but my books," says Brian Lamar, a spokesman for the Defense Language Institute, who was a sergeant first class before leaving the service last year.
If you're headed for duty to Europe or Asia, Morale Welfare and Recreation and other on-base programs often offer free or discounted language classes to troops and their families.
The Language Flagship Program
Sponsored in part by the Defense Department, the http://www.thelanguageflagship.org">Language Flagship Program is designed to reinvigorate language study in schools with a focus in strategically important tongues. Veterans can take advantage of the program through scholarships and fellowships offered at universities with Flagship Centers.