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The daily study method to defeat the ILR

Whether you are a graduating student or a foreign policy professional looking to take your career to the next level, obtaining professional level proficiency in a foreign language is one sure way to set you apart from the crowd and give you a gigantic advantage against the competition.

Everyone who has seriously studied a foreign language knows that it’s not something you can just pick up over a few years. For some languages, the 10,000 hours of mastery rule truly applies. I once had a 70 year old Arabic professor tell me that it takes ten years to learn Arabic, and the truth is, he’s right when it comes to most people. We’ve talked before about the critical roles that persistence and dedication play in turning a language learning hobby into your lifelong trade, and in this post we will dive into some daily tips to prepare for a language proficiency exam such as the ILR (Inter-agency Language Round table) and the DLPT (Defense Language Proficiency Test) through the process of self immersion.  For the purposes of this blog post, we will focus on the ILR scale and the testing fields required for the majority of language related positions, whether its in foreign policy, national security and defense, or the private sector.

ILR Structure

The ILR is graded on a scale from 0 to 5, with a 5 identified as functionally native proficiency. To really stand apart you need to aim for a 3 or a 3+, and keep in mind that even people who have studied a language for years and would consider themselves fluent often score a 2 or a 2+ aka limited working proficiency.

The good news is that this test can be beaten and non-native speakers can and often do score in the 4 range. Even testing at a 5 isn’t impossible. The bad news is that you need to be ready to put in the hours to get there, depending on your current level you need to set aside about 6 months for prep. Now, lets get into the necessary steps to conquer this beast!

  1. A lesson in humility
  2. Tools & Prep
  3. Study Tactics

Step I: A lesson in humility

The first step in this process is to have an honest assessment of your skills, which can be a painful experience. I recommend hiring a local or online language tutor who has experience preparing students for the ILR to imitate the test and score you based on its scale. Odds are you won’t be happy with the results, but you will have a real starting point to work from.

Step II: Tools & Prep

Next, you will need to gather your training tools to prepare for the long journey ahead

iPhone, smartphone, stopwatch, Foreigncy, flashcard app, and notebook.

Plan to divvy your daily study sessions into 4 hours. It doesn’t matter if you do two hours before work and two hours after, but you have to plan on completing the following tasks:

  1. Reading exercises – 1 hour
  2. Vocab drills – 1 hour
  3. Listening exercises – 1 hour
  4. Speaking exercises – 1 hour

Sorry folks, making real progress may require that you’re up before sunrise but thanks to the magic of Keurigs it’s not so bad.

Step III: Study Tactics

To hold yourself accountable, approach all of these exercises as if it were a sport you are training for. Set your phone to airplane mode and set your timer for one hour. Do not stop or walk away until that timer goes off.

1 Hour Reading

Testing at a 3 or 3+ on the ILR requires a massive amount of vocabulary knowledge and the ability to use that vocabulary in different ways. A good place to start is during your one hour reading drill. A word to the wise, if you have mastered political and current events vocabulary do yourself a favor and focus on some different areas. For instance, Foreigncy’s language sets contain a variety of diverse news topics that include economics and social issues. BBC’s foreign language news websites have science, arts, and other sections that will really help make your vocabulary dynamic. Now, without recording words you do not know you are doomed for failure. With Foreigncy, you can save flashcards from our sets that need extra work to your personal profile page. You can also use some other flashcard apps on the market, such as Quizlet or Anki and build your own stacks. Foreigncy and these other apps have testing technology so you can focus on the words that need more work.

1 Hour Vocab Drills

Before or after your reading drill, complete one hour of studying your digital flashcards. Be sure to spend the same amount of time studying English on Front as you do Foreign Language on Front. These drills work different muscles and to ignore one will be to your detriment. An important component of studying your flashcards is to pronounce the foreign language side out loud. If you are unsure of how to pronounce it, our flashcards have audio recorded by professional linguists so you can hear the proper pronunciation. Try and imitate the sound.

1 Hour Listening

I find that doing my one hour of listening immediately after my vocab drills is a great way to pick up on words that you would have missed otherwise in a news broadcast. In addition to listening to the video broadcasts Foreigncy provides with its sets, find a foreign language news program’s YouTube channel and look for a one hour broadcast. Put your earphones in, set your timer, and really concentrate. At first, its going to seem like you will never be able to understand people speaking at high speeds and using vocab that you haven’t learned yet, but just familiarizing yourself with the sounds plays a big role in improving your listening skills. I recommend having a notebook handy to jot down any words you don’t know so you can look them up and add them to your flashcard stack.

1 Hour Speaking

Find a reliable native speaker via craigslist or otherwise that has experience training people for the ILR and administering the exam. They will know the ins and outs and can honestly assess how far you need to go and what areas of your speaking skills need the most work. I personally find online tutors via Skype and paid through Paypal the only real solution for a working professional who doesn’t have the time to metro into town every day. I don’t recommend relying on a language partner or friend for this part of your training. You need to approach this as paying for a service and take it seriously. You simply don’t have time to chit-chat and you run the risk of not feeling comfortable telling your language partner or friend that they aren’t cutting it or you need someone better. This is the most expensive part of your language training, but I personally  believe that you will benefit more if money is exchanged. Also, do not overpay for a speaking tutor. You will find all sorts of crazy prices, especially in the DC area, that can go up to $50 and more. You should aim for the $20-$30 range. You are going to be paying them if not every day then a few times a week for about 6 months, so make sure you don’t break the bank.

The first half of your speaking session should be a simulation of speaking portions of the exam. This ranges from casual conversation, explaining a subject of interest, and responding to a proctor’s questions in depth. Focus on taking control of the conversation and leading it where you want it to go and are comfortable. For the second half of your session, discuss a news article in detail. You should approach this almost as a lecture. Brief your tutor on the subject and try to speak as much as possible. Next, your tutor should ask you questions about the article and you need to answer in more than one sentence.

General Tips

  • Idioms! Idioms! Idioms! Learning the idioms of your language that only native speakers would know will score you some major points on this exam and could be the thing that puts you over the top. Use them when appropriate, but don’t be foolish and throw them out every two minutes.
  • Track your mistakes and study. Whenever your tutor corrects you on something you need to write it down and add it to your notes later. At least 30 minutes a day should be spent studying your mistakes.

Summing it up

Passing this exam is no easy endeavor, but the hardest part is in your control. If you plan accordingly and hold yourself accountable, you can achieve your language learning goals and turn it into a career. It takes hard work, but the blueprint is right there. In the words of Muhammad Ali:

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”



  1. Laurel January 30, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

    Great article. After studying Arabic during my university years for 5 years, I can confidently say that I would not score higher than a 2 on the ILR, which is slightly depressing. I’ve spent some time away from my language studies and am easing back into the game. I’ll be keeping this study method in mind for when it’s time to truly lock down and study, study, study!


  2. Brandon February 6, 2015 at 5:04 pm #

    Really great advice and ideas.


  3. yankira October 27, 2016 at 9:58 am #

    I scored 3/3+ on Speaking and Reading. I would have been really happy,based on the article above, but Russian is my native language! I am confused and disappointed. I’ve masted English, and know how difficult it is to learn a foreign language. I thought I could rock the test in my native language and I did not prepare for it. Naive! I felt the Speaking interview went really well and I talked on a variety of topics using a diverse vocab. I did not use idioms. I went through the Reading section in half the time. And that was my score. SO, to those of you studying Russian, I want my example to serve as a lesson. Prepare for the test and if you study hard, you can even beat a Russian native speaker.


    • Michael January 29, 2018 at 1:10 pm #

      I’m a professional linguist and I think this article has great advice, as I follow a very similar plan. On a related note, keep in mind that most normal people only use up to level 2 language in their daily life, including native speakers. As a rule of thumb, level 2 involves facts, level 3 opinions and unstated conclusions, and level 4 complex cultural references and high level language. Level 3 to level 4 requires reading between the lines, understanding opinions, drawing conclusions, hidden meanings, etc. As the article author said, don’t neglect other language sources/areas just because you’re good at understanding current events in the news. For example, an English student familiar with the Wizard of Oz would have a greater understanding of colloquial references to the state of Kansas. Native fairy tales, comedians, popular music, history, etc. are all potentially useful sources.

      I recommend transcribing and translating a movie that you like, it helps with colloquial vocabulary and syntax, and knocks out the listening, reading, and vocabulary parts of the author’s plan (in my opinion).


      • Keith June 2, 2018 at 12:24 pm #

        Yes I agree this is a great plan to follow. I am a medical interpreter in Spanish and I have used variations of this method to improve my vocabulary, listening, speaking, and reading. After about a year and a half of studying I was able to score a 3/3 on the DLPT (which is a 3 on the ILR scale) and my native language is English. Just takes a lot of hard work and commitment.


  4. Natalya K. June 12, 2018 at 3:25 pm #

    Thank you so much for this article! I wish I came across this much earlier. I took a DLPT before and scored 2/2+. I also took a language test through another company and unfortunately did not pass with a score they wanted. Now that I have to wait a year before retaking it, I definitely would like to improve my language skills and have the time for it. I appreciate you sharing this method and structure of learning.


  5. MN February 9, 2019 at 11:12 pm #

    Hi there,

    Thanks so much for this guide. I’m certified B2 in Russian, but I need to get a 3 on the test in order to get a job. I’ll just study, study, study. Do you have any more resources about the ILR levels? Thanks.


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