Language Learning for Social Service Workers


An important part of cultural competency for social workers is the ability to speak a language understood by their clients. In the US and Canada there are significant populations of Spanish, French, and South Asian language speakers, and their ability to access social work support may be impaired by the lack of speakers of those languages.

The good news is that it’s not an insurmountable goal to learn a language, especially with new technologies. Many resources exist for free that help an individual learn their language of choice. Some people wonder about the time commitment, but luckily the US State Department has already answered this question.

The State Department operates the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), a language school for US Diplomats. Based on their extensive research and experience actually training complete beginners to speak a variety of languages, they’ve separated them into four categories. Each of these categories are listed below with some of the languages that fit into them:

Category I Language (languages closely related to English)

  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Italian
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

Category II Languages (languages similar to English)

  • German
  • Indonesian
  • Malay
  • Swahili

Category III Languages (languages moderately different from English)

  • Albanian
  • Amharic
  • Armenian
  • Azerbaijani
  • Bengali
  • Bulgarian
  • Burmese
  • Czech
  • Dari
  • Estonian
  • Farsi
  • Finnish
  • Georgian
  • Greek
  • Gujarati
  • Hausa
  • Hebrew
  • Hindi
  • Hungarian
  • Icelandic
  • Kazakh
  • Khmer
  • Kurdish
  • Lao
  • Latvian
  • Lithuanian
  • Macedonian
  • Mongolian
  • Nepali
  • Pashto
  • Polish
  • Russian
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Sinhala
  • Slovak
  • Slovenian
  • Somali
  • Tagalog
  • Tajiki
  • Tamil
  • Telugu
  • Thai
  • Tibetan
  • Turkish
  • Ukrainian
  • Urdu
  • Uzbek
  • Vietnamese

Category IV Languages (languages significantly different from English)

  • Arabic
  • Chinese (Mandarin)
  • Japanese
  • Korean

For each of these categories the State Department prescribes how much time it will take for an English learner to reach a useful level of language knowledge. For Category I languages you must study for 600 hours, for Category II 750 hours, for Category III 900 hours and for Category IV 1100 hours. Of course, this may be an under-estimation because these individuals are in class for 30 hours a week, but it gives you a good idea.

Choose a Language

Choosing a language is a very personal choice, but there are a few things that might be able to help you decide: number of speakers (or number of speakers in your area), ease of accessing language material, career usefulness and closeness to your native language.

For individuals who choose a language based on number of speakers, here are the top 5:

  1. Chinese (Mandarin)
  2. Hindi
  3. Spanish
  4. English
  5. Arabic

Ease of accessing language material is hard to quantify but there are certainly many products available for the Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, etc.) as opposed to others.

Career usefulness can be looked at in terms of languages critical to US interests (just a few of the 60 languages listed:

  1. Arabic
  2. Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin)
  3. Hindi
  4. Indonesian
  5. Korean
  6. Russian
  7. Turkish

For those interested in using their language in their Social Work career, knowing the number of US speakers may be important:

  1. English
  2. Spanish
  3. Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin)
  4. French
  5. Tagalog

Measuring Fluency

If you had attended an FSI or DLI (Defense Language Institute – the military’s language school) course, you would be considered at a level useful enough to understand the language as spoken and to produce it yourself. But how do you know what that actually means, especially when compared to another individual? That’s where various proficiency tests and assessments come in.

Although I won’t go into detail about specific language-related tests (like the DELF tests for French), I will discuss two common standards, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the Defense Language Proficiency Test.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)

The CEFR is the worldwide standard for proficiency. It is grouped into 6 categories, A1, A2, B1, B2 and C1 and C2. A1 and A2 are beginner and low-intermediate levels of proficiency. B1 and B2 are considered intermediate users of the language who are independent, while C1 and C2 are advanced language learners. For each language you wish to take, there are CEFR assessments that match.

An FSI language course would place a learner at B1 at completion, enough to use the language independently, engage in conversations and understand the world around them.

Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT)

The DLPT is another proficiency test for languages. The reason that I list it, is that there are a lot of people using DLI language learning materials who might want to understand this test. After completing the DLPT, a learner is assessed a scale from 0-3, with 2/2 generally corresponding to B1, and 3/3 corresponding to C1. In each category, there are plus (+) options available to indicate a level of proficiency higher than the number.

Language Learning Resources

Language learning resources differ based on what language an individual is learning. Below are a few resources I’m familiar with a heavy influence towards French (the language I’m learning now), Spanish (a language I spent 3 years learning in high school) and Arabic (the next challenge I want to tackle.)


Available Languages: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Swedish, Irish, Turkish, Danish, Norwegian, Polish, Esperanto, Hebrew, Ukranian, Vietnamese, Welsh (In Beta): Hungarian, Greek, Romanian (In Progress): Swahili, Czech, Hindi, Korean, Klingon, Indonesian

Price: Free

Description: Duolingo offers you a skills tree with all the information you need to reach approximately A2 (some people say B1) of your language, and learn about 2000 words in the process. It’s very intuitive and by working through the course you learn to translate between your native language and English while developing knowledge of vocabulary.

Pros: It’s simple and very fun. You get to see your progress and work your way to the end. You get a trophy when you finish!

Cons: The grammar instruction can be light in some areas which can be very confusing


Available Languages: (Made by Memrise Team): English, Japanese, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Russian

Price: Free

Description:  Memrise is like a flashcards program on steroids, but organized into courses. You do a lot of filling in the blanks or other exercises that teach you words and helps build your vocab.

Pros: Great audio narration accompanies the cards. There are courses for the most common languages that correspond to the CEFR Levels. For instance, French has 7 courses. French 1-3 correspond to A1, French 4-6 correspond to A2, and French 7 corresponds to B1.

Cons: There’s zero grammar instruction which means Memrise is not useable on its own. There’s also no indication on the number of words, and many of the smaller courses (not created by the Memrise team) are of varying quality.


Available Languages: French, German, Russian, Spanish

Price: Free

Description: Lingvist is a deceptively simple but very powerful program designed to build your vocabulary up to 5000 words. It uses an endless card interface that presents you with a “fill in the blank.” You can double click on the sentence or any word to get a translation to help you, and if you get it wrong you’ll get an opportunity to fill in the correct answer.

Pros: Never-ending interface allows you to go much longer before you get bored or tired. Beautiful interface. 5000 words beats Memrise and Duolingo

Cons: No grammar instruction similar to Memrise

GLOSS (Global Language Online Support System)

Available Languages: Albanian, Arabic (Egyptian, Gulf, Iraqi, Levantine, MSA, Sudanese, Yemeni), Azerbaijani, Balochi, Chinese (Mandarin), Croatian, Dari, Farsi, French,German, Greek, Hausa, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean (North and South), Kurmanji, Pashto, Portuguese (Brazilian and European), Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Somali, Sorani, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Turkmen

Price: Free

Description: Created by the US military, GLOSS exercises are sorted into the 3/3 DLPT proficency areas and allow you to view real material in those languages and answer questions or complete exercises.

Pros: Lots of exercises available for lots of languages, native material means it’s very high quality

Cons: Not a language course per se


Available Languages: Amharic, Arabic (Egyptian, Iraqi, Levantine, MSA, Moroccan) Baluchi, Cebuano, Chavacano, Chinese (Mandarin), Dari, French, German, Hausi, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Kurmanji, Malay, Pashto, Persian-Farsi, Portguese (Brazilian, European), Russian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Tausug, Thai, Turkish, Turkmen, Urdu, Uzbek, Yemeni

Price: Free

Description: Brought to you by the Defense Language Institute, Headstart2 provides you with approximately 750 words, and basic grammar with the goal of getting you to 0+ (memorized proficiency) on the DLPT.

Pros: For languages like Hindi, Arabic and Pashto that don’t use the Latin alphabet, Headstart2 is a great teaching resource

Cons: Vocabulary is very military-focused (if you consider that a con.) Will need to move on to other courses quickly.

Peace Corps

Available Languages: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bambara, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, French, Georgian, Hausa, Kyrgyz, Macedonian, Malagasy, Mongolian, Romanian, Moldovan, Russian, Siswati, Thai, Tswana, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Wolof

Price: Free

Description: The Peace Corps requires all individuals who deploy as volunteers to reach a certain level of language training. Although the Peace Corps uses a simple proficiency scale (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, with Low, Intermediate, High for each level.) Part of these training resources are available online.

Pros: Very audio-focused, with lots of survival phrases

Cons: Some languages have limited material; the accents can be challenging

Special Operations Language Training (SOLT)

Available Languages: IndonesianRussian, SerbianSpanishThai, many others (if active-duty military)

Price: Free

Description: Similar to the Peace Corps, members of the US Special Forces are required to reach a certain level of language proficiency (in their case 1/1 on the DLPT scale.) When completed in person, this 18 weeks (for Pashto) or 24 weeks (for Arabic); other languages are shorter.

Pros: Not a lot of “fluff”, courses get down to business quickly

Cons: Only a few courses are available online

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2017), "Language Learning for Social Service Workers," retrieved on December 8, 2022 from

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