Immersion programs & Middlebury Summer Language School: are they worth it?
A little background and FIVE reasons why my answer is one big YES.
If you are a language learner in any capacity, you know how difficult it is to develop an authentic proficiency on your own. While there are undoubtedly tools and techniques that you can use (duolingo, YouTube, Hello Talk, pop music, subtitling tools like Language Learning with Netflix, etc), there is no debate on the necessity to actually immerse yourself in the culture to break those B-1/B-2/C proficiency markers.
First, a little background:
These six-week, full-immersion programs promise (and deliver) significant proficiency boosts and have over 75 years and running of teaching to prove it. Starting in 1911 and continuing through times of war, depression, and social upheavals (including Covid-19!), MLS have offered world-renowned instruction in over twelve world languages.
The typical structure of the program is a six-week (for undergraduate or levels 1-4) and five-week (for graduate students or Master's-level students) programs consisting of two-three classes a day with instructors of native-fluency, cultural knowledge, and teaching expertise. On the first few days of arrival, all administrative tasks (check-in, move-in, etc.) takes place. The welcome ceremony for the school finishes with the signing of the Language Pledge in the form of a poster for each language program. By signing their names, each student commits to speaking only their program language (even the level-ones!) for the duration of the program. "Breaking the pledge" consists of refusing to speak the program language in a way that indicates a student's unwillingness to try and impedes the success of other students in an intentional way, but not asking for help or resorting to the L1 out of a lack of L2 vocabulary (if you are really trying but just need lots of help, the instructors and staff are always there to help. Believe me and them when they tell you that they understand the struggle!). The main motivation to keep the pledge is the consequence of being dropped from the program and receiving no refund or legitimate transfer credit.
"Opening ceremony" before signing the Language Pledge, somewhere between Raleigh and Black Mountain, North Carolina.
How I found Middlebury:
I found MLS during the summer before I began full-time graduate work at NC State. I had intermediate-high proficiency (according to ACTFL standards), and was looking for a refresher for my language skills and mental exhaustion following undergraduate graduation and everything that comes with it. The instructors and staff, courses, classmates, and activities provided just what I needed to jump back into a year of teaching, more coursework, and the new professional world of academia compared to undergraduate life. And, ultimately, Midd is so much more than a resume line or a network builder.
Although MLS is usually held in-person on Middlebury College's beautiful campus in Vermont, MLS of 2020 was held online via Zoom due to Covid-19. This undoubtedly moulded my experience into its own unique form compared to those who enjoy the program in-person, however, I promise you that my experience even online completely rejuvenated my mentality and enthusiasm for learning, studying, and teaching post-graduation. Being in the same classroom with the same instructors (even amazing ones) can take a toll on your ability to focus, stay motivated and interested, and grow outside the classroom. Two bachelor's and half of a master's degree in three years in the same environment (excepting a summer study abroad and language-guided extracurriculars) resulted in a burned out college grad. I knew I needed to find a way to rest and "enjoy the fruits of my labor" (i.e., rest lol) while maintaining my competencies and filling gaps in my knowledge was what I wanted to and needed to do during the summer break.
Just a few burned out college seniors.
I applied during the first application wave to meet the scholarship deadlines (read: I submitted my application on the very *last* day possible to be eligible for the first wave of the first-come-first-serve merit-based scholarship pool). I submitted my application early February and got my acceptance email on March 13th, just as spring break started. Of course, by the end of March, Covid had halted all normal operations and planning. Middlebury's staff managed the upheavals the best they could and ensured that they would do their best to preserve the "Midd magic" and I can say with complete honesty that I think they did that and more to create a special and successful experience.
To place students in the appropriate level and measure student success post-program, MLS required a placement test for all levels except L1 (i.e., students with little to no previous French exposure). While placement tests are typically not the favored element of any program, I appreciated the concise formatting and clear questions that exemplified how proficiency tests should be: no confusing questions, no tricks or "busy-work" types of evaluation. I applied as a L4 participant, but because I was enrolled in an MA program during the process of application, the director of the program personally reached out to me and offered for me to take the MA-level placement test.
I ended up completing both the L4 and the MA-placement assessments and landed in the L4 category, for a few different reasons. I had surpassed the L4 ceilings but was just below the MA floor (in linguistics, "ceilings" and "floor" are fancy indicators of top and bottom proficiency ranges), so my placement in L4 seemed most appropriate and the program director was incredibly helpful and accessible in the placement decision. On top of the extra time and effort of taking multiple placement assessments (although it really was not excessive and reaffirmed the expertise of MLS's staff and instructors and the care they have for each student), I was looking for a fun and refreshing review of grammar, culture, and conversation after a gruelling academic year of MA seminars rather than intense six-weeks of two seminars a day in the MA-level. The program director was able to help me choose the level that was going to be most suited to me as a student and a person.
Once placed and the program had started, I attended three classes a day (advance grammar at 11:00am, history and culture at 12:15pm, and advanced phonetics at 2:30pm), and at least one or two other Zoom sessions for the afternoon ateliers (clubs and activities) like cooking class, movie showings and discussions, fitness classes, and career panels for teaching and government networks. L4 was split into two sections, and my section included international students, full-time Midd students, and students from Ivies and public institutions all across the world. Our three instructors were French, Haitian, and Burkinabé, and created calm and engaging learning environments that made it easy to focus solely on making the most out of the program rather than getting bogged down by six+ hours of Zoom and homework each day.
Study buddy snuggles during Phonetics; Winston is 25% French Poodle so I guess he counted too towards the immersion environment.
In a normal summer, everything would operate in French with students dining with their instructors and getting to know them in and outside of class. Covid-19 made this difficult to say the least, so the online structure of Midd had to be readjusted. The full immersion structure of Midd included meal times, activities, study groups, tutoring hours, movie showings and discussions, workouts, career panels, board games, and online student cafés where program participants could connect outside of class time. My favorites were the cooking classes and career panels.
As the program came to a close, I knew I had made new friends and developed a new part of myself that comes from speaking my L2 for the majority of the summer. I had a new-found confidence and enthusiasm for speaking, I thought more in French and enjoyed more French music and film than ever because it was so much easier to understand than before, and I had gained exposure to different teaching styles and personalities that inspired me in my own teaching profession. The new community of Midd's students, teachers, and staff ultimately transformed the red-hot tongues that had manifested as burn-out into a warm flames for speaking and sharing my life and knowledge in French in and out of the classroom.
So that's the long of it, now for the short of it. Here are FIVE elementary reasons why I love Midd and why you should try it:
001. I learned SO much about myself, French language and culture, how to live in French rather than in France (i.e., sleeping, eating, breathing, doing everything in French from playing soccer to cooking a meal), how I operate in immersed environments, who I am without my L1/English (that has been a fun one), and so much more.
002. I felt the reality that the francophone world is bigger and brighter than a classroom. Any and every language department ever has plugged the "see and be the world" spiel, but an immersion program like Midd is amazing because there are people to hold your hand in the challenges, run along side you in the heat of it, celebrate with you when you make it through each week, and cheer you on when you finish the program with so many new skills, hobbies, friends, and competencies.
003. You'll make really cool friends. It doesn't matter if your a L1 or an MA student, introverted or extroverted, out-doorsy or allergic to nature, sporty or artsy, or whatever other box you may climb in as a person. There is something for everyone at Midd and the staff and teachers have the true passion for helping you along and growing WITH you in whatever you're passionate about too, AND all in a language you decided you cared enough about to sign yourself up for five to six weeks of strenuous linguistic and personal growth. I made friends with just about everyone in my class and still keep up with them on social media since we are all over the world, and I think you will too.
004. It's hard as a monolingual to imagine thinking and living in a different language, but for language students it's always kind of the goal, if not the expectation. But unfortunately, the simple fact and science of linguistics is that you can live in a foreign country and never truly learn that language unless you are forced to get into the uncomfortable headspace and zone of needing to use it and make it your own. No one studies French for a day and the suddenly starts dreaming in French. An immersion program like Midd creates the intensity and necessity of living in a different language and culture without the traditional elements that increase difficulty, stress, and fear: national geographic relocation (if you're in the USA), complete language barriers, and inappropriate immersion depth. Midd adapts to all these factors and provides support and encouragement for when it gets hard (and it does get difficult based on how much you want to get out of your time there). BUT I PROMISE YOU! If you go by the rules, play your sports, do your hobbies, make friends and work hard you WILL feel yourself switch over to your L2 almost completely by the end of the program, and you may even feel a little sad when you have the option and temptation again to switch back, or at least that's how I and literally all of my classmates felt ;).
005. It's a great introduction to special opportunities and relationships you may not have exposure to in a regular classroom and environment. My university is a very research-based and driven university. Midd, on the other hand, is closely tied with government and private sector opportunities that depend on future language speakers to stay globally relevant (think FBI, CIA, WHO, as well as all the other alphabet organizations and institutions of diplomacy). If you have any interest in these fields and worlds, whether professionally or because you are an intelligent and invested member of your community, exposure to these environments, personalities, and networks is invaluable as almost all global trajectories include foreign language proficiencies as a necessary component to understanding the world and contributing to the local, national, and global communities with which you may find yourself tied.
006/BONUS. If you are in the situation where your program is remote, the level of true immersion is up to you and can be flexible when you need it to be. Although my summer Midd experience was online, the mobility was a huge plus as I could be anywhere I needed to be and still pursue an immersive environment in a realistic and attainable way given the upheavals from Covid-19.
⬅️ Week 4 of French School, impromptu trip to Pensacola, Florida -- Still immersed, still learning, just from not my bedroom ◡̈
I definitely missed face-to-face interaction of doing all the engaging (and educationally strategic!) activities with my classmates and professors, but I would be lying if I said I did not see remarkable progress in my language skills on all three markers (reading, writing, and speaking).
I cannot speak highly enough of Midd and the experience I had there because of their gifted faculty. So, how about you? Have you been to Middlebury? Would you ever consider their programs? I think you should. I'd cheer you on every step of the way.