Postcard from Language Camp

langcamp.jpg Greetings from one of the best places in the world to learn foreign languages! DLI, CIA University? No, a small town in Vermont that hosts an annual summer language institute: Middlebury. To call the Middlebury language schools a camp is like calling a hurricane a rain shower.
At the core of the language program here is the contractual agreement of all participants to only use their language of study for the duration of their stay. The "language pledge" is in effect 24-7 and contributes to the full-immersion environment. In many ways, you are exposed to more of the language than in a country where it is spoken. There is simply no escape from the language outside of withdrawal from the program, resulting in a strange environment in this small Vermont town near the Green Mountain National Forest. Pictured above is Sunday morning at the library where students pore over word lists, prepare for the upcoming week, and listen to audio files to improve their listening comprehension. Giving up English for 7-10 weeks has a strange, Kafkaesque effect on the brain. You live in a heterotopian space, one that makes you question where and when you exactly are, and how you came to be there. Time seems to stand still in this environment as the new language permeates you, even as an instructor. The frustration of not being able to express yourself in English either gives way to creative uses of the new language, or a bout of 'language breakdown' when students are incapable of any form of communication. This intense committment to staying in the language has resulted in the occasional call from the local hospital asking for a translator for an injured student who is 'stuck' in the language. I am teaching beginning German this summer to students who have had almost no exposure to the German language. They too sign away English for seven weeks, and of course they often make the most progress of all students. It is a testament to the hard work of the students and to the human brain's ability to acquire languages. Middlebury started with a school of German in 1915, when Vassar professor Lilian Strobe thought that Middlebury's isolated geography would make an ideal place to allow students to focus on language learning. Today, Middlebury teaches 10 languages and on any Friday night, the town pub becomes an even more surreal place. As you walk in you can hear a table of German speakers, a table of French, a table of Spanish, etc. If you passed through town accidentally and did not know what was going on, you might question where in the world you were. If you try to speak to the students, you would only get a strange look or an answer in the language they study. The motto of the Language Schools is "No English Spoken Here". Teaching a language without the aid of any English explanations or translations is an interesting challenge, but the challenge forces both me and the students to strain our minds to comprehend and communicate. It forces a more efficient, comprehensive teaching and learning style that manages to promote quick and effective language acquisition. Students from a variety of backgrounds come here, including many graduate students who need a language for their research, government types whose first phrase in the language is "I'm not permitted to tell you what I do for a living," and students who are preparing to move abroad and need to learn as much of a language as possible in a short period of time. The program runs from June-August only and is roughly the equivalent of two years of instruction. The real trick is the constant immersion and steady interaction with other speakers. Contrary to popular belief, there is no way to 'pick up' a language quickly with self-study. Languages are spoken among people and that spoken interaction is critical to learning. Here, students only sit in classes 3-4 hours daily. The rest of the day is spent doing other activities involving high frequency vocabulary such as working out, playing teams sports, yoga, singing in a choir, eating, drinking, putting on a play, playing billiards, and hiking in the nearby forests; all in the target language. Often, these seemingly superfluous interactions outside of the classroom prove to be the most beneficial way to solidify what one has learned in the classroom earlier that morning. I have long lamented the state of language education in the United States, but I see change and improvement in foreign language education every year. Middlebury reflects this trend and has shown a steady increase in demand. Overall applications for admission to the program have increased 120% over a ten-year period. For Arabic, applications are up 375% and this increase has prompted the program to move the Arabic school to Mills College in Oakland, California. For my passion, German, applications are up a significant 75% with steady enrollments over a ten- year period, countering the trends of decreasing interest after the fall of the Berlin wall. For a realistic look at the amount of progress made, you can view the before and after videos on the Middlebury web site.


  1. God, I would love to attend this camp. I took three years of German, only to have it grow fuzzy as I lose practice. I’m quick on picking up languages conversationally (Japanese, German), but I find myself always speaking through the lens of a modified English. For example, I tend to think in German as Old English. It makes sense given the tie between the two languages, but I think there’s a level of disconnect present in a language until you find yourself in an immersion environment.

    Japanese, on the other hand, is a little easier to forget about English, since phrases/small words can infer gender(of the speaker)/tone/politeness/overall mood in a way really different in my mind to a lot of European languages.

  2. They have a really great free program like this in Canada where anglophone students go to francophone towns and vice versa for six weeks to learn their second official language. The whole no English thing really works – I became more fluent in six weeks than in the previous nine years of public school and four years of undergrad French. Although under use has caused it to devolve into a hacked up franglais…

  3. I took a month long course in Germany at the Goethe Institute where the “no english” is a must, because most people there dont speak english to begin with. It was a great program, and FAR less expensive than this course at Middlebury. With the cost of that tuition and board you might as well save money and actually go abroad to learn the language.

  4. Chinese School ’86 and ’87. Middlebury summer was one of the most memorable times of my life. If I could save up enough and take off enough time, I would take up another language there as a vacation.

  5. Wow, if my school or work or government paid for me or somehow subsidized this for people to go, I’d be ON it! I’ve had 4 years of French (2 years in the classroom, then 2 years off, then 2 years back in the classroom) and I speak it pretty poorly. I went to Montreal and quasi understood people in shops & restaurants but couldn’t form a reply back fast enough before they asked me if I spoke English.

    Its a shame it costs so much! Being 25, full time working, minimal part time student & lower middle class has its limits. I just couldn’t afford the time AND money it costs to go.


  6. Sounds great but if you spend time out of class conversing with other campers, many of whom are probably beginners such as yourself, how useful could that be? How is this better than studying in the country of your target language where you have contact with authentic native speakers?

    1. When you know that the other “campers” are in the same boat as you, you feel relaxed and free to experiment. Traveling to a foreign country and not knowing any of the language is too adventurous for many.

  7. I experienced something very similar in high school. It was called the Virginia Governor’s School. It is a summer program lasting several weeks (two months? can’t remember) where the student is immersed in a specific topic. In my case it was French, but there were programs for other languages as well as science, math, etc.

    It was basically a bunch of high school kids sequestered in a small town. We weren’t allowed to speak English and had a daily routine that was very similar to what’s described here.

    If you’re in high school or have a child that age, definitely look into whether or not your state offers the Governor’s School program. It was an amazing summer!

  8. Wow, this looks incredible. I was a Japanese major in college, and I can verify that those two boys in the video sound like they just finished their JAPN 102 final =) Frustrating conjugation mistakes included.

    I think the most valuable thing about this program, as was mentioned in the summary above, is that you can end up being exposed to more of the language than you would actually living in the country where it is used. I studied abroad in Tokyo for a semester, and in a big, automated city like that it’s easy to get through a whole day without speaking a word in Japanese. The only times I really needed to converse in Japanese on a daily basis were to order food (something you learn your first semester of Japanese), answer if I was called on in class, or to ask a question in my club. The rest relied on my ability to make Japanese friends and keep a conversation with them afloat in my broken and limited Japanese.

    My listening skills shot WAY up while I was there, and my reading quite a bit too, but my speaking and writing stayed pretty much the same, despite the rigorous coursework involved. And that rigorous coursework left little time for fostering those relationships with Japanese friends.

    Anyway, my point is, while the study abroad experience is amazing in its own way, I could absolutely see a program like this being much more effective for the language part.

  9. @#7: there are a couple of relevant replies to your question. First of all, your free time is very limited, so even if you were in the native country, if you’re studying as much as is required at Midd you’re not going to have much time to seek out native speakers. This is evidenced by programs like Princeton in Beijing, which essentially is the same kind of program but set in China, complete with language pledge. While it is nice to be in Beijing and be able to sightsee, in reality PiB students have very little time to go around the city chatting with locals.

    n.b. this isn’t a camp, by the way, read the entry again, it’s a language school. It’s like your freshman year packed into 7-10 weeks (depending on language), only you’re only studying 1 subject, day and night.

    Your idea that speaking to other beginners isn’t as good as speaking to native speakers is a valid one. Except at Midd there aren’t only first year students. In Chinese, for example, there are at least 4 levels of instruction. The upper level students are in many cases functionally fluent in many areas. So you learn a lot from speaking with them.

    And because there’s a language pledge, you end up speaking a lot less English than you would in a foreign country under normal circumstances. And because everyone is in the same boat, most embarrassment that prevents people from speaking up is eliminated–like lewsmind says above.

  10. I attended the French school a few years ago and it was fantastic. I learned more in those few weeks than I had managed to retain in 6 years of middle, high, and college courses, and most importantly retained it longer. But, the key really is those extra curricular groups, which I avoided unfortunately. But I can’t recommend the program enough, and I will return, hopefully to learn something new, like Arabic.

  11. I am so glad we are now acknowledging how important knowing another language is. As primary school teachers, my colleagues and I use this total immersion system in our two-way bilingual programs, starting in kindergarten.

    The students are immersed for half of the day in the foreign language, listening to and speaking only that language. They learn all their content standards in that language. The other half of the day the instruction is in English. The teachers who teach the foreign language only speak to the children in that language, and never ever reveal that they speak English. By the end of sixth grade, most children speak like native Spanish or Chinese or Japanese speakers of their age.

    There is a long waiting list to enroll students in these (public) schools, as parents realize that their children benefit from learning the second language.

  12. For those at the right stage of your education (who are/want to be in the USA) who really want to take a foreign language seriously, also consider the Language Flagship programs that certain colleges have, which offers a highly immersive environment over the course of your undergraduate degree.

    I’ve had students attend Middlebury and love it to death, and even things like Facebook statuses and Twitter accounts must also be updated in the target language. It definitely has a huge impact in the students’ confidence after their return, particularly if you bookend it with a study abroad program or vacation to the target language region.

    If you’re thinking of graduate school in the USA and are considering one of these experiences, look for schools/program that offer FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowships in the world area you want through the US Department of Education, which not only give you an academic year stipend and tuition coverage, but may also cover summers at places at Middlebury. They’re highly competitive but a great way to add language fluency to your study.

  13. I did a week-long version of this kind of thing for ASL, and it helped immensely. I can only imagine what seven weeks would have done.

    As for apeing other beginners, there are instructors there to guide you along when you make mistakes, and you tend to pass along those corrections to others. It works better than it probably sounds at first.

  14. The really big language school in the States is the Mormon Missionary Bootcamp. The Mormons send thousands of those kids with the big plastic nametags to every country on the planet for missions of about 2 years. This is why most of the international call centres in the US are in Utah. It’s not too hard to walk into your local supermarket there and find a shopping cart wrangler or some such who speaks something such as fluent idiomatic Urdu.

  15. One of my kids does a 2-week language immersion camp through Concordia College in Minnesota every summer. They offer 15 languages, and many different types of programs year-round: day, weekend, one week and longer; beginning students, high schoolers for academic credit, school groups, educators, and families.

    They’ve been doing it nearly 50 years now. I can highly recommend their program.

  16. For those who want a similar experience but without quite the cost commitment, go to Beloit. I’ve been to both Middlebury and Beloit, and they’re both great.

  17. Hey, chgoliz, I went to Concordia language camps twice as a kid (French and german). They really are fantastic because the offer two great things: summer camping in Minnesota (lakes! sunshine! mosquitoes! lakes!), and immersion in a particular language. Worth traveling to for anyone within a few hundred miles.

  18. I went to the Spanish Language Program at Middlebury the summer of 2003. It was a once in the life time experience…great professors! My roommate…didn’t like her so much but it was a wonderful experience!

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