July 1, 2015: Language Schools Convocation Address

July 1, 2015

Friends, Colleagues, Students,

It is my great honor and pleasure, in my first official act on my very first day as your new president, to welcome you all to the opening of the second session of the Language Schools at Middlebury! And to be able to do so on the centennial anniversary, celebrating 100 years of inspirational work in the academy and the world, is an even greater privilege. This particular opening is a time of celebration—a moment where we find the courage to learn, and a season of faithfulness to the best of Middlebury’s educational principles: the tradition of immersive learning and the Language Pledge, about which you will hear more in just a few minutes.

Let me begin with celebration. My husband, Shalom, and I, in our eagerness to join the community, have been reading about the Language Schools. We were delighted to learn that the tradition of language learning goes back to the very early decades of Middlebury’s history—with the Western classical languages of Greek and Latin offered in the first year of the College in 1800, and Hebrew and the modern language of German being offered as early as the 1820s. But the establishment of the first Language School in 1915 marked a period where language fluency was no longer strictly tied to the scholarly study of classics and the Bible. Rather, language fluency became a matter of national and international relevance. As the School of Hebrew’s Bernadette Brooten reminds us, the idea of immersive language learning is a commitment to understanding other cultures and building bridges not only in spite of, but rather in the midst of, military and political turmoil. These are not flimsy bridges. They are the intellectual equivalent of bridges made of the finest steel, the hardest and most lasting substance known to humankind. The fact that this institution has lasted 100 years should be a moment for all of us, as it surely is for me, of deep admiration. We should stop to wonder at the collective genius that conceived and executed the original idea, and the extraordinary commitment that made it thrive—through the wars as well as the great achievements of peaceful diplomacy in the 20th and 21st centuries, and through the worries about language enrollments and technological changes in higher education that recent decades have also brought. As Vice President Michael Geisler puts it, it’s not just that the Language Schools have lasted. Nor are they outdated. It’s simply that the rest of the world has caught up to founder Lilian Stroebe’s idea. So this summer, make your learning celebratory. As you work with paradigms and struggle for words, remember this unique form of leadership that is Middlebury!

Let me turn now to courage. As my new colleague Stephen Snyder and I discussed this past spring, language learning is one of the deepest forms of identity creation that there is. How many graduates of language programs have said to me, “I’m a different person in my second language than I am in English—a whole other side to my personality comes out.” And as Charlemagne put it, when you learn a new language, you grow a new soul. But before this identity can emerge, there are the tough realities of hard work: the repetition of paradigms, the terror of making mistakes, the worry of offending someone through an inadvertent mis-phrasing.  

And this is where the courage comes in. I know this at a very personal level. As a committed lover of language learning, I dove into learning Hindi before my first yearlong research trip to India, where I was reading Sanskrit texts with traditional teachers. But I was also 23 and had a lot of other things to distract me. And Hindi was overwhelming, with a different script. I just couldn’t transfer my knowledge of fifth-year French to the grammar of Hindi. So, being 23, I found a boyfriend who was fluent in Hindi. He also had a bright red Enfield motorcycle. So, I decided that I would ride on the back of that motorcycle all throughout India and let him speak Hindi for me. In a word, I lost the courage of learning a language and gained the foolhardiness of traveling all across India on a motorcycle without a helmet.

I discovered some of my letters from that period. And I noticed a friend had written to me, clearly in response to my discouragement at learning Hindi and giving up on the entire project. She said, “I am sorry you can’t do the Hindi thing. Maybe you need an immersion where you have no choice?” So even then, as a response to my failure of nerve, someone suggested a Middlebury-like solution. So let me say, that even though I gained some of those Hindi skills eventually, it would have been so much better if I had understood what Middlebury Language Schools have understood for a century: that such learning takes courage, and courage in the midst of a supportive, rigorous environment. When you are exhausted, when you think everyone else is learning more than you, when you can’t think of the word and lapse into discouraged silence, remember that your whole project takes an immense amount of intellectual courage—everyday courage to rewire yourself and bring that new identity into flourishing.

And finally, there is faithfulness. This summer you have to take the leap that the strangeness of the new language will eventually become familiar. You will have to have the confidence that others will help you. And most of all, your commitment to the pledge is the deepest sign that you are willing to make a promise and stick to it, no matter how tempting the world of English may be. This means that you are willing to participate in the high standards that are the hallmark of a Middlebury education. And when you have remained faithful to that pledge, you will also be able to be faithful to your own ideals of transforming the world. As so many have written, there is a freedom in the speaking of another language that allows you to cross boundaries—to create new programs and solve problems that no one else could have, because your ideas can be expressed in more than one language. We have no idea what you will do with your newfound skill, but we know it will be extraordinary because you have kept your promise to yourself and to your fellow students.

So welcome to Middlebury. I am delighted that you and I share in the joy of a first day together. Together, we will learn a new language. I will learn the language of Middlebury, and you will learn Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish. To our Chinese learners: Nihao, Huanying. To our French learners: Bonjour et Bienvenue. To our German learners: Guten Tag und Herzlich willkommen. To our Hebrew learners: Shalom v’ Baruch Haba. To our Russian Learners: Privet, Dobro pozhalovat. And to our Spanish learners: Hola, Bienvenidos! Together we will celebrate. We will be brave. And we will know that, if we are faithful to our promises, we will indeed be able to transform the world.

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