The Middlebury Language Schools: 100 Years of History

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — The Middlebury Language Schools will celebrate a century of immersive language and culture study this summer with academic and festive events from July 15–19. The renowned summer programs take place on the Middlebury, Vermont, campus and at Mills College in California. Celebrations will be held on both campuses.

More than 50,000 students have attended the Language Schools since their founding, and more than 12,000 students have earned degrees. The German School was launched in 1915, followed in quick succession by French (1916) and Spanish (1917). Over the years, offerings have grown to include Arabic, Chinese, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Russian. The Centennial celebration will coincide with the inaugural summer for the School of Korean, Middlebury’s 11th summer language school.

“The Centennial gives us a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the rich traditions and unique pedagogy that have come to define the Language Schools,” said Vice President for Language Schools Michael Geisler.

“It’s also an important moment in our history to reflect on the present and future of language learning,” said Geisler. “We hope the community will join us for the many artistic and cultural events planned as well as for a conference that will gather some of the world’s leading voices in language education.”

Slideshow of historic images from the Language Schools.

On July 16–17, the Language Schools and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey will host a conference titled “The Local App: Language and Culture in a ‘Flat World.’” Attendees will tackle the question, “What is the environment in which tomorrow’s students and professionals will most productively learn about other parts of the globe and how to engage speakers of other languages?”

“We plan to look at how the U.S. education system can close the widening gap with European and some Asian countries regarding global job skills and multilingualism,” says Geisler.

The conference will feature keynote speaker Adrian Wooldridge, management editor and writer of the Schumpeter column for The Economist magazine. Several expert panel discussions will cover topics including global academics, language and identity, and the next century of language schools. The conference will close with speaker Frank Sesno ’77, a Middlebury alumnus and former CNN correspondent, anchor, and Washington bureau chief, who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.

The Centennial will be commemorated with a new book written by David M. Stameshkin, whose previous works, The Town’s College and The Strength of the Hills, document the history of Middlebury since its founding. Unlike those institutional histories, Stameshkin’s new work is more thematic and anecdotal. The book delves into topics such as the importance of the Language Pledge; Middlebury’s emergence as a top-rated institution; and how alumni have used their language skills to “build bridges” between peoples and cultures.

Stameshkin says he was struck by how radical Lilian Stroebe’s ideas were in 1915. Stroebe, a German professor at Vassar College, relocated her fledgling German summer school to Middlebury in 1915, developing the foundation and model for subsequent language schools at Middlebury.

“Oral proficiency was not considered very important in language education, and it was widely believed that you couldn’t teach high school students oral fluency in a classroom since they usually took only two years of a foreign language,” says Stameshkin. “Lilian Stroebe’s successful development of an innovative six-week language school based on linguistic and cultural immersion at that time is a great story!”

The July celebration will include a variety of artistic and cultural events, with musical performances by alumni, faculty, and students of the Language Schools, including:

  • Paco Alvarez, piano, and Maria Laetitia Hernandez, soprano, will perform on Thursday, July 16.
  • Grammy-nominated jazz singer Stacey Kent will perform on Friday July 17.
  • Nashville-based clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn will perform in Mead Chapel on Sunday, July 19.
  • An exhibit, titled “The Language Schools at the Art Museum,” will be at the Middlebury College Museum of Art.
  • A Language Schools history exhibit will be at the Davis Family Library.
  • An “Across-the-Schools” performance showcase will take place on Saturday afternoon, July 18, in Mead Chapel, featuring a wide range of musical styles and genres.

Additional events are still being finalized and will be added to the calendar this spring. For more information visit the Language Schools Centennial website.

With reporting by Stephen Diehl