| by Amelia Seepersaud
MIDDLEBURY — Each summer, Middlebury College welcomes over 1,500 students onto its campuses to learn any of the 13 languages offered by its Summer Language Immersion programs.
As the programs start off in late June/early July, each student takes the language pledge in which they agree to speak only the language they are learning for the entire seven to eight weeks of the program. Students attend classes, eat meals, participate in clubs and activities entirely in the language of their school.
Having been around for over a century, the language school has been a proven successful program for language acquisition.
But since the schools opened in 1915, a variety of theories of language acquisition have been developed and the discussion around effective methods towards language acquisition has broadened. In particular a more recent movement known as “translanguaging” offers a perspective that slightly diverges from the pedagogy the language schools currently follow.
“In translanguaging you draw on your first language as a resource,” said Middlebury Professor of Writing and Linguistics Shawna Shapiro.
Shapiro discussed the shift that has been happening in classrooms away from “monolingual language ideologies.” She explained that with these ideologies there is a sense that it is necessary to stay in the language you are learning as much as possible and that your first language is a threat to the language learning process.
But, Shapiro believes that the translanguaging approach can be beneficial as it allows the learner to create connections and pull from the knowledge of their first-language to build their skills in the new language.
But Shapiro also has reservations with this approach. She reflected on her own experience having studied language in college.
“I studied abroad in Spain and we didn’t have a language pledge,” she said. “A lot of the other American students studying with me were using English.”
She had a Spanish-speaking friend with whom she was able to speak in Spanish.
“I was lucky to challenge myself linguistically,” she continued. “Something like a language pledge can be an external motivator.”
She says for most people having their own intrinsic motivation is the number one factor of successfully learning a language.
Shapiro as well as Associate Dean of Language Schools Thor Sawin agree on the fact that part of what makes the language schools work is that it is a select group of students who actively opted into an immersion program like this.
Sawin explains that the discomfort that comes with full immersion into a language is what fosters the language learning process in the language schools.
“Regardless of which of those theories you ascribe to, they all place a high value on interacting with another speaker of the language where you both desire to complete the interaction,” he said. “I’m invested in what you’re saying to me, you’re invested in my response back and we have to work together. It’s in that microlevel, rephrasing something, restating it again, asking ‘do I say it this way,’ ‘what’s the difference between this and this,’ ‘is this what you wanted to say?’ That back and forth, that’s actually where a lot of the long lasting value in language acquisition comes from.”
Current School of French level 3 student Orlando Caceres told the Independent that he is enjoying his experience in the language schools this summer.
“I was excited,” he said (translated from French). “I think I’ve had a good experience up until now because I like the summer, I like the classes, with the sun it’s better than the winter. I like the community here.”
Caceres plays volleyball with other students in the French school twice a week, which has been a big source of community for him this summer. Through the activity he was able to make friends and use the French skills he learns in his classes each day.
The main challenge for Caceres has been knowing that he has a lot of friends on campus in other language schools that he can’t speak to. He is also a student at Middlebury College during the school year, he’s going into his junior year now as a Global Security Studies major.
“I have a lot of friends from the academic year who are here. But, they don’t speak French, not really,” he said. “I think that it’s a little difficult because it’s necessary to not speak to your friends. But I think it’s just the life here. It’s not so easy but we can do it.”
The language schools also try to offer resources to students who may be particularly struggling with the demands of the pledge. Caceres said he felt the French school administration was very willing to offer support and flexibility to students when they’re struggling. Sawin also noted that there is a language schools support group offered through the counseling centers in which students can discuss in English the challenges of the pledge.
Sawin believes that the language immersion that Middlebury fosters is a unique community of language learners and that students grow each summer because of their own desires to learn and improve together. “I really don’t think that what we do here at Middlebury is for every kind of learner in every kind of situation,” he said. “But it’s delivering an element that is often missing and the other options that are available in the American language market.”