This day two weeks, I’ll be gearing up to pause my life on hold and commit myself to 8 weeks of nothing but Arabic. I’m spending most of this summer being a student of Middlebury’s Language School, a program that runs out of Mills College in Oakland. Among language students in the US, Middlebury’s got a reputation as being excellent but exhausting, mostly because of its language pledge, which students sign on Day Two, before the placement exam.
“In signing this Language Pledge, I agree to use ___________ as my only language of communication while attending the Middlebury Language Schools. I understand that failure to comply with this Pledge may result in my expulsion from the School without credit or refund.”
That’s it. No chitchat in the dorms; no books in English, and no music (except instrumental albums). No newspapers — so I’ll have to follow the political circus through Arabic-language news sites and newspapers (which, to their credit, Middlebury provides).
From what I can tell, they take the Pledge seriously — a written warning for the first infraction, and turfing you out on your arse the second.
On the one hand, it’s exciting to be surrounded by people who would also willingly give up 8weeks of their life to learn a language. On the other, the accepted students’ website encourages you to contact your family “the absolute minimum that you feel you need,” while page 36 of the 2015 handbook notes that “depression or anxiety may result” from the stress of immersion. It goes on to provide coping strategy.
It’s safe to say that I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve talked to a handful of people who’ve done the program over the last decade, trying to get a sense of whether Middlebury is more like entering a monastery, the army, or prison. The answer, as with most things, is probably somewhere in the middle.
Each of them sings the program’s praises, and my impression is that going somewhere like Middlebury is the step that people take when they’re serious about learning a language. This estimation was backed up when they sent out the sample week at the Arabic school.
I’m particularly intrigued by the late office hours. As far as I can tell, the thinking is that there’s ~6 hours of class each day, with 4–5 hours of homework assigned — a mixture of grammar drills, vocabulary lists (they apparently teach you 3,000 new words in the program, or 75 words 5 nights a week), go over homework corrections, and do the assigned reading. After that, you get a break for dinner and then head to office hours, where you pose questions to your professor or TA. Somewhere in all that, you find the time to sleep and get up in time to do it all again the next day.
I’ve been spending some time in my downtime between the end of my NYU semester and the beginning of my Middlebury semester gathering up the “considerable physical, intellectual, and psychological stamina” that Middlebury says is required for the program.
I’m used to long days during the semester, and I’m confident of my basic foundation in Arabic, but I’m not sure what to make of the psychological aspect. My brothers and I grew up in the middle of the country in Ireland, 15 minutes from the nearest town, and there wasn’t a lot to do in the evenings after school except read and play together. I have a hunch that this solitude was formative in the sense that it was where we learned to enjoy our own company, and it gave us time and space where our creative pursuits — writing in my case, coding and tinkering with computers in the case of my brothers.
It’s obviously impossible to know the counterfactual, but I see those long stretches of time when there wasn’t much else to do but bury our heads in our hobbies almost as the grandfather of the decision to sequester myself from the world for 8 weeks. (That, and I agree with Harj Tagger’s claim that 3-month sabbaticals are the future of learning.)
And so I’m filling my days before Middlebury with some revision, catching up on sleep after a long semester, warning friends that I won’t be in touch in the usual language, and saving long playlists of classical/techno music on Spotify.
I’ll write a follow-up piece once I finish the program in August, and might run off a midterm update in Arabic/بالعربية sometime in July.