The Middlebury Arabic School, or: that time I agreed to sign a contract barring me from speaking English for 8 weeks

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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.

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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.


My opinions on Clinton v Sanders are hardly a secret, but two aspects of New York Times op-ed page coverage of the election always irked me.

This is partially not their fault, as the demographics of NYT journalists generally is going to be affluent and NY-based, but they seemed to have no prominent Bernie supporters writing regularly. Obviously we read the op-ed page for the ops, but for a newspaper regularly lambasted as being out-of-touch, you’d think they’d try to provide a perspective that’s resonating with so many young people today.

Following on from that, I’m consistently astounded that the NYT columnists take a tone that is at once sycophantic and utterly condescending, as if to say that they couldn’t imagine a single reason everyone wouldn’t have already fallen in line without her.

But — credit where it’s due, David Brooks has written a very smart op-ed, “Why Is Clinton Disliked?

I would begin my explanation with this question: Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun?

It’s well-argued, and I buy the conclusion he ultimately comes to. Check it out.

Friday Morning

Until I levitate, I have work to do. That’s the day I’ll retire. When I actually fly.
—Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tour-de-force “Hamilton,” in a recent NY Times interview.

I’m enjoying lazy days of summer at my parents’ place right now — reading, sleeping 10 hours a night, and even stealing one of their bikes to cycle around Sonoma. Cycling is to walking as flying is to driving; you get much more landscape for your effort.

2016 continues to be an inhalation year, my prediction of six months ago still proving true. I’m writing far less (this blog and my TinyLetter excluded) and reading a lot more. A chunk of my day —each day, every day— is spend on Arabic of some description, whether it’s doing flashcards for vocabulary, practicing grammar, or reading children’s books or Harry Potter 1.

It’s really nice to have nothing to do but Arabic.

I’m continuing to power through Duolingo’s Spanish course, which is half a refresher in la lengua, which will be useful post-grad (even if I’m not yet sure how) and half a good way to get the language portion of my brain firing on all cylinders.

I’m about to fall off the edge of the universe to do the 9-week intensive Arabic course at Middlebury. It seems a lot closer now that I’ve finished the semester, but thankfully that proximity is accompanied by a great excitement. I met someone last week who was also a non-native Arabic speaker who did the Middlebury program. He spoke at length abut how much fun it was, which was so great to hear. I don’t know how journalling will work in Middlebury, but if you want to stay in touch I suggest the TinyLetter. I’ve been meaning to update it in May but “nothing much is happening, I’m very relaxed” isn’t much of an update.

I just finished a couple of good books that you just have to read, but for now just check out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, which I read in two sittings on a plane in Minneapolis. I don’t usually squee over fiction, but it’s very, very good. So good, in fact, that it was called the 21st century’s best novel so far.

I’ll leave you with this, an illustrated copy of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which was a birthday present from my best friend, Niloofar, at NYU. She was talented/gracious enough to draw in it before giving it to me.



May Flowers on Mayflowers

If I was more organized, I’d do an Andrew Sullivan-style View From Your Window contest. But I’m not, and so suffice to say I’m back in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of my favorite spots in the contiguous US.

I’m here to see the doctor who’s operated on me twice before. As I mentioned in a previous TinyLetter, this semester has been a big one in terms of both personal growth and personal wellbeing: I’m walking further, easier, than pretty much ever before. I put a lot of it down to living just far enough from NYU that I feel bad taking the subway and feel that I should walk if the weather is nice enough.

Post-semester, I’ve moved my nose off the grindstone and into the books that have been piling up around me. Since finishing, I’ve hoovered up:

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
  • Flashpoints: The Emerging Crisis in Europe, by George Freidman.
  • Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
  • This Town, by Mark Leibowich.

The top two are easily the best books I’ve read all year, in the fiction and nonfiction categories, respectively.

I have 3.5 weeks until I start at Middlebury. I’m planning on spending that time inhaling more books and tinkering with Arabic, making sure that I don’t forget it all between now and June 10.

A bientôt/سلامات/hasta luego

Monday Miscellany

I’m taking an hour to clear my head between my Arabic class and meeting a friend to study for the evening, and I thought I’d finally sit down and tap out some thoughts that have been marinating in my head this semester.

Now that I’m a week from the end of third year, I think I can say with some confidence that it was my favorite year of college so far.

Maybe it has something to do with 6 out of 8 of my classes being awesome (you always get one dud each semester, and just hope it’s not more), or maybe 221B has been a lovely home for me and I’ve really enjoyed having my own space and sharing it with Justine. I think there are definitely elements of both of those, but first and foremost I think it has to do with starting my Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies major and, in particular, starting Arabic.

And so I’ve been happier, fitter, more studious and more productive generally, and this makes me want to take a few seconds to take a second to see what I’ve been doing that I think is contributing to both my sustained happiness and wellbeing.

  • Let’s start basic: I get at least 7.5 hours of sleep a night. I’m the sort of person who reads blogposts and books about how to be productive when I’m procrastinating actually doing work, and I’ve read a lot about sleep, and my takeaway is that there’s a lot of variation when it comes to how much sleep people need, but that number is fixed. I need 7.5, my best friend significantly less.
  • Every piece of advice you can imagine for sleeping better, I’ve heard and tried. Sleep with natural light, sleep in a windowless room. Wake naturally, wake with an alarm. Go to sleep unplugged, go to sleep listening to an audiobook. Go to bed and get up at the same time at the same time every night, go to bed when you’re tired and get up when you’re not. Sleep with no pillows, sleep with 10. My only piece of advice is to experiment, figure out what works, and then kind of ignore everyone else. Drink sleepy tea (chamomile?), don’t drink anything. I’m sleeping my best sleeps in my current apartment, and the pieces of advice I pay attention to are: I go to bed at the same time (11:30p, plus or minus an hour because life) each night, weekday or weekend. I go to bed listening to audiobooks of light stuff, mostly Agatha Christie. These audiobooks are usually my only time during the semester I can read for pleasure. I sleep with no pillows and set an alarm every night for 7:30am. My bedroom gets zero natural light, because it’s at the center of the building. I wake up in the half-hour before my alarm roughly half the time. I almost never wake up groggy. When I’m dating someone whose bedroom has windows and I sleep over, I tend to wake up at the same time and almost always around the same time. (I think this last part says more about the people I date than anything else — it wouldn’t surprise me if I subconsciously self-selected for morning people.)
  • I drink alcohol no more than twice in a week and never more than three drinks in a night, but two is usually my limit. Maybe half the time, I’ll drink with food and the other half’ll be at a bar, where I’ll balance with water. I don’t smoke pot or cigarettes.
  • I started wearing an Apple Watch at Christmas. I experienced what Marco Arment called “filling the green circle.” It tells me I walk an average of 2.56 miles (4.12 KM) a day, which seems decent to me. I regularly hit 14/15 hours standing because my days at college tend to be long. I don’t really do anything else for fitness right now.
  • I have a bus commute of about 10 minutes each day. I spend the morning one doing either Arabic flashcards or Spanish Duolingo, both to retain mi Español from high school/freshman year of college and because I want the language part of my brain (specifically the parts that learn and retain new vocabulary) firing on all cylinders for these few months and over the summer. I spend the return bus ride responding to texts I’ve ignored throughout the day. I like conversational texting, but try to limit it. I remember reading somewhere that Sam Altman talks to 100 people a day via SMS and do not know he does it.
  • Speaking of — I generally don’t text during the day unless it seems urgent, can be responded to within 10 seconds, or I’m coordinating something.
  • I follow an unsustainable 900 people on Twitter, and instead read only the timeline of a list with 81 people I really care about. I try to read this timeline in three large bursts throughout the day — first thing in the morning, over lunch, and over dinner. I don’t use Facebook but do use Instagram. I don’t check the feed super religiously, but it’s my main visual record of college. Perhaps oddly, I really really love Snapchat.
  • I take class notes exclusively by hand, on some version of A4 pad. It looks like this but isn’t sketch paper. I type out notes again into a TextEdit document stored in Dropbox after class.
  • I generally believe you can’t study languages without consistent access to a whiteboard, and I study best when working through problems/sentences spread out in front of me.
  • I try not to be the sort of person who sets much store by physical things (you only own the things you can’t lose in a shipwreck!) but in terms of Physical Things, a pair of Beats over-ear headphones have brought me much joy this semester. I listen to music fairly constantly. I rotate between a playlist of Arabic House music, two musical soundtracks, and maybe 10 other albums. With the exception of the playlist, I only ever listen to albums straight through, never individual songs.
  • I eat the vast majority of my meals solo, seeing them as calorific intake rather than social events. That said — most of my socializing proper (i.e. not studying at the same as them) is done over meals. Usually breakfast, because it’s harder for breakfasts to run long than it is for lunches and dinner.
  • I eat a lot of hummus. No, like, a lot.

I’ll add more to this if I think of it, but this is a good start.

Music // الموسيقى

As I finish up my last 10 days of my junior year, I’ve been reading more about Middlebury and, in particular, its language pledge:

“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.”

The more I read about the language pledge, the more daunting it seems. I don’t mean this in a wholly negative sense — I think it’s part and parcel with Middlebury’s success, but I don’t think I appreciated that for 9 weeks, they want you talking, thinking, and breathing the language.

I’m not having second doubts (doing Middlebury seems to be the single best thing I can do for my Arabic, and that’s compelling), I think it’s more a question of not realizing as I applied just what no-English-for-9-weeks entails.

One such thing I had considered was that no English meant no music in English:

May I read the newspaper or weekly magazines in other than the target languages? May I listen to music in other languages? Any use of a language other than the one being studied is a violation of the Pledge. Use of a language includes listening, reading, writing, as well as speaking. Please remember that the Pledge is NOT simply a rule against using English; it applies to ALL languages other than the one that you came here to study.

I’m happy to devote myself to Arabic and give up The New York Times and The Economist, but music’s a little harder. I really like music. If I’m not actively talking to someone, you can assume that I’m listening to music. I’m pretty much never studying and not listening to something. Before going to write this post, I was listening to Michael Jackson’s Number Ones and studying for my science requirement. Even when I’m doing language study in Arabic or Spanish, I’m listening to something with no English from Nine Inch Nails or Trent Reznor, or increasingly, house music in Arabic. I listen to a lot of music, at least 3-4 hours a day, and so I think I’ll miss my staples (My Chemical Romance, Taylor Swift, Jay Z, Kanye West, the soundtracks to Hairspray and Hamilton) as much as I’ll miss talking to friends and family regularly. Oh well — bring on the soundtrack to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Some stuff others have written about the Pledge:

Mike Shaughnessy, writing in from Middlebury for Boing Boing:

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.

Cody Gohl, writing on a blog titled “English Spoken Here: A Summer at Middlebury”:

Language school kids break the pledge. A lot. And it’s understandable- Imagine if you were a level 1 (beginner) Chinese student, forced to adhere to the pledge. For a week and a half you wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone, awkwardly and, more importantly, silently bearing both the weight of social isolation and a ton of homework. Sounds pleasurable, eh? What I, and a lot of the summer workers have found, is that language-pledge-violators can be grouped into 3 categories based on both severity and frequency of breaking the pledge.

Adventures in Arabic!


My mom, my roommate, and I went to eat at Balade, a Lebanese restaurant in the East Village today. Pictured above is the amazing baklava we had for desert.

The waiter, Inis, was a Palestinian with a fluent level of colloquial Arabic. My Arabic’s mostly of the formal/MSA variety, but I knew enough of to talk with him and because he was patient (because he was “a sympathetic interlocutor,” as my professor would say), I was able to interact with him mostly in Arabic, ordering and asking ما اسمكَ؟ and all the rest.

When you’re learning a language —and I remember this from my early days with Spanish— having these sorts of short, in-the-wild interactions can be really scary, but when they go (mostly) well, they’re excellent. He also taught me a new way of responding to شكراً/thank you, which is to say شكراَ لالله, which literally translates as “Thanks to God,” and means that you’re being humble and saying that God deserves the thanks, not you.

Sanders Revolution Misguided From the Start

My column for the Washington Square News, NYU’s independent student newspaper. 

When I moved to the U.S. three years ago, I got the impression that political apathy was the pastime of American college students. Fresh from the disappointments of Obama’s presidency — failing to close Guantanamo Bay and rein in the worst abuses of the NSA domestic surveillance program — it seemed to me that a finely-honed nihilism toward all things political was standard operating procedure for students who entered university on the tail of the worst financial crisis in a generation. That all changed with Bernie Sanders, the unapologetic democratic socialist whose campaign homepage plainly asks, “ready to start a political revolution?” Here was a presidential run that launched a thousand think-pieces about how millennials weren’t so politically disengaged after all. He was the first candidate in living memory who galvanized youth voters, as Sanders’ rallies were packed to the rafters. Yet his success is unsustainable, and his efforts inevitably won’t create tangible change.

Sanders’ grassroots movement, despite some unlikely wins in Michigan and Wisconsin, seems unable to beat the Clintonian juggernaut. One should never say never, but it appears that Clinton’s New York primary win is the death knell of the Sanders campaign. As the country gears up for an unlikely showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s worth looking back at Sanders’ rhetoric and asking if his campaign to boot out the billionaire class was ever likely to succeed.

If Sanders was truly married to the idea of political revolution, I believe he would have started at the bottom and worked his way up. I am unsure how many Sanders supporters at NYU can name their senators, let alone their state representatives.

I’m by no means an expert in electoral politics, but it seems to me that a presidential campaign is the last place to mount a political revolution. Leaving aside Sanders’ missteps regarding the implementation of his own policy in an editorial meeting — he was unable to back up his talking points with concrete policy plans — it is utterly unclear to me how any political revolution can hope to begin at the top and work its way down with a Democratic president who does not enjoy Democratic majorities in either the House or the Senate. Local politicians, state senators and mayors are much closer to the average voter, and have much more political sway in the lives of everyday Americans.

Much of the criticism levied at Sanders is unfair, but this does not mean that Sanders’ campaign is faultless or even on the right track. If Sanders’ supporters want to change the face of U.S. politics, they must abandon presidential aspirations and channel their considerable energies toward local politics. Take back the House; start small. That is how you build a movement.

Topsy Turvy Day

Maggie Haberman, writing about Trump’s friendship with Elton John and his husband, and how Trump blogged about the couple when they married back in 2005:

“I know both of them, and they get along wonderfully. It’s a marriage that’s going to work,” Mr. Trump wrote, adding: “I’m very happy for them. If two people dig each other, they dig each other.”

The article, headlined “Donald Trump’s More Accepting Views on Gay Issues Set Him Apart in G.O.P.,” is indeed interesting. Trump is like every other GOP candidate tripping over themselves to define marriage as being between one man and one woman, but with a history of donating to AIDS charities at a time when the Republican president couldn’t even bring himself to say the name of the disease, Trump really doesn’t fit into the mold of the GOP candidate. Additionally, Trump pointedly avoided the opportunity to talk shit about transgender people in light of the idiotic and odious “bathroom law” passed in North Carolina this month. It’s all very strange in the GOP race this year.

This is all compared to the man Trump has to beat to the nomination this summer — the evangelical ideologue Ted Cruz, the man who called the legitimacy of the Supreme Court into question after Obergefell.

I agree with both of the conclusions that the NYT article comes to, that Trump’s pro-gay-in-practice stance (he is apparently friends with queer people, and there’s documented evidence LGBT folk held high positions in various Trump businesses) is less of a moral stance and has more to do with spending his entire life in Manhattan and caring about his bottom line — gay people can do all the jobs straight people can, and he’ll take their money just as willingly.

All this to say, this just one of a myriad of reasons that I believe the GOP party as we know it is going to implode some time this summer. Trump has taken their xenophobia to its logical extreme, even making party faithfuls like Romney squirm, and the RNC hates his guts. The problem? He’s almost certainly going to be the nominee, so whether they rally around him or try to block him, this feels like a watershed moment for the GOP.

I’ve also been thinking about the tectonic shifts the Democratic party is experiencing, how Sanders’ inability to get the nomination is evidence that the more hawkish and affluent elements of the party have it in a stranglehold. But Sanders’ popularity, unable as it is to translate into a groundswell of support for his nomination, is indicative that many voters are fed up with the Clinton dynasty. I’m willing to let the White House be a shill for Wall Street for another four years rather than see it burned to the ground under Trump (hence my endorsement of HRC) but I genuinely think Sanders’ momentum is something that we [Democratic-minded activists] could work with, and channel that energy and that desire for change into governance on a more meaningful local level — mayors, state senators and the like.

That would make for a very interesting Democratic party, and it would probably involve a very protracted and divisive split down the middle.

Y’know some people consider “May you live in interesting times” to be a curse?