Middlebury Language School is a 6-8 week intensive summer program where students sign up to speak the target language — and only that language — in everything they do. It’s an attempt to bring the concept of foreign language immersion to the United States without needing to leave the country.
I attended the Japanese school in 2014, and while I managed to learn some things and make some good friends, the program, as a whole, is not something I recommend. Here is my full experience with it.
The Japanese program is organized by five levels of difficulty, with level one being for beginners and level five for the most advanced (in Japanese, these levels were referred to as 初級 I、初級 II、中級 I、中級 II、and 上級 for levels 1-5, respectively).
Your level is decided in the first week by a placement test. Once decided, the four classes you take each day are all with the other students who placed into your level. The amount of students in each level was very much like a parabola, with the highest amount (about thirty students) in level three, and the smallest amount (about 10-12 students) in levels one and five.
The placement test is fairly accurate in putting you where you’ll fit best, but you still have about two weeks from the first day of classes to choose to drop down or move up. As far as I know, students in my year only chose to drop down. I myself placed into level four, found it too difficult, only to drop to level three two weeks later and find it too easy.
The main flaw with the level grouping system is that it makes the immersion fake. You spend four hours of your time with students who can’t speak Japanese much better than you. Then, you spend another four hours doing homework, most likely asking the people in your level for help (if you’re not asking a teacher), because those are the students who remember that particular thing so-and-so-sensei said that you didn’t quite get.
As a result, you spend so much time with these students that they become your friends — which is great, except that’s now one less opportunity to really challenge you to speak and learn Japanese.
A true immersion environment would be sink or swim. You’d be constantly exposed to Japanese way above your level, forcing you to learn in order to get things done. At Middlebury, it was extremely easy to coast. Extracurricular activities and meals were really the only times you got to speak to other students in a group setting.
If you were a beginner, it was hard to understand anyone above you, hard to enjoy the Japanese guests who were invited to visit and give talks. If you were an advanced student, you probably had the least amount of time because you had the most amount of (and the most difficult) homework. But you would always have to dumb down your speech to be understood by other students whenever you wanted to talk to them. The only way “up” was to talk to teachers.
Sure, it’s “all Japanese, all the time,” but not done in a way truly conducive to learning.
The Language “Pledge”
The language pledge dictates that for the entire duration of the program, you will speak the target language and only the target language, save in cases of emergency (or occasional, brief conversations with loved ones). It’s taken seriously enough that Middlebury forces you to sign a contract saying you’ll uphold it.
Everyone does *not* obey it. You thought the fear of being expelled would stop people from speaking English?
Of course, there were definitely some 真面目 (serious) types who were suspected of tattling on students who were hiding that they were speaking in English, but at least a third of the students took breaks.
A friend of mine who was a Middlebury undergrad and knew the campus better than the rest of us found a room in a building away from the Japanese school’s dorm where a few of us would laugh and gossip about the teachers. Students would go into town on Saturdays and speak in English, away from the watchful eyes of teachers.
There was a conference room in the dorm where the beginner students would joke and complain in English, all the while with their textbooks open, ready to immediately switch into Japanese if the wrong person were to walk in. Being that this was the Japanese school, students would often “katakanify” words to get around the pledge in public.
Students would go to other students’ rooms and speak in English in low voices (a friend and I got caught doing this with no repercussions, which makes me wonder how egregious the case of a student speaking English to get expelled really has to be).
Truthfully, violating the pledge was one of the best parts of the program. Not because you were speaking in English, but because you were finally able to really bond with people. It’s not easy to go through such an intense, rigorous program and not be able to express yourself or connect on more than a superficial level with the people around you.
Referencing jokes with students outside my level in Japanese that we’d originally made in English, to the great confusion of the teachers, was fun, an opportunity for laughter and bonding in an otherwise stressful environment. Not only that, but people of various age groups, backgrounds, and with different reasons for attending were a part of the program, and for at least half of the students there, it was difficult if not impossible for them to talk about themselves otherwise.
And there’s the fact that sometimes, explanations of how a foreign language works just won’t make sense to you in that foreign language.
4 Hours of Homework (to Match 4 Hours of Class) Every Night
The goal of the program is not so much to teach you Japanese as it is to shove an entire textbook down your throat in eight weeks. No matter what level of difficulty you place into, you *will* have a lot of work.
While this work load is expected, in practice it made the program feel more like two months of cramming for a very important test instead of dedicated learning time. In level three classes, of the fifteen chapters in the Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese textbook, we studied ten of them, and the accompanying workbook made up the bulk of our homework assignments.
In level four classes, as the textbook was written by the professors and consisted of mostly excerpts of literature, manga, and poetry, the homework was focused on writing comprehension and using newly introduced grammar patterns in compositions correctly. Either way, it took a long time to complete. And as you can expect with cramming, the
knowledge you spend so much time stuffing into your short-term memory fades easily, even with a few weeks’ break.
If you happened to be exceptionally quick with your assignments, you would still end up fairly bored, since there would be few other people free enough to do anything with.
Extracurricular Activities Are Fun… But Drain Your Time for Homework
For all the pledge breaking I discussed above, there actually wasn’t all that much opportunity to do so. The other fun thing about Middlebury (although it took a considerable amount of time away from all of the homework you were assigned) was the extracurricular activities. There were clubs to join, like karaoke, or calligraphy, and outdoor sports as well, like soccer or volleyball. At the halfway point of the program, you were required to switch to another club. There were no prerequisites — you could join any club you want to.
Then every weekend, there were a few special activities. Some of these were during the day, multi-hour events, like 運動会 (a field day), while others were in the evening, like movie nights or the occasional party. There was even a talent show at the end of the year. If you’re thinking about attending this program, I highly encourage you to click through the photos and videos of speakers and events from past years to get a sense of some of the really cool things you get to do.
They were all great ways to diffuse stress and make friends while engaging in something usually related to Japanese culture, and were particularly interesting also because they forced you to use the language outside of a classroom or mock real life setting.
The Japanese school cost roughly $11,000 when I attended, and as of 2018, that cost has risen to $12,155. This doesn’t include the cost of books, travel, or living expenses. There are a few scholarships, but only for very specific situations, such as the Portuguese Teachers Fellowship for students in the Portuguese school.
The most you can get in financial aid is roughly half of the entire cost of the program — if you’re lucky. The financial aid is need based and *does* run out. That $11k? I paid that entirely in student loans.
Almost as bad as the financial aid is the communication for it. The only way to know if there is still aid available is by a page on their website that essentially only says ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ next to the name of the language school. This year they have at least added a small date at the bottom of the page to let you know when it last updated.
The year I applied, Middlebury did not send out a single piece of outreach notifications about aid, and it wasn’t until after four months of waiting and an email to the director of financial aid that I got an answer. Talk about not a good first impression.
A Quiet Town So You Can Do Nothing But Study
Every year, the Japanese school moves between locations. In odd numbered years, it’s located at the Mills campus in California. In even numbered years, it’s located in Middlebury, Vermont. Whatever you do, do not go on an even-numbered year.
Middlebury, Vermont is a small, quaint, stereotypical New England town. There are maybe five restaurants, a farmer’s market. A handful of cafes. A post office. A church, complete with a steeple. Luckily the town is pretty walkable and there are at least sidewalks. On particularly sunny, hot, humid days, you are graced withe the hearty, inescapable aroma of cow poop from the many dairy farms nearby.
And who knows? Maybe that’s your cup of tea. Maybe you will find it quaint. But don’t go to Middlebury expecting there will be much to do outside of campus if you feel the need to escape the constant Japanese grind without going very far.
Final Thoughts: ★★★✰✰
The Middlebury Language Program is academically brutal. Not necessarily because the work is difficult, but because there is so much of it. Even though I went into the program willingly, excitedly, even, I was constantly stressed, as I needed to do well enough to transfer the semester’s worth of credits to my home institution. Even if I didn’t need the credit, the desire to do well would leave anyone struggling and exhausted. Not to mention, going $11,000 into debt to spend most of my summer doing homework was not exactly what I had expected.
My desire to learn Japanese was tested to the point that I wasn’t even sure I wanted to bother with the language anymore, and I ended up taking a year and a half long break, losing memory of most of what I may have gained from the program in the process. Me, who was printing out kanji practice sheets at 13 and who studies electronic flashcards for fun.
For the cost alone, if you’re looking for an immersion experience, I would recommend finding one that’s actually in Japan.
If you want to meet some cool people (and willing to break the language pledge to do it), for some reason need to complete a lot of college credit in a short amount of time (I received the credit equivalent of four courses, but your school may not give you this), plan on going to Japan right after the program is over, and don’t mind spending your summer in hot, humid buildings with your nose in a book, then go to the Middlebury Language School.
But trust me when I say there are more enjoyable and less expensive ways to learn Japanese, and if you frequent this site, it’s safe to say this program is probably not for you.
Studying Japanese – whenever I can – wherever I can.