Middle & High School Students Immerse Themselves in a Foreign Language | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Middle & High School Students Immerse Themselves in a Foreign Language 

Published July 21, 2015 at 10:08 a.m.

click to enlarge Students in the Chinese Academy practice early-morning Tai Chi Fan. - ISAAC WASUCK
  • Isaac Wasuck
  • Students in the Chinese Academy practice early-morning Tai Chi Fan.

It all starts with the pledge.

On the second day of the four-week Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA) — a rigorous language immersion program that originated at Middlebury College in 2008 — middle and high school students take The Language Pledge. It's a formal promise that they will only communicate in the language they’re studying while attending the academy.

That means English is off limits — not just in class but during meals, dorm meetings and off-site excursions. The exception is twice-weekly phone calls home and two hours allotted for English speaking on Saturdays.

This month, Spanish, German and Arabic academies for students entering eighth through twelfth grade took place at Green Mountain College in Poultney while Saint Michael’s College in Colchester hosted 149 students for a French academy and 125 students for a Chinese academy.

The programs attract students from all over the country, as well as international students from far-flung locales including Moscow, Dubai, Nigeria and the Phillipines. Locals attend, too; 34 Vermonters signed up for the July academies at Green Mountain College and St. Michael's College. 

One of those students was 16-year-old Zoe McClure, a rising junior from St. Johnsbury. On the afternoon before graduating from the French academy at St. Mike’s, she spoke about her experience — in English.

Knowing she was going to have to speak exclusively French for almost a month was a bit scary at first, she said, and the first few weeks were difficult. With a smile, she recalled resorting to pantomime to figure out how to do things like laundry.

But the hard work — doing Internet searches using Google France, giving presentations and designing Powerpoints in French and reading articles from French-language publications — paid off. “Oh my gosh, I’ve learned so much,” she said. As she neared the end of the immersion experience, she said she was having trouble remembering words in her native tongue.

And the benefits extended beyond academics. Zoe said the bonds she formed with fellow students were strong. “I have a feeling there are going to be some tears tomorrow,” she said as she looked forward to the next day, when students would be returning home. “There’s something about everyone struggling that makes everyone come together.”

The pedagogical approach of MMLA is to give the students “more than they can handle,” says Cort Boulanger, a spokesman for Middlebury Interactive Languages, the digital world-languages company that runs the academies. Most, but not all, of the attendees have some prior experience with the language they're studying. A placement test upon arrival helps group students appropriately. Improvement can be significant. According to data from the MMLA, many students gain at least a full language level on the American Council of Teaching of Foreign Language’s proficiency scale from the beginning to the end of the institute, and some gain two. That means language academy students might skip ahead one year in foreign-language class when they return to school.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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About The Author

Alison Novak

Alison Novak

Bio:
Alison is the former managing editor at Kids VT, Seven Days' parenting publication and writes about education for Seven Days.

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