Confessions of Language School

After posting some fun clips of what happens during Summer Language Schools here in Vermont, I realized that people are hungry to know more about what happens here during the summer. What’s it really like not speaking English? Did they break language pledge to see Harry Potter when it came out?

One of the most honest and forthright accounts of Language School is by an Italian School student. Her blog is in English. It’s not MiddBlog’s job to be the Language Pledge police so her name is not listed here, but she details what most language school students go through. And this window into Midd’s language learning is rare. When I tried blogging in English two years ago at the Chinese Language School, I was strictly warned to cease and desist or face expulsion.

Here’s a sampling of a Language School experience. Follow the arc and timeline as she moves through the summer:

June 28th:

Meals are really cool. I meet new people at meals every day. The level one students are terrified of meals because they’re forced to talk about things they don’t know how to say and a lot of them sit with more advanced students so as to learn new words and phrases. Almost everyone carries around a little notepad to scratch down things they hear that they don’t recognize, and then later that night they can look them up. We are, I found out today, allowed to use italian-english dictionaries, which is fabulous.

June 30th:

I’m swamped with homework. All the time. Sort of gasping for air in one of my classes. It’s really hard for me. I realized today that most of the other students in my level are: 1) fluent in 2 or more languages and learning italian only now 2) 25 years or older 3) have studied italian for over 3 years. I guess I’m just making excuses for why they have advantages and why I feel like i’m having trouble, but these people are INCREDIBLE at italian, and it’s intimidating my socks off. I can speak, sort of, but I usually stutter before getting a thought out.

July 4th:

Anyway, about the families here: There’s this incredible family atmosphere here, mixed with young people, priests, grad students, and visiting artists (mostly authors). I love seeing the wives of some of the professors, or husbands of the professors chat with each other in quick dialect italian. Since I only have a few professors out of the 15 or 16 that are employed by the italian school, I can hardly tell the difference between whose a spouse of a professor and whose actually a professor so all the real italian people just fade together. It’s like foreigners and true italians. But it doesn’t really even matter, because everyone treats each other the same way outside of class like in the dining hall. Everyone says hi, and its like a small village, which i guess might sound like a dorm at a college, but this feels stronger because of the huge cultural force that the real italians have brought with them to the states, just the flow of conversation and the hilarity of everything. I don’t know how to explain…

July 9th:

In less academic news, the soccer team here plays competitively against other countries (language schools). It’s like war. no joke.

July 12th:

So, I knew about this before, but it got me thinking about why I’m studying italian and what I want to do with it, because even if I wanted to I might not be able to get work in italy (ever). I don’t know. I just feel like its such a privilege to be studying this language in such depth, but what is there to do with it? italian culture and history are really interesting, but it’s a bummer that I’m not taking or haven’t learned spanish, because there are SO many jobs, in the states, but also all over the world, that require or look for bilingualism in english and spanish. Anyway, I just have a hard time really loving something and giving it my all if i don’t know how i’m going to use it, and for right now I know I’ll be using it a ton next year, but I’m not sure if I’ll use it later in life and that sort of sucks to think about. I don’t want to spend all this time learning italian, and then not really need it later.

July 14th:

So i’ve been breaking the language pledge, obviously, when I write in my blog, go on facebook, la la la, etc. Today I spoke with two professors about how classes are going because I’m feeling so behind. I realized, after talking to them, that maybe I should take the language pledge more seriously and stop thinking in english. I tried really hard when I got here and there was a brief adjustment period, before I just got really impatient and felt like I couldn’t express myself in italian and I just started talking to my friends in english, via the web.

July 19th:

If you read the last post, this terrifying midterm was the reason I temporarily cancelled my facebook (really temporary, it only ended up being like 3 days…haha) so I’m really glad it’s over. By the time it was over on friday, i didn’t really care what I’d gotten on it, but when i saw my professor after lunch he asked me how i thought it was. I said it was semi terrible, but i didn’t really mind, and he said ‘oh that’s funny cause you did really well.’ I don’t know how? Miracles happen?” also, today i met a phd student who has been at middlebury for 7 summers. holy shit. comparative spanish/italian degree. DAMN

August 2:

In fact, the last week and a half or so has been pretty different from any other academic or social experience I’ve had. I’ve been hanging out with a group of athletes from the italian school, the people that I’m constantly photographing for those of you on facebook, and we’ve got this strong like borderline cultish circle of friends going on that is so fun, but i guess the biggest difference is that I eat with these people at every meal, have 2-3 hours of classes with them everyday, hang out with them during the weekends, go to the movies and conferences with them, i dont know, we just all do everything together. I guess maybe its not that different from other groups, but i’m just not off doing my own thing as much, probably because I was feeling a little isolated doing that before, especially here, because if you don’t talk to people and make friends, its really hard to like it here.

Yesterday, after the soccer game that WE WON which was so exciting, really well played, and an awesome photo op, a group of us went to these amazing waterfalls. Vermont is littered with like huge mountains and green forrests and waterfalls every 10 minutes on the highway that are totally amazing. I had no idea this state was like this…I was, unfortunately, attacked by a stinging nettle plant, and the inside of my leg has all these red dots but hey, whatever.

An interesting thing I’ve noticed is that when we go off campus, we speak english. not exclusively. It’s this weird mix of italian and english that is like borderline dialect for middlebury. We’ve created words, we start sentences in english and finish them in italian, sometimes someone will be talking to you in english, but you respond in italian. I duno, weirdest thing ever. It’s also really funny because when we pull into the parking lot on campus, everyone snaps back into italian without anyone saying a word. I’ve never been in a community where everyone is striving to be bilingual, so to me its really strange and hilarious, but we all miss english so much that sometimes we’re like, screw it, let’s just use it for a little bit.

August 14th:

I’m starting to feel weird about the fact that I did middlebury, because now that people know, their like, asking me for words, and definitions and verbs, and even when I know the answer i don’t want to say anything. at least at middlebury we were all doing that together, now its like, weird. I duno, they apparently give the student who uses italian most often in my fall program 50euro… i was like, fuck i don’t want to be that kid….

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One thought on “Confessions of Language School

  1. This is disappointing to read. I was at German School a few summers ago between my sophomore and junior years at Middlebury. I stuck to the pledge pretty religiously. It was incredibly demanding, and as someone who loves the English language, I felt myself sink into this sort of lonely stupor about three-quarters of the way through the program: I missed hearing English, speaking it, the beauty of words.

    But I found German School fascinating and complex and challenging. It was marvelous to see how each week I could puzzle out a new essay in a language I was still so new to. When I began to miss English as a creative outlet, I began writing poems and short stories in German, which was immensely satisfying. If future language school students are reading this — stick to the pledge. It’s worth it.

    When I went abroad during my junior year, I thought a lot about how technology has changed the experience of studying abroad. E-mail and blogging and RSS feeds and nytimes.com meant I didn’t have to turn myself over to German in the same way I did during language school. Maybe it’s inevitable that technology will infiltrate language school in the same way, but exercise some discipline. I checked my e-mail infrequently, changed my voicemail to a German message, told my parents I would call only once or twice during the program, and laid off. It paid off. I learned a ton.

    (For what it’s worth, I think there’s quite a bit of variation between the schools in terms of who is good about the pledge and who isn’t. The summer I was on campus, the Italian School students were notorious for breaking the rules!)

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