In higher education, language learning is synonymous with Middlebury. For nearly a century, the College has held unique status as an unquestioned leader in intensive, immersive, language instruction. We recently spoke to President Liebowitz about how this came to be, how language instruction at Middlebury has evolved, and where we are headed in the future.
How did this legacy begin?
We happened to have been the fortunate receptors of a bizarre idea in 1915, which was to replicate Germany at a time when the country was out of reach to individuals because of World War I. For about three years, a Vassar professor named Lilian Stroebe had been looking for a remote location in the United States where she could establish a school for learning German. She had very specific needs—which is why she had been looking for three years—that included the necessary infrastructure to house, feed, and instruct students, yet be situated in a place where there would be few, if any, distractions. Her plan was predicated on total learning immersion, where students would eat, sleep, live, and breathe German.
Poughkeepsie wouldn’t work; it was a bustling mill town at the time. So she searched. And in 1915, a colleague of hers was taking a train ride through the Champlain Valley and saw buildings under construction on a hilltop; a fellow passenger told her that she was looking at Middlebury College. This colleague had found Stroebe’s ideal location. Fortunately for us, Middlebury President John Thomas saw the wisdom in Stroebe’s idea and granted her the right to begin the Middlebury German School. Schools in French and Spanish followed soon after.
How was this received at the College?
Well, it challenged the status quo of what was going on at four-year liberal arts colleges, this idea of utilizing the campus during the summer for educational purposes. And a Vassar professor proposed it; so it wasn’t organic or homegrown. And, I believe there was a concern that it would dilute or minimize the role of the September to May academic program.
In any case, President Thomas and the board argued that it was worth the experiment. By embracing the notion of total language immersion and by establishing what was really a separate entity for older, post-baccalaureate students, which was open only during the summer months . . . you can reasonably say that this was one of the most important decisions in the history of the College. It launched the College’s “international” efforts and broadened Middlebury’s horizons in many ways.
Was it deliberate to enroll only older students?
Yes. At the beginning—and for several decades after—the Language Schools were populated almost entirely by students who were pursuing or going to pursue graduate degrees. And once the Schools were well established, by the time of Stephen Freeman’s tenure as vice president, oversight of the Language Schools was quite separate from the rest of the institution, even though we are a small college.
When Freeman was vice president (the 1940s), there were fewer than 1,000 students on this campus, yet the summer Language Schools enrolled more than 1,000 students during this period. This was a program that was set up for a different cohort of learners, with more than 90 percent of them pursuing master’s degrees.
Let’s talk about the fact that there is not a “Middlebury method”…
Right, but there is a Middlebury way: intensively immerse the student in the target language and culture; provide that student with the best teachers possible; have that student eat, sleep, and breathe the foreign language; provide a cocurricular program that reinforces the way you communicate; and reinforce it with the Language Pledge—every student signs it and thereby pledges to speak only the target language while in the program (24/7 for the entire session). The Language Pledge is the defining characteristic of language learning at Middlebury. It’s what has set us apart—it’s how we became established as language leaders.
What’s interesting about this approach is that it was a key component of Stroebe’s vision; it’s why she chose such a remote location as Middlebury. But during the first several decades, I’m not sure how much of a challenge the Pledge was because, remember, the learners were graduate students then. There was some proficiency in language among them all. Immersion was essential to learning, absolutely, but everyone coming to the Language Schools had some facility with the language they were studying when they arrived. This changed with the introduction of some older student “beginners” in some Schools, but the numbers were small. But that began to change.
By the time I spent my first year at the Russian School (more than 30 years ago), the Language Pledge was in full force and quite noticeable. I was taking beginning Russian, and I can tell you, it was brutal not being able to communicate easily. But there’s no better way to learn a language.
So when did this enrollment philosophy change?
It was a decisive choice in the 1970s, one that coincided with the advent and rise of study abroad for undergraduates. We had been running schools abroad, in language, for graduate students for years, beginning in Paris in 1949. But by the 1960s, a movement arose in undergraduate education that spending one’s junior year abroad was a good way to expand the horizons of our students. Since we had the schools in place to serve the graduate students enrolled in our Language Schools, it was logical to use those programs to serve undergraduates, too. But still, the philosophy was to commit our students to total language immersion. This means we had to better prepare these students; they would have to be able to speak the language at a certain level of proficiency when they went abroad, which, in turn, led to increased interest in undergraduate enrollment in the Language Schools. More than 150 Middlebury undergraduates now enroll in the Language Schools each summer, most before leaving for their intensive, immersive junior year or semester abroad.
Now, there was a fear among some at the Language Schools that undergraduates, specifically beginners, would change the immersion atmosphere and weaken the effectiveness of the Schools; that is, beginners would make total immersion impossible. But that proved not to be the case.
We now have 37 sites abroad, but one thing that hasn’t changed is full language immersion.
Right. One of our challenges in our study abroad philosophy is that students are expected to sign a Language Pledge when they go abroad to Middlebury schools. In most of our programs, they are immersed in the target language, learning among local students, native speakers. They’re not just taking a French class. They’re taking a history class, in French; politics, economics, art history, and so on, in French. On the one hand, that creates the ability for students to take so-called “content” courses in language. It’s so valuable to learn this way, and it is unusual, too.
But it’s excruciatingly difficult and challenging. You’re living in a new environment, and it takes a while to adjust, even if the best language teachers prepare you. It’s an eye-opening experience for most students and, I should add, potentially frustrating. So there are mixed emotions among our students about study abroad. It’s not what you see in the movies: junior-year abroad in Paris, enjoying the finer parts of French culture while still studying in English. Our approach is very challenging, but the rewards on many fronts are clear and often come later.
For some, the trade-off can be the enjoyment factor. We’re wrestling with this feedback we’re getting from our students. They typically attain a far greater degree of linguistic growth and competency than students in other programs, but a number of them, to be honest, will say that their time abroad is not as fun as others. And that’s something for us to wrestle with; kids want to have fun. Surprise! It’s a balancing act.
What about the impact of the Language Schools on the undergraduate curriculum? Japanese wasn’t taught until the Japanese School opened…
And Chinese, and Arabic, and Modern Hebrew. The evolution of the Language Schools and the selection of the new ones—starting with the opening of the Chinese School in 1966—mirror and reflect the demands coming out of the undergraduate College.
John Berninghausen, who built our undergraduate Chinese department and is now an emeritus professor, will tell you that the Language Schools brought excellence to many of our language departments. Our undergraduate language departments are among the best in the country because we’ve had a huge advantage of having decades of experience coming from the Language Schools to the undergraduate College. It has had a profound impact on the quality of our undergraduate language instruction.
So, where are we headed?
We need to continue to perfect and improve upon our pedagogy that deals with face-to-face instruction, plus develop online content, providing a viable hybrid approach to learning.
We’re very good at bricks-and-mortar teaching and learning; we’ve been doing it at a very high level for close to 100 years. We’re also developing our online capabilities—and within this, we’re finding that the demand for a hybrid approach is great. Face-to-face instruction combined with excellent online content that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.
Ten years from now, bricks and mortar will still be incredibly important and central to certain types of learning. But rich, authentic, high-quality, immersive, online content will be essential. There’s great demand from students who have gained a whole year in linguistic competency during an intensive summer language session to retain their proficiency. And unless you are going to immerse yourself in a country where the language is spoken, or return to the Language School, you will not find an equivalent academic environment than what quality online material can provide.
And then there is the hybrid approach. We will need to continue to develop pedagogies that embrace both in-person and online learning in a way that each complements the other. We can’t predict with any confidence how things will look more than a few years out. In the 1990s, the College engaged in creating multimedia content for language teaching in a broad, systematic way. But technology was the inhibitor to innovation in pedagogy. Today, technology has evolved and advanced so greatly it no longer serves as the inhibitor, but is the facilitator of new approaches to learning. Yet, the current technology will evolve further, making online learning even more natural, appealing, and effective to students. We need to be prepared to take advantage of such changes if we wish to retain our leadership position in the teaching of language and culture and prepare our students for life beyond Middlebury.