We started the countdown from 10 after the nervous laughter in the auditorium had faded to a silent, expectant tension. …5…4…3…2…1…0. And utter silence. Two hundred and fifty students glanced around the room, completely speechless and dumfounded in this pregnant space between the one world that we had inhabited during our 3-day orientation and what was to come. The director of our program stood grinning at the podium onstage and said simply: “Viel Spaß.”
This (perhaps overly) dramatic countdown was to begin my summer experience at a total German immersion program (auf Deutsch!) at Middlebury College in Vermont. From those two ominous words that began my language adventure until the closing ceremony where we did our German countdown back to English, I had a roller-coaster of a language experience, complete with just a little pinch of identity crisis but also a dash of cultural wonderment on the side.
If you want to know anything about Middlebury Language Schools it’s best to start with the Language Pledge. This is Middlebury’s trademark feature that makes their program, without a doubt, one of, if not the single best, language learning programs in the United States. The Pledge is signed immediately after the opening ceremonies described above and details an agreement between the student and the school that absolutely no language except the target language will be spoken within the confines of the program. There are grudging exceptions to accommodate communication with family and friends, but the school directors ask that these communications be kept to the absolute possible minimum, and in every case, away from the ears of other language school students. The students, however, are probably this policy’s biggest fans! Just walk around campus and try to count the enormous number of students sporting water bottles, t-shirts, keychains, and all other varieties of paraphernalia sporting the motto: No English Spoken Here.
My friends have all asked me “How was it?” which is a question so large I can’t even begin to answer articulately, but on a small scale it’s perhaps a bit easier:
My typical day looked like this: 7am, wake up to go eat breakfast and finish the last details on homework assignments before class at 8:30. Then start with either Literature or German Culture & Society and finally end the 4-hour daily class period with everyone’s favorite, German grammar. Finally, after battling against dependent clauses, adjective endings, a plethora of idiomatic pronouns, and worst of all, the subjunctive tense, we are free for lunch. Relief, right? Wrong. At lunch we share our meals with our professors and are encouraged to sit with and meet new people every day. That means constantly answering new questions, getting to know the other students from all levels of German with your own questions (a practice known to include pantomiming), or sometimes, if you are stuck sitting at a table full of professors, stammering your way through philosophical or academically challenging discussions.
At first, this relentless ritual of eating every meal together in German, attending every lecture together in German, trying to puzzle through grammar questions and mystery vocab in German, even socializing at fun events like dance parties with the language—it was all exhausting. I went to bed every night feeling like my head was a brick hitting the pillow. Not to mention being haunted by translation nightmares. They had said I would dream in German at this place, but not like this!
But eventually through the relationships we all built and the routine we created, I stopped wishing for my English life back. Where at first German had been a barrier blocking me from expressing myself to others and building meaningful relationships, it slowly became the real “stuff” of the bonds I made with others in the program. About 4 weeks in, we all realized how strange it would be to speak English with each other again upon the end of the program. We’d only used English for a couple of days during the orientation, but we were now really thinking of each other in German terms and with respect to the identities we had established through our shared lingual experience. In fact, most of us decided we would rather keep in touch in German!
Ups and downs and everything in between, I left the German school able to make many claims I had never made before. For instance, I could now say that: I had performed a theater piece—yes, memorized—in a foreign language. Or, I had finally understood the true meaning of “lost in translation” e.g. when I learned very uniquely German words and phrases. Or, I had attempted to read Goethe and Schiller. I’m just going to leave that one at “attempted.” However, I have hope for Goethe and Schiller as I continue my German education.
For anyone considering having an immersion experience in a language, I can’t recommend the Middlebury language schools more wholeheartedly. It’s certainly no summer camp in the average sense of the word, but it is an unparalleled experience in language discovery, cultural appreciation, and also quite simply, humility. I cannot count the number of times I embarrassed myself in the German school (a certain Britney Spears translation/poetic interpretation for the talent show comes to mind) but the language schools are the safest environment imaginable for such a learning endeavor, and to this day my pride in accomplishing the program outweighs most of the cringe-worthy interactions I can remember.
In an increasingly connected world, appreciation for and a concerted effort to learn about other cultures has immense value. So take a trip outside your comfort zone, count down from 10 (in whatever language you prefer), and before you know it, you may be doing all sorts of things that you never even dreamed of doing.