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College to offer language camps for youngsters

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September 24, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Every year parents of high school-aged children from all over the country call Middlebury College asking why their son or daughter can’t attend the rigorous summer Language Schools program.

Vice President of the Language Schools Michael Geisler gives the same answer every time: The program is geared toward adults. It is intense, and younger students are usually not ready for that kind of intensity.

In 2008 he can give them another option.

In collaboration with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, the college recently established the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA), a summer language immersion program for pre-college students that will take place next summer at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., and Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass.

The academy will offer four-week residential camps in Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish for middle and high school students. Tuition is $4,000, including room and board, and limited scholarships are available for students demonstrating financial need.

Geisler, who oversees the new program, said the motivation for the MMLA, which has been on the drawing board for many years, was to try to curtail a national trend in the way languages are taught.

“Currently, what happens on the national level is that every time there is a sudden need for a particular language, the government puts a lot of money into quickly teaching the critical language,” he said. “If we always act that way, just reacting to a crisis, then we will always be in need.”

It takes years to really learn a language, not to mention to understand the culture with which it is intertwined, Geisler said. His hope is that with the MMLA, students as young as seventh-graders will have a chance to immerse themselves in a language, so when they need it — whether for business, diplomacy or their own personal growth — they will be ready.

“We need to think broadly and permanently,” Geisler said.

In keeping with the college’s full immersion philosophy, the camps will be structured around a language pledge, a contract students sign at the beginning of the program promising they will speak only the target language at all times.

“The language pledge is a very important part,” Geisler said. “Needless to say, we’re not going to police that with the same rigor as we do at the language schools.”

Unlike the full morning of classes required at the Language Schools, campers will only attend one hour of instruction a day. The rest of their time will be spent participating in activities using their target language.

According to Geisler, this is what makes the MMLA program unique.

Most of students’ learning won’t happen in class, he said, but in the soccer competitions, cooking classes and dances that keep them busy through the rest of the day.

“It’s supposed to be fun,” he said. “It’s a summer camp. We’re competing with horse camps and soccer camps.”

But the MMLA will also be competing with other summer language programs like Concordia Language Villages in Minnesota, which offers 14 languages to students as young as seven.

Jamie Northrup, director of institutional collaboration and marketing for the college’s language schools and schools abroad, told the Middlebury Campus that the MMLA was unique in the breadth of its teaching.

“We really are seen as the benchmark of high-level language learning,” he said. “We now take students from seventh and eighth grade all the way up to master’s degrees, and it really expands the opportunities that Middlebury students have, and the opportunities are only going to continue to grow.”

WHAT TOOK SO LONG?

Simone Skerritt, who teaches French and Spanish at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, said she has always wondered when the college would begin building language programs for younger students.

“I think it is laudable that the college is doing something at that level,” she said.

Starting at a young age is the best way to learn a language, Skerritt said.

“Hopefully down the road they’ll even do something with elementary school students,” she added.

For now, the MMLA is taking it one step at a time. Geisler said officials are certainly considering expanding the number of languages it offers, but not until they have worked out the kinks of the inaugural summer and gauged the response to the initial four programs.

“We are looking to expand, but we want to try these first,” he said.

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