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Middlebury summer language schools attracting military linguists

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s campus is far from empty every summer after undergraduate students depart. The college’s summer language schools, established nearly a century ago, provide an influx of new faces for six to eight weeks every June.
Language school students are normally prohibited from speaking English at any point during the program, leading to the slogan, “No English Spoken Here.” The annual appearance of foreign-language-speaking students has become a familiar phenomenon to Middlebury residents and business owners.
But among this student body of mostly undergraduate and graduate students, one group may be less familiar: Middlebury Language Schools enjoy a high reputation not only in the academic world, but also among people who serve in the military.
The U.S. government often sends active-duty military personnel to Middlebury to learn language skills valuable for duties in diverse areas of the world.
“These individuals come here because they want to be in a position when deployed to directly engage the local population,” said Michael Geisler, vice president of the Language Schools.
Although the Defense Department has no official contract with Middlebury College, it has for decades funded Middlebury summer language education for military personnel.
John Stokes, 54, of Middlebury first came to Addison County in the 1980s as an active duty Marine, on orders to attend the Russian Language School. He has since moved back to the area to work in language school administration.
“I joined the Marine Corps right out of high school,” Stokes said. “I’d never thought much about studying languages.”
That changed when he was offered the opportunity to undergo Russian language training as part of his work with the Marines. An important stage in his training took place here in Middlebury, in 1983 at the Russian Language School.
By the time he got to Middlebury, Stokes said, “I already had fairly high proficiency. Where I was weak was in actual, functional communication skills.”
The immersive language environment at the Middlebury Russian School provided Stokes with the practical ability he needed for his subsequent work as a Russian linguist for the Marine Corps.
Stokes remembers the novelty of the college environment for him as an enlisted Marine.
“That was eye-opening, never having attended college,” he said. “Never having gone through that experience, I’d never lived on a dorm before.”
After eight years with the Marines, Stokes returned to Arkansas, where he worked as a sports writer and acquired bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Eventually, Stokes’ thoughts turned back to Vermont. He moved to Middlebury and has worked for the past nine years at Middlebury language schools, first as coordinator of the Russian School, and then as operations director for all the language programs.
“Russian was the biggie when I was a student,” Stokes said, adding that, “in the post-9/11 world, interest in languages has broadened.”
He said that although languages such as Arabic and Chinese may be of particular interest to the Defense Department, military students are spread among all 10 language school programs: Arabic, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, French, German and Hebrew.
“The number of military personnel has grown, and is showing a tendency toward growth,” Stokes said.

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