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Smoothing the way at Middlebury College’s language school

MIDDLEBURY — Most residents of Middlebury are highly aware of the College’s Language School Program due to its conspicuous presence — it’s hard to ignore groups of students walking down the street in Middlebury conversing in anything from German to Chinese, but not English.  
However residents, and even members of the program, might not be aware of one of the less-visible components of the Language Schools: the bilingual students.
Every year the Middlebury Language Schools draw hundreds of students from around the country and world to study Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.  Offering both undergraduate and graduate programs, Middlebury College draws all ages and proficiency levels to one of the Language School’s two campuses in Oakland, Calif. or Middlebury.
No matter the location, language or proficiency level all students have one thing in common: the Language Pledge, a pledge requiring students to speak and listen exclusively to the language of their school. This limits the students’ interactions, requiring them to only converse with one another of their separate schools or their teachers, who sometimes don’t speak English themselves.
However, tucked between the teachers and students lies an intermediate position for students to connect and interact with: a group of language-school employees who serve as bilingual go-betweens — usually just a couple of years older than students, who help put on language school activities, and are live-in dorm advisors, but not teachers.   
The bilinguals are relied upon for their fluency in both English and the language of the school they work with. They are the hidden force behind sporting events, conferences, performances and parties.  
Aline Germaine-Rutherford, director of French language school, recognizes the importance of the five bilinguals who work with the French school.
“It would be difficult to run the school without them,” she said. “Not just because of the logistics…but their presence, who they are, the energy they bring to the school and to the students.”
Despite the crucial role they play, they’re often undetected.  
Ana Sofía Zambrano, in her second summer as a bilingual for the Spanish school, experiences this sense of responsibility mixed with obscurity.
“We work behind the scenes. So we do everything, we make everything work, but no one ever really knows what we do exactly…until something goes wrong…  Like we have a conference and there’s no microphone. It’s like ‘Oh, where’s the microphone? Bilinguals! Where’s the microphone?’”
Bilinguals play a role not only in the organization of the school’s activities, but in building relationships with students, according to Axel Galeano, a recent graduate of the Spanish Language School and in his first year as a bilingual.
“We have lunch together, dinners, play sports, we go to workshops…I think that makes it interesting because it’s a sense of community,” said Galeano.
This support system contributes to the success of the Language Pledge, which is a vital part of the program. The pledge is so important that students can be expelled for violating it, which is no empty threat. More importantly, however, the pledge is what most students and teachers attribute to the program’s success.
This success can be, at least in part, credited to the bilinguals. Living in dorms alongside students is a reminder not to speak English or their native language, a reminder students might need if they have no previous knowledge of the target language or if they’re tempted to relapse to their native language in a moment of weakness. 
Students, for example, can come in with little knowledge of a language like Russian, which, according to Anastasia Moskvina, who is in her fifth summer as a bilingual at Middlebury, is not the easiest of the languages offered.
“First level students are my favorite because they come with nothing,” she said. But by the end of the program “they’re just speaking Russian.”
Germaine-Rutherford is thankful for the presence of bilinguals, not only as coordinators or reminders of the pledge, but as a support system for students.
“In terms of communication with the students, in terms of giving a kind of a dynamic and energy that really speaks to the students, they are there,” she said.
Despite the intense time commitment, Moskvina, Zambrano and Galeano all plan to come back to the language schools next year, if possible, citing Middlebury’s bucolic location, the camaraderie of students and teachers, and the fun they have working for the Language Schools as reasons for their anticipated return.
Moskvina, originally from Siberia and currently pursuing her Ph.D. in New Zealand, expressed her desire to return for what would be her sixth summer.
“I always say it’s my last summer,” she said, “but you never know… It’s a little hard to come, it’s just so far away … but then, how can I not come, you know?”
 

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