Middlebury Summer School of Japanese: Experiences, Challenges, and Alternatives

Today we are featuring a guest post by Elena Kirillova, currently a Master’s student in Japanese Language and Literature. She provides a detailed overview of the Middlebury Summer School of Japanese, including both the program’s contents and her personal experiences/challenges in a short-term, intensive academia program.

Content warning: The following article discusses mental health, including depression and eating disorders.

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Photo by Nicola Sap De Mitri

Middlebury Summer School of Japanese is an 8-week program that creates unparalleled language immersion by having students sign the Language Pledge® to speak Japanese and only Japanese for the duration of the program.

I went to Middlebury in the summer of 2013, right after I finished a year of studying abroad in Japan as a college junior. My study abroad program was great, but it wasn’t language-focused. The culture classes were in English, the students on the program spent a lot of time together speaking English, and there wasn’t much opportunity to make Japanese friends. Middlebury sounded like the place to be for someone who wanted to focus specifically on their language skills.

In this article, I will talk about the program overall, financial aid, my experience of the program, and some alternatives. My experience was mixed, which is one of the reasons I thought it would be valuable to share it. I think Middlebury is an amazing program: I am not aware of any other summer school in the United States that provides language immersion to the extent Middlebury does, and the challenge of the pledge attracts a very special group of students and teachers. That being said, I had a tough time, which stemmed from the combination of an overwhelming amount of coursework and my general inability to prioritize my well-being. I am not sure if I would do the program again, but if I did, I would certainly do it differently. While part of this article is going to be informative of the program in general, the other part will address the importance of one’s mental health in an academically challenging setting. During the program, I became depressed and my eating disorder was exacerbated. I hope my story can be helpful to someone.  

I’ll cover:

  1. The pledge
  2. Classes, workload, and credits
  3. Activities
  4. Room and board
  5. Tuition and financial aid
  6. Mental health under academic stress (my experience)
  7. Mental health under academic stress (my strategies)
  8. Should you go?
  9. What if you had a year to do the same amount of studying?
  10. Alternative intensive summer programs
  11. Another alternative: independent lessons and study resources
  12. Conclusion

The pledge

“In signing this Language Pledge®, I agree to use Japanese as my only language of communication while attending the Middlebury Language Schools. I understand that failure to comply with this Pledge may result in my expulsion.”

I can see why Middlebury is proud of the language pledge to the extent of having it trademarked. Getting conversational practice in Japanese is hard. My college classes were conducted entirely in Japanese, but each separate student still got very little speaking practice during class time. Middlebury has the answer: an environment in which you can practice every day all day long.

There are exceptions to the pledge. The school doesn’t prevent you from speaking to your loved ones and friends in your native language but advises that you keep such communication to a minimum. Speaking to medical professionals is also allowed, as one may expect.

Do people break the pledge? They did when I went. But what you’ll find is that there isn’t much opportunity to break it: you spend all of your weekday mornings in classes, teachers and students eat all their meals together, and outside of class there are clubs, trips, and school events. Plus, the homework. You will be immersed in the language, guaranteed.

The pledge is truly the crown jewel of the Language Schools. And you can’t not love the school’s catchy slogan:

Life doesn’t come with subtitles.

人生は字幕はない。

Classes, workload, and credits

Personally, I found the quality of instruction and class material to be top-notch but the amount of work, a year of coursework fit into 8 weeks, overwhelming.

  • Classes: 4 hours a day Monday-Friday
  • Homework: 20 hours a week are expected (to match the hours of classes)
  • 8 weeks = 1 academic year of material

There were five levels of classes from beginner to advanced: shokyū 初級 I, shokyū 初級 II, chūkyū 中級 I, chūkyū 中級 II, and jōkyū 上級. You can find the detailed descriptions of each on the school’s website. I was in 中級 II, upper-intermediate. We had twenty students in my class. Lower levels were about the same size. The smallest group was advanced level, with three students. For 中級 II, there was no textbook. Instead, class material was curated by the school and teachers, although I know the level below me used Tobira. By the time you completed 中級 II you were about at a level of passing JLPT N2 (note: the school doesn’t specifically prepare students for JLPT exams).

In terms of academic credits, I was able to place out of the full year of senior Japanese classes at my college, JA421 and JA422:

Room and board

The location of the Japanese school alternates between two campuses, Middlebury College in Middlebury, VT and Mills College in Oakland, CA. They also just announced that Bennington College in VT will be another location. Make sure to double check where it is that particular summer. I was at the Mills campus, so I’ll comment on what was on the Mills campus.

  • Housing: single and double rooms
  • Meals: at the dining hall (teachers and students eat together)
  • Facilities: gym and 10-lane outdoor swimming pool

The dorms were pretty standard, with communal showers.

There was one dining hall, so what’s in rotation on the menu got boring at times. I recommend having pocket money for going out once in a while. In Oakland, you can get around by public transportation if you don’t have a car. I did that or caught rides with students who had a car. It was especially nice to get a ride to go to San Francisco.

I came with one luggage bag and bought my bed linen there. One thing to keep in mind is the climate. If you have been to San Francisco, you would know that summers are generally warm, but it can get quite cold in the evenings and on overcast days. I got plenty of use out of the scarf and hoodie that I brought with me. I also got a Zojirushi thermos while there (most teachers had one) and would fill it with tea at the dining hall before class. It will keep your drink hot for hours!

Activities

The school offers a praiseworthy variety of after-class activities:

  • Clubs (martial arts, karaoke, rakugo, tea ceremony and incense appreciation, calligraphy, soccer, choir, and volleyball)
  • Field Trips
  • Visiting Speakers (professional rakugo performers, professional kirie performer)
  • School Events (summer festival, talent show, rakugo night, and weekly films)

The clubs meet weekly. The wonderful thing about the clubs is that they are run by the language instructors. While teaching is their profession, a club is typically that particular teacher’s hobby. The clubs make for a laid-back break from the intensive schooling and offer a chance to make friends with students from other levels and build a friendship with one of the language teachers outside of class.

I did choir and rakugo, traditional humorous storytelling. Rakugo was especially interesting because I had to get the pitch accent just right, something that’s not practiced as much in Japanese classrooms. Here is me telling a joke at the Rakugo Night:

There were two trips in my year, to see the Golden Gate Bridge and to Japantown in San Francisco.

Visiting speakers were outstanding. For Middlebury’s tough academic environment, diverting entertainers such as the rakugo and kirie performers made the perfect choice. Rakugo performers are Japanese traditional “sit-down” comedians. All of the performers were at the school for a week or two giving you plenty of chances to talk to them in person.

Here is a video the school took during my year that offers a sneak peek into some of the activities: 

Tuition and financial aid

The tuition might be the highest compared to other summer language programs but – when you consider the financial aid the schools offers, that the tuition includes lodging, dining, and extracurricular activities (speakers, trips, clubs, and cultural events), and that, if you are in the US, it would be cheaper to reach than a program in Japan — it becomes comparable and possibly even cheaper, depending on the financial aid you receive.

Here is the break-down from 2019:

Make sure to apply for financial aid as soon as you can. It is limited, and you can only apply for it once you’ve submitted your application to the program.

Most scholarships are for select groups such as veterans. Only one scholarship is open to everyone, Kathryn Davis Fellows for Peace award. The main element of the application is a 500-word essay that “should reflect your past experience and future aspirations to contribute to more peaceful relationships between people, institutions, or communities.” This scholarship is certainly worth applying for since it offers a full coverage (tuition, room, and board).

When I went in 2013, I was able to get the maximum need-based grant from Middlebury and additional funding from my university. Always check with your school for available scholarships! At the end, I had to pay for the domestic travel and about $1000 towards the tuition. I didn’t have a chance to look for outside funding, but I imagine there should be a number of other opportunities out there. I did apply for the Kathryn Davis scholarship but was not selected.

Lastly, attending a Middlebury summer language school comes with a nice perk, the guaranteed $5,000 affiliation scholarship to attend Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (former Monterey Institute of International Studies). MIIS is famous for its MA programs in translation, interpreting, and localization.

Mental health (my experience)

Looking back, the biggest mistake I made at the program was to care about grades more than about my well-being. I prioritized homework over spending time with friends, exercise, rest, etc. Although the following information is quite personal, I hope my story will be helpful to other students who also suffer from mental health issues, including those like myself who struggle with eating disorders.  While at Middlebury, I pursued perfectionism at the cost of my own health. As it can happen with eating disorders or addiction, I didn’t recognize I had a problem when I joined the program. I had been engaging in binge eating, dieting, and over-exercising since I was a teenager, but all this time I thought I had it under control. Middlebury became my wake-up call – I was doing so poorly under the academic stress, I finally realized that I had to get help.

Now I can speak about it openly, but it used to be my deeply embarrassing secret. That also started to change at Middlebury, for which I am very grateful. At the program, I met someone who suffered from alcoholism and bulimia. That person became one of the first people I opened up to about my binge eating. Seeing a brilliant, kind, and inspiring individual who suffered from a similar affliction made me realize that I was not alone and that my eating disorder didn’t make me less of a person. It helped me let go of the shame as well as recognize that I needed help.  

At Middlebury, I went to see a therapist for the first time in my life. It was a great relief to be able to talk to someone. I believe the summer therapists on Mills campus were volunteers of a sort. Mine was young and didn’t seem very experienced but was a good listener. He referred me to a therapist at my college at the end of the program, and in September another therapist at my school diagnosed me with an eating disorder. I like to think that my recovery began that summer. Realizing that there was no shame in feeling stressed, depressed, or having an eating disorder and that there was no shame in talking about it to someone was a big first step.

Today more and more people are talking openly about depression, trauma, anxiety, addiction, etc., and how it is connected to their experience of academic pressure. I hope my story can help to normalize these experiences, especially for those in intensive academic programs.

Mental health (my strategies)

Currently, I am in a graduate program and doing well. Since Middlebury, I’ve seen several therapists, participated in support groups (Overeaters Anonymous), and learned a lot about prioritizing my health, which required me to learn about what my body, mind, and spirit needed.

The list below is an example of what I do to stay well during my everyday life and academic experiences. It has been trial and error to find what works for me so I know that someone else might need a completely different set of strategies. Hopefully this will provide some starting ideas. I wish I had known all that I know now when I was at Middlebury.

  1. Limiting study hours. I decide how many hours I am willing to spend on each class and stick to those hours instead of doing work until it’s done or until it’s perfect. If I don’t finish a certain reading or don’t complete a paper to the level I hoped for, I’ve learned to be ok with that. My well-being is more important. On daily basis, I study and go to classes 9 am to 5 pm and don’t do any school-related activities after 5 pm. On the weekend, I take at least one full day of no work as well.
  2. Therapy. I used to go to therapy and support groups, but currently am able to keep my mental health in check myself. If my boyfriend or I notice me slipping back into over-working myself, I restructure my schedule. Another thing that helps me stay in check is an app called Moodnotes, a journal with a CBT (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy) element and mood tracking. The CBT part helps me restructure thinking and behaviors that don’t benefit me (it lets you identify thought traps such as catastrophizing, negative filtering, etc.) while the mood tracking lets me keep a watch on how I am doing.
  3. Socializing. I make sure to meet a friend at least once a week and dedicate time to spend with my significant other.
  4. Time alone. I am an introvert, so I have to have time when I am not studying or socializing to recover my energy. I maintain daily boundaries with my friends, partner, and roommates in order to create that alone space. It is one of the most vital elements of how I stay well.
  5. Exercise. I go climbing or to group training (Tabata) at least once a week and make sure to do yoga a couple times a week as well. Tabata and climbing are social, which makes it more fun. Yoga especially feels great after all the sitting and constant thinking for school – it’s good to stretch and try to quiet my mind.
  6. Nature. A neurologist and one of my favorite authors Oliver Sacks writes on the healing power of nature, “Even for people who are deeply disabled neurologically, nature can be more powerful than any medication.” He names nature and music as the two most effective non-pharmaceutical therapies people have access to. I try to remember that and make an effort to spend some time outside every week, whether it’s biking to school, hiking on the weekend, or going for a walk.
  7. Eating well. Part of my eating disorder was that I grew up misinformed about food by the modern-age dieting culture. I have since learned that fat, carbs, and chocolate are not my enemies and instead try to listen to what my body needs and eat everything in moderation. I make sure to find time to cook or buy something healthy with occasional indulging.
  8. Doing what I love. I am working on an MA in Japanese Literature and Language, and I love it. I am excited to go to class every day. Back in college I spent two years pursuing a Computer Science major, thinking programming a lucrative career, but luckily realized in time that it was making me unhappy. It makes a big difference to me to be doing something I am truly interested in.

It is said that people who quit academic programs are often those who isolate themselves and study without a break. At Middlebury, that was me. Don’t be me! Take care of yourself.  

Should you go?

In short, Middlebury is an excellent program, but it is highly intensive and can be a stressful experience. Remember, it is a year of school material fit into 8 weeks. If you enjoy intensive learning Middlebury is a place for you. If you are deciding to do this intensive program for other reasons, I would recommend that you prepare some strategies for dealing with the stress of the coursework.

When I went, my motivation was that I wanted to be in a program with people who were as enthusiastic about the language as I was and that provided lots of opportunities to practice speaking. It was also something to do in the summer during my break that I could add to my resume, and it let me fulfill two semesters of fourth-year Japanese at college, which then allowed me to have a much lighter workload the last year of college. I thought I was killing two or three birds with one stone.

But, as I discussed in the above sections, the workload got the best of me. All of the great benefits of the program weren’t worth it to me because of that. But if you feel confident in your ability to handle the intensive learning environment and its challenges, you might find the stress of the coursework worth it. The reward is a breakthrough in your language ability, which Middlebury immersion guarantees.

What if you had a year to do the same amount of studying?

As you consider whether Middlebury is a good fit for you, I’d like to give you some perspective by looking at how much you would need to study if you had a whole year to do what’s covered at Middlebury in 8 weeks.

Here are the number of hours you would complete at a summer at Middlebury:

  • classes = 4 hours/weekday (160 hours total)
  • homework = 4 hours/weekday (160 hours total)
  • conversational practice with peers and teachers outside of class ≈ 3 hours/weekday (120 hours total)

If, instead, you studied for a year, to complete the above hours you would need:

  • classes: 36 mins/weekday
  • homework: 36 mins/weekday
  • conversational practice: 30 mins/weekday

If you had a whole year, you would need to practice speaking and study a total of 8.5 hours a week. At Middlebury, it would be a total of 55 hours a week. As you weigh the advantages and disadvantages of attending Middlebury, thinking about the amount of work and the timeframe in which it is completed may help you gauge whether you are the type of learner who would benefit from intensive learning or the type who might get more out of other options.  

Alternative intensive summer programs

I imagine there are many intensive summer programs out there, but here are a couple that I have heard about. The program details are those as of 2019.

  1. IUC (Inter-University Center) in Yokohama: founded in 1961 by Stanford University and operated by a consortium of universities. This is an intensive program with short-term and long-term options.
    • Eligibility: professionals and scholars that are advanced learners of Japanese
    • Duration: 7 weeks or 10 months
    • Formal instruction: 20 hours/week
    • Tuition: $5,000 (covers instruction and textbooks only)
  2. KSJS (Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies) in Kyoto: founded in 1989 by a consortium of universities and managed by Columbia University since 2006 (previously Stanford University). They have a summer program in Classical Japanese as well but below are the details of the Modern Japanese program.
    • Eligibility: undergraduate and graduate students who have completed at least a year of college-level Japanese or more
    • Duration: 8 weeks
    • Formal instruction: 15 hours/week
    • Tuition: $5, 354 (covers instruction and textbooks only)
  3. Critical Language Scholarship Program (location vary): a competitive U.S. Department of State’s program, administered by the American Council on International Education.
    • Eligibility: undergraduate and graduate students of intermediate level or higher
    • Duration: 8 weeks
    • Formal instruction: 20 hours/week
    • Tuition: $0 (everything is covered by the scholarship, including lodging, food, and transportation to/from Japan)

Another alternative: independent lessons and study resources

I’ve discovered all of the resources below after Middlebury. To master a language, you don’t necessarily have to go to Japan or to Middlebury, you can design your own study plan. The benefit is that it can be cheaper, you can work with one-on-one lessons tailored to your ability and needs, and you can pick the study materials. Also, if you decided that intensive learning is not for you, this might be. The con is that you might have to do the work of designing your own schedule and maintaining it. Immersion at Middlebury leads to great improvement in one’s speaking ability, so since this section offers an alternative to Middlebury, I’ve picked resources aimed at improving one’s speaking ability as opposed to reading and writing.

Lessons

  • Auditing: a lot of colleges allow the local residents to attend classes as an auditor for free or for a reduced rate.
  • One-on-one lessons:
    • Wasabi: I took classes with Wasabi (an online company) a few years back when they were just starting. They are currently offering 2 lessons a week for $126/month ($16/lesson) and additional lessons for $18/lesson. Lessons are 50 minute long. If you take lessons on all weekdays of the year, it would be about $4320. You would be receiving one-on-one instruction, and it is still about a third the price of Middlebury! Of course, this is largely because the dining and lodging is not included. For comparison, the tuition of the summer program at IUC in Yokohama is $5,000, where students cover their own housing, living, and transportation.  
    • Italki: on italki.com you can find an affordable online teacher.
    • Craigslist: find an affordable local teacher.
  • Language exchange:

Listening Comprehension

  • JapanesePod101: very well done Japanese podcast lessons. For $4 a month you can get access to all of their lessons and lesson notes. I love listening to them when I’m cooking.
  • Terrace House on Netflix: a Japanese reality TV show featuring 3 women and 3 men living together and dating, with an entertaining commentary by Japanese celebrities.
  • NHK: has a wealth of Japanese news, documentaries, and TV. The series on Japanese history called 10 min. ボクス is great for an intermediate student of Japanese. Their targeted audience are Japanese middle and high school students.

Pronunciation

  • Shadowing: listening to Japanese speech and repeating it. It can be songs, recordings from Read Real Japanese book series, recordings from your textbooks, etc. You can do it while driving, walking, or in the shower. Watch this step-by-step video on shadowing by Koichi from Tofugu.
  • HiNative: on HiNative you can record yourself and ask native speakers for feedback. You can also post general questions about the language.

Conclusion

There are many different ways to study a language, and so a big part of the process is figuring out what kind of learning fits your needs, skills, and goals. Finances, personal life, or academic work are also all big factors. I can’t tell you whether an intensive summer at Middlebury is for you, but I hope my description of various elements of the program will help you make an informed choice.

Lastly, I want to share this humorous video, titled Midoruberii no purejji “chotto muzukashii desu” (trans. “Middlebury pledge ‘it’s a bit difficult’”). It is in Japanese and was created by the newspaper club during my summer. In the video, students and teachers answer questions about the pledge. I love the advice one of the teachers gives at the end: “Relax your shoulders a little, we want you to have fun doing everything in Japanese.” I think this is a great message for Middlebury students, but also for anyone in a rigorous academic program. During my time at Middlebury, I studied too much and didn’t take care of myself enough. Middlebury Summer School of Japanese is an intensive program and can get stressful for some students. If it does for you, don’t forget to practice self-care, ask for help if needed, and take the time to enjoy your experiences along the way.

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Elena Kirillova is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Japanese Literature and Language at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (graduating in 2020). She graduated from Colby College in 2014 with a BA in East Asian Studies. She thinks Hiroshi Kawasaki’s poem Tanpopo (lit. “Dandelion”) is the cutest. 

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of graduate life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
This entry was posted in graduate school, main posts, study tools, summer program, undergraduate and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Middlebury Summer School of Japanese: Experiences, Challenges, and Alternatives

  1. Emma says:

    I really enjoyed this article! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. As a non-academic (but someone who lives in Japan) I will definitely check out your self-study tips!

    • Elena says:

      Emma, I’m so glad you liked it! Thank you for your feedback. I can’t resist sharing one more resource. I self-studied before entering my MA program and found organizing and motivating myself to be the hardest thing. This online textbook, TextFugu, has a free first season dedicated specifically to self-study tips, such as how to stay motivated.

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