Illegal English

“In signing this Language Pledge, I agree to use ______________ 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 from the School without credit or refund.”

This is the language pledge that all students at the Middlebury Language Schools take upon their arrival at Midd. It’s supposed to be a very strict pledge; it is, after all, where the Language school catch phrase “No English Spoken Here” comes from. Not adhering to the pledge is actually a very serious offense and, as the pledge suggests, you can get kicked out of the program without getting your $7,000 back.


With all the gravity that is placed on the pledge, you’d think that language school kids would be very good about only speaking their chosen language, both fearing potentially-wasted money and getting on the bad sign of the infamous ‘language-school police.’

But you’d think wrong.

Language school kids break the pledge. A lot. And it’s understandable- Imagine if you were a level 1 (beginner) Chinese student, forced to adhere to the pledge. For a week and a half you wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone, awkwardly and, more importantly, silently bearing both the weight of social isolation and a ton of homework. Sounds pleasurable, eh? What I, and a lot of the summer workers have found, is that language-pledge-violators can be grouped into 3 categories based on both severity and frequency of breaking the pledge.

1. The broken down violator: These students are serious about the pledge. They paid $7,000 to come learn Portuguese or Japanese and they ain’t playin’. These are the kids you see pouring over their materials in adirondack chairs, scorning English speakers with their judgmental eyes, reveling in their language’s culture.

And then they crack.

They miss speaking English because they’ve realized that you can only last on phrases like, “Hello, my name is Cody and I’m from Dallas! I like to eat. I like to sing. I like to write. What do you like to do?” for so long. Further, they miss their family, people who probably don’t understand Arabic or Hebrew or whatever language the student is speaking. So what do they do? They run to the English safe spaces on campus (Admissions, Help Desk, Public Safety, etc.) with ‘problems’ that they need to talk about to the employees (for example, going to the help desk and asking the workers to help you set up an email account or open a word document).

Or they cower under their beds, in cars, anywhere that is confined and far away from other language school students, desperately calling family members, friends, or listening to English music. After they get out of their English funk, they hurry back to their language school pals, pretending like nothing ever happened. If you’ve got to break the pledge, this is the way to go.

2. The cautiously-constant violator: This person, like the one above, breaks the language pledge because he or she is feeling burnt out, broken down, what have you. They’re typically a level 2 or level 2.5 student, someone who has a pretty good grasp of the language they’re studying and doesn’t haven’t to try quite as hard as beginners to make sense of what they, or others, are trying to say.

They break the pledge because they want to speak English, yes, but their motives extend far past being able to communicate for a few minutes without intense concentration: they want to hang out, party, and get to know each other (and the summer workers) in a tangible way (seriously, how well can you get to know someone when, all of a sudden, you’re all speaking a foreign language that takes away your humor and personality).

Often times, they know English speakers on campus and decide to, whether begrudgingly or not, meet with their English speaking friends once or twice a week at a designated location for some ‘English-only’ time. In this way, they can get a consistent break from their language and a chance to catch up with their friends. They respect the pledge, for the most part, and are wary of getting caught or being found out by friends that they are speaking English.

3. The ‘I’m in language school?’ violator:Before spending a summer at Middlebury, I never thought that these kind of students existed. I assumed that, sure, people broke the language pledge, but that, most of the time, people pretty much stuck to the language of their choice.

I was wrong.

This classification of rule violator, as you can probably gather from the name, breaks language pledge all the time. And not necessarily for important reasons. It could be that they just want to have a conversation with a fellow language school student without stressing about grammar rules or they want to talk to an English speaking worker, but the frequency with which they break the pledge is astounding.

These are the kind of kids you see every weekend breaking the pledge in an unapologetically abrasive manner, shouting English across streets, daring the language police to discover them. For me, at least, it becomes a question of why they even decided to come to language schools at all; sure they’re learning a lot and are probably being very studious but, at the same time, if you don’t spend your time fully immersed in the language, how can you ever achieve fluency?

Thankfully, all of the friends I have in the language schools here at Middlebury are pretty good about keeping the pledge, breaking it only to spend time with their favorite English speaking bloggers.

Until the next language pledge violation,



3 Responses

  1. Wow sounds like Middlebury isn’t kidding around with the language pledge! I know I could never do something like that because I barely survived high school spanish so not being allowed to speak english for an entire semester would probably do me in.

  2. […] the Language Pledge Fails Finally truth about language the language school surfaces? Illegal English: With all the gravity that is placed on the pledge, you’d think that […]

  3. For what it’s worth, unless rules have changed, 1st year students have a modified language pledge that allow them to speak English with each other. I don’t know the details of the arrangement, as I was in Level 5 my only summer at Midd.

    I will say that even as a “cautiously constant” violator, I guess, I still left Midd speaking the best Chinese I’ve ever spoken. Basically, I chose to maintain contact with my then girlfriend (now wife) a couple of times a week, I checked email occasionally and I probably read the NY Times once in a while. Although these qualify as breaking the pledge, I found that they did not undermine the ultimate goal of the program, which is to get your mind thinking primarily in the target language.

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