How to Survive Middlebury's Arabic Summer School Programme

 
 

 

[UPDATE: I now offer one-on-one language coaching designed to help students prepare for Middlebury's intensive summer programme. Read more about what it involves and what kinds of problems it's best suited to addressing.]

I returned from my summer course in Middlebury a few weeks ago, and I thought it might be worth writing up a few of my thoughts about the programme, whether I’d recommend it to others studying Arabic (and other languages) along with some other more practical tips for students who will be joining the summer programme in the future.

Overall, I had a good time and I learned a lot. I think that alone should be sufficient recommendation. It’s two months where you get to study something to the exclusion of everything else, so in that sense it’s a real chance to focus, to immerse yourself in the skill. To some extent, the programme almost could have been anything at all and students would benefit, especially if you’re able to work alone and at the level where you’re able to profit from self-directed study. I can’t remember the last time when I focused on one thing and one thing only over a period of two months. I was also really lucky to have two excellent teachers leading our class, and to have been awarded one of the we-pay-for-everything Kathryn Davis fellowships; for both, I’m extremely grateful.

You can read more about the programme itself here but basically, it’s an eight-week programme of intensive language instruction and practice. They implement a language pledge (to read more about my implementation of that, read this) which means for the entire duration you’re not supposed to talk or use any other language than your target language (Arabic, in my case), even when outside the classroom. I took it a step further and stopped using anything other than Arabic on twitter, email and so on.

One of the interesting (sometimes frustrating) features of the Arabic language is the so-called 'diglossia' (and here). This means that the language used in writing and in conversation in the mass media and among educated Arabs is different from the more colloquial spoken or dialect version of the language. For the beginner, this is a frustrating realisation, especially since so few programmes and textbooks seem to place much emphasis on learning the colloqial/spoken part of the language. When I studied at SOAS (the BA Arabic programme) there was virtually no emphasis placed on the dialect, aside from the year abroad (which I spent in Damascus and thus had some contact and exposure to the Syrian / shami dialect). In any case, I was expecting that the Middlebury course would have more to offer in terms of dialect tuition, especially having spent hours reading their website and course syllabi, but this was not the case. There are dialect classes four days per week, but they are not taught to any particular syllabi and it very much is a question of chance as to whether your teacher knows how to teach (and encourage the practice of) their dialect or not. The only thing I’d say, though, is that there are lots of varieties on offer, from the more common Egyption and shami to Jordanian, Moroccan and even Sudanese. Anyway, this is all just a warning to say probably don’t go to Middlebury if all you care about is developing a really good set of spoken skills.

Students take a long placement exam the day after they arrive, and then the 140-or-so of them are split into levels. Normally four is the highest level offered, but this year they added 4.5 to accommodate people who had slightly longer experience/exposure. (I was in that class).

Formal classes run from 8.45am-1:15pm (with some 5-15 minute breaks in-between to space it up) followed by lunch. After lunch, there are colloquial / dialect classes for an hour, and then you more or less spend the rest of the day doing assigned work in preparation for the next day, revision of the work you did that day and other kinds of homework. I think the teachers estimate that you should be doing four or five hours of work outside class every day, or that’s what they aim to provide/assign. That’s what’s meant by the whole "intensive" part of the Middlebury programme. (For more on whether I found the intensity of the programme useful, see below).

What follows consists of recommendations for those planning to take the programme in the future. It’s mostly things I did while I was on the course, but there are some things that I’ve since realised would have been useful as well or instead of the approach I took. Feel free to pick and choose which sections you read, as they’re all meant to more or less stand alone, depending on your interest.

Preparation

I’ve already written up some thoughts, here, on what I did before the programme started to ensure that I wasn’t just revising things I had already studied. My case was perhaps unusual in that I had a long period of (somewhat-focused) study under my belt in terms of my BA degree, but years of non-use meant that I didn’t really feel confident using the language any more.

Why is it useful to do some extra study before the start of the course? I’m going to take it as a given that you’re not a complete beginner, in which case, you more or less know what you need to be studying: a little bit of grammar perhaps, lots and lots of words, lots of spoken practice, a decent amount of reading at the appropriate level, and so on. So why not get a headstart and do some study beforehand so you can benefit from the focused months coming your way?

If you’re a complete beginner, there’s still a lot of value in doing some work before the programme starts. A lot of the things you do in the early days of learning Arabic are somewhat menial (learning the alphabet, practicing pronunciation and some of the unique sounds that Arabic uses, and so on) and there’s no real reason why you can’t have this all in the bag before you start formally with the Middlebury programme. If you’re extra enthusiastic, you could learn a bunch of basic phrases that you’ll always need to use — perhaps start with this list — and/or learn the first 500-2000 (depending on your bravery) words in the Arabic frequency list. Either use the versions over at Memrise or Anki for this (both are "no-typing" courses, with audio, I think, so they should be ok for those who’ve just learnt the alphabet). And for a true bonus, pick a teacher over at iTalki and do an easy 30-45 minute lesson every week or two in the winter/spring months before the summer.

Take a look at my last post, and combine with this list for some suggestions on things you could be doing prior to the beginning of the course in June:

  • spoken practice via iTalki or some other language exchange site/programme (shout-out to the newcomer Natakallam, which pairs Syrian refugees in Lebanon with Arabic learners, benefitting both parties). From January-early June I was doing 4-5 hours of iTalki lessons every week (an hour session almost every weekday)
  • writing practice over at Lang-8 (I’ve written about this before, but basically you write entries (about anything) and people correct them for you in exchange for you correcting things in your native language (presumably English)).
  • reading practice — I read through all the Sahlawayhi books from January-June. In case you haven’t heard of this excellent series of graded readers for beginning-intermediate levels (and their paired audiobooks), you’re really missing out. The stories are quirky, and not so difficult that you’re looking up every other word in good ol’ Hans Wehr. Even if the language level in the final levels is beyond what you’re capable of, there’s still lots to devour in the early books. Strongly recommended, though this isn’t really for absolute beginners.
  • administrative preparation - Make sure you’ve tied up all your loose ends, as far as you are able. This means delegating work, pausing projects and so on. You might not be able to do this, but try as much as possible. There were some poor souls on the programme who had to work on their 'jobs' on the side of the programme; the amount of homework doesn’t really allow for that and for you to sleep, so one will suffer if you try to continue things from your pre-Middlebury life.
  • tools and skills preparation - make sure you’re familiar with Anki, Lang-8 and other such tools before the programme begins. This’ll save you time and headaches that you could be using to learn actual Arabic words, phrases and more. (See below on some of the tools that I consider essential).
  • (typing practice - this one’s optional, but given how much you’ll find yourself having to type, I’d strongly recommend you practice this and get comfortable finding your way around the keyboard prior to attending the course, especially at the higher levels where you have to write dissertations of 2000+ words in Arabic (typed, of course). I don’t know of many options for PC-users, but for Mac users you can check out XType (on the Mac App Store) for a structured lesson plan for learning typing using the Arabic alphabet. There’s also Typing Master Arabic available online, but it’s a 100% Arabic-only course so that may or may not be appropriate for you.)

When to Study

Just a quick point here about sleep: it’s really important, especially when you’re cramming words down your throat day and night. Formal classes were usually finished by 3pm, but some people would take time off and only begin homework after dinner at seven or eight in the evening.

I’d strongly recommend you begin your homework immediately following the end of formal classes at 2.30/3pm. This way, you have some work to do after dinner, but it’s not an insurmountable pile of work, and you’re not going to be studying until 3am every day. You can keep up that kind of schedule for a week maybe, but not eight straight weeks of the programme. You’ll either drop out or lose your mind — both, I think, happened this year, to some extent. Don’t be that person.

Try where possible to do the unpleasant / necessary thing now so as not to have to do it later. The Middlebury Arabic programme does not really work well with any kind of procrastination behaviour. Enough said on that.

The Language Pledge

This is quite important, I think. There’s a qualitative difference in terms of how you approach the course if you’re committed to the language pledge and if you’re not.

A lot of people violated the pledge this year (Summer 2015), both on and off campus. I get that it’s sometimes good to let off steam and so on, but if you leave campus and talk English among yourselves, you’re missing out and you’re setting your study back.

(Total beginners aren’t subject to the language pledge, in any case, so don’t worry if that’s you).

Keeping Up with Vocabulary

This is a big one. The course, particularly in the higher levels, is big on encouraging the learning of words. And, in fact, the more I progress in my Arabic studies, the more I think the learning of words (in context, where possible) is perhaps the key thing to progress forwards. This also connects to my final conclusion about Middlebury, that an intensive programme is only useful if you’re taking the things you learnt on into the long-term.

The students of level 4.5 learnt around 3000 new words during the eight weeks of the programme. This doesn’t include words learnt while reading the assigned novel (see below), but I know it’s roughly 3000 because I have them all entered into Anki and I can see exactly how many times I’ve reviewed each one and so on.

Approximately 85 words per day (on each of the five study days per week) is not for the faint of heart. It’s unrelenting and it’s tough and it’s often dispiriting.

I could not have done it without spaced-repetition and my faithful Anki.

If you want to ensure that you’re not panicking every time there’s a weekly vocabulary test, and (more importantly) if you want to make sure that you’ll have a way to keep learning and reviewing the things you learnt while on the Middlebury programme, you have to use some sort of spaced-repetition software. I really don’t see any other way.

Again, I’ve written about spaced-repetition elsewhere so go check that out and then come back.

So now you know that Anki is basically a flash-card programme, one that presents words for review at exactly the right time so you’re not needlessly studying, reviewing and testing yourself on things that you know pretty well. As I said earlier, if you aren’t embracing some sort of software-based approach to storing the things you learn on the course, you’ll just forget it over the months after you leave the programme in which case, why did you pay $13,000 to attend in the first place?

So, to put you in my shoes, every day we’d study new texts, listen to things, write things and sometimes even get vocab lists themselves. Lots of input. After class each day, I’d take an hour (sometimes up to two) inputting the new bits of information into Anki to ensure that I can keep reviewing things during the course without stressing about which words to devote the most time to, and so on.

A typical entry might look something like this:

 
 

which will, in due course, create cards like this, to test my recall:

 
 

(That card is giving me a picture of a political prisoner along with the context of a sentence in which a word (mu3taqaliin) was originally present; it is my job to remember which word is suitable for that context, prompted by the picture to remind me. Note that the cards are 100% Arabic-only. This is important in general, regardless of the Middlebury language pledge.)

(By the way, this method of 100% target-language-only cards, and the formatting of the cards and a lot of the 'system' I’m describing here draws heavily on the system described by Gabriel Wyner in his fantastic CreativeLive course on learning languages. I’ve recommended that in the past, too.)

So I’ll do that for every new word we learned, sometimes formatting them those context-heavy cards, and sometimes cards without the context (especially when first learning a word, and when the word or phrase is something tangible). Like this:

 
 

…which is a prompt for me to recall the Arabic word for "hummingbird" (which I saw fly by me one day while walking around the grounds of the campus). When I click the card to check the answer, I also hear the word pronounced.

For words I’m learning for the first time, or for really abstract terms that I can guess are going to have a complex usage within different contexts, I would then write out — I still do all this, by the way, every time I learn a new word — a sentence or two to check that I’ve really grasped the meaning of the word and how to use it in the context of the real world. At the end of my study session, I’ll post all my new practice sentences over on Lang-8, and usually within about two or three hours they’ll all be corrected. I’ll then take the corrections, add them into Anki so now I have:

1) words presented without context

2) words presented with the context of whatever text we were studying at the time

3) words presented with an entirely new context, one which has personal relevance and immediacy to me because I wrote it.

This is how you learn lots of words.

If you’re not keen on posting things to lang-8, just take your practice sentences to your teachers during office hours each day (usually around 9 or 10pm) and get them to correct them together with you. Straight after you’ve been to see your teacher, go add those corrections into Anki so you can be tested on them (see more on this in the next section). Our teachers were happy to see students doing this, practicing the new words in context and seeing people taking the extra effort to master the material.

So if you’re doing this, you’ll actually be studying some hundred or so new cards every day — sometimes more, if you include the new words you study during colloquial classes — and in order to keep on top of this, you’ll need to start reviewing first thing every day. Seriously, just get up at seven in the morning and spend an hour every day before class reviewing the cards that Anki selects for you. Do another hour in the afternoon/evening and you’ll on the right path. It seems a lot, but the payoff is amazing. (I usually was reviewing Anki cards between 1-3 hours every day, depending on how many words I had added the previous day) throughout the eight-week period.)

(Side-bar: If you’re in a class that likes to work/collaborate together, you can — of course — spread out the workload of inputting words into Anki, and then everyone can benefit from sharing the files).

The night before tests, I would often see people around campus 'cramming' words, and the next morning I’d hear about how they were studying until 4am and so on. This is not a recipe for success in the long-term. This won’t help you retain the words after the course ends.

So start using spaced-repetition software and make it more likely that you’ll remember the things you learn…

Learning from Homework Corrections

I mentioned this in the previous section. The Middlebury course includes a decent amount of written homework every day (particularly in the higher levels). If you’re not finding some way of systematically reviewing the mistakes you made (after you get your corrections back), then you’re really missing out. In fact, you might as well not bother doing the homework if you’re not going to bother reviewing the corrected versions.

It works something like this. I’ll do it in English so you can see what I mean. I’d write a sentence like this, perhaps:

I go to the supermarket last week.

The phrase "last week" alerts us to the fact that the verb should be in the past tense. Thus, the corrected version should be:

I went to the supermarket last week.

So I’ll have a card that prompts me with:

I __ to the supermarket last week.

I’ll probably also have a picture of someone walking or "going" alongside that prompt, and the correct answer will be "went".

I made cards for every single homework correction or sentence where there was a mistake. Again, inputting it all can take a good chunk of time, and I would only input one or two instances of each error (i.e. if I misspelled the same word thirty times in an essay, I wouldn’t make thirty different cards testing the spelling of the word), but it saves time in the long-run. This is the speedy way to excise commonly-made errors from your life.

Learning Grammar

I approached grammar slightly differently during the Middlebury course. By the time you’re at level 4.5, you’ve already studied all the basic grammar you’re ever going to need, probably more than once. So the grammatical points we studied were a mixture of revision of the basics and some obscure aspects of the language.

Again, I’d make sure I wrote sample sentences practicing the grammar points under discussion and those would (post-corrections) make their way into Anki. If there were lists of things to be learnt — the seven forms of the siffa mushabahha, for example — I’d make a card that asks me for those seven forms, then I’d pick sample words in those verbal forms, then add them to a memory palace, and then the Anki system would keep reviewing my command of those seven forms. (Don’t worry if the details of what I just wrote were incomprehensible; just take away the fact that I was finding ways to test myself on the grammar we learned, in abstract form (i.e. a list of the forms) as well as in applied form (sample sentences using the things I’ve learned in real-world context).

Readings

Another thing the Middlebury course — like any decent language programme — includes a lot of is reading. Where possible, I used Steve Ridout’s excellent online service called Readlang.

I’ll let Steve explain the overall principle:

Now you know how Readlang works, you’ll have figured out why it’s such a valuable service. You read texts, you figure out the words you don’t know, and then you test yourself on those words using the context of the passage you just studied (and testing employs the spaced-repetition algorithm, too!). Readlang also allows you to export your 'learned' words into Anki.

There are some slight amendments I’d recommend for Arabic-learners. If you go to your account settings you’ll have the opportunity to enter in details for a custom Arabic dictionary. Delete whatever is the default there at the moment (probably Google) and use the following text to refill the form.

URL: http://arabic.britannicaenglish.com/en/{{query}}

It should look something like this:

 
 

It’s one of the best online dictionaries for Arabic and works very well in conjunction with Readlang.

Colloquial/Dialect Classes

I don’t have too much to say about these. If your colloquial class teaches you a lot of new words, make sure to add them all to Anki and review as appropriate. You’ll probably have to pronounce the words yourself when making new cards — this explains the basics of how to do that — so make sure to make annotations on class handouts as to the vocalisation of the words (i.e. the vowelling) so that you’re not mispronouncing.

The Novel

We read Tayyib Saleh’s Mawsim al-hijra illa al-shomal ('Season of Migration to the North’) over the course of the eight-week programme. It’s not particularly long, but the language used is difficult, especially in terms of the huge number of new words.

The idea of studying a novel in the context of the Middlebury programme — as explained by the director and by our teachers — is exposure. Exposure to grammatical structures, exposure to phrases, exposure to culture, and exposure to vocabulary. You aren’t really meant to be learning all the new words, just trying your hardest to figure out what’s going on in the context of the story.

I used Readlang (along with a copy of the original Arabic text of the novel) to read the assigned chapters each week. That way I wasn’t spending all my time looking words up in Hans Wehr. The number of new/unknown words made that an untenable prospect.

I also got hold of an audio-recording of the text of the novel. This will be tricky to do, but it really pays off. As you may know, it’s hard to read a passage out loud in Arabic if you don’t know the meaning of the words and — sometimes — the grammar of the passage. (This has to do with how the language works). I’m also a fairly slow reader, so having an audio recording of the passages being studied is a real help.

I’d usually listen to the audio of the section due for a particular week’s study once or twice before even starting with the reading. Then I’d use readlang and go through line by line. And then I’d listen to the chapter another time, sometimes several times.

You’ll find it difficult to find recordings of novels in Arabic. For some reason there isn’t a market for them, and nobody is producing recordings, so you’ll probably have to make your own. This may involve asking your teacher on iTalki to do it (this is what I did), or asking a freelancer on Upwork or any of the many thousands of contracting/freelancer sites. Or just post a request on Facebook perhaps. You’ll probably be able to get it done for under $100, which in the context of your investment into the Middlebury programme isn’t actually a great deal, even more so if you split the cost between the members of your class and share the audio recordings.

Getting your hands on an audiobook version of the novel you’re studying is something I’d really strongly recommend.

Poetry Night

Towards the end of the programme, the course organizers put on an evening of poetry recitation. Students are given the opportunity (a few weeks earlier) to volunteer to recite a poem as part of the evening’s activities. It’s a long evening, and amongst all the other work you are busy with on the course, it’s hard to see why you’d volunteer to take on another burden, but it’s well worth it. It’s a chance to expose yourself to (often) highly stylized language. It’s a change to really polish your pronunciation. And, by the time you’re done rehearsing, you’ll probably have memorized the text so it’s also a chance to learn a poem in Arabic by heart. I recorded my recitation on that evening here. Apologies for any mistakes etc.

Further Online Resources

  • Context-Reverso — I have one of my fellow classmates to thank (Hi Yasmine!) for this gem. You put in a word, and it spits out example sentences (drawn from a big database of sample real-word texts) using that word in context. For the intermediate-advanced learner, it’s an amazing resource, far more useful than Google Translate or any others of its kind.
  • iTalki — I mentioned this above, especially in the context of your preparations for study at Middlebury. I also (where classmates were off campus on weekends, or in order to prepare for oral presentations and so on) scheduled one or two lessons during the programme itself so that I could talk through my ideas, or a difficult piece of text etc, with my teacher over Skype.
  • Lang-8 - I mentioned this above. Use it. Love it. Share it.
  • Electronic Hans Wehr — You can search the Hans Wehr dictionary online by root.
  • Forvo — great for getting audio pronunciation of words for use in your Anki deck.

Conclusion: How useful are intensive language study programmes?

I’m not sure how useful the "intensive" part of the Middlebury programme really is. Most students didn’t have a system to manage the massive levels of input, so a lot of their time and efforts were wasted. If Middlebury taught and offered ways for students to be better prepared — such s some of the things I’ve attempted to outline above — then perhaps I’d feel more charitable to the programme, but as such I feel many students were let down in some way.

So, after all that, was it worth it? On balance, yes, but mainly because I didn’t have to spend all that money for the course fees (on account of my scholarship) and also because I had systems in place to ensure that I wouldn’t forget the things that I was learning during the course.

If you’re a complete beginner and want to leapfrog ahead to the point where you can start teaching yourself, I’d recommend this programme. If you’re already at intermediate levels, you might want to look into other ways, especially if you aren’t lucky enough to have an employer or a grant that pays for your attendance.

I’ll be writing a separate post on resources available to the intermediate-advanced Arabic language student in due course, as well as on how to get out of the plateau into which it’s easy to find oneself. Till then, I hope you found this useful…