Shortly after the 165 high school students from around the state of Virginia arrived on Washington and Lee University's campus last weekend, they made a promise, in writing: no cell phones, no iPods, no iPads, and no English for the next three weeks.
The students are participants in three Virginia Governor's Language Academies in Spanish, French and German.
The full-immersion experience means that the only contact the students are permitted to have with anyone outside the academy is limited to short letters home, and those can be in English. Otherwise, they are forbidden to speak or write in English during their stay.
"This is clearly the best way to learn a language," said Dick Kuettner, professor in romance languages and teacher education at W&L and coordinator of the academies. "Research has shown clearly that you learn language through usage. These students will be using the language just as they would if they were living in the particular culture."
This is the second year that the three academies have been at W&L, and Kuettner believes that the previous experience with the program has led to improvements in what is offered.
"We do not use textbooks. Everything is focused on the practical use of language inside and outside of the classroom," he said. "It's speaking and speaking and writing and writing. I've seen tremendous progress in the students. I've heard of students who have been in the program, then returned as college-level students to serve as resident advisors. They have told me that this three-week experience in full immersion made a bigger difference in their language skills than a semester or a year abroad."
One wrinkle to the program is that the students will actually leave with three languages. Each academy is teaching its students an additional foreign language. For instance, students in the Spanish academy are learning Japanese, but they are being taught in Spanish. German students are learning Russian, and French students are learning Arabic.
"We had a very positive response to this when we introduced it," said Kuettner. "The additional language takes advantage of the particular expertise of those teachers in the program who are multilingual."
The program features several special activities, ranging from a popular inter-academy soccer tournament to dances in which students will demonstrate cultural specific dances to members of the other academies.
Kuettner has been especially pleased with the response the students have received throughout the W&L campus. He noted that people from the campus bookstore to the library who speak one of the languages are happy to engage the students in casual conversation.
"Students may go into the bookstore for supplies and wind up speaking in the language of the academy," he said. "That's wonderful practice for them. We have a diverse society here on the campus, and it's open and welcoming and I have felt very proud that we have people who are energetic about having these talented high school students around."
Of course, the presence of the language academy students puts a twist on W&L's speaking tradition — the long-standing convention that people greet one another when they pass on the campus. Instead of the common hellos, campus visitors are as apt to hear "Bonjour" and "Guten Tag" and "Buenos Dias" for the next three weeks.
"The agreement that the students have made is that they will not speak a word of English until after the closing ceremony," said Kuettner. "Then they can speak English — if they want to."
The Governor's Foreign Language Academies were originated in 1986 by the Virginia Board of Education with the aim of providing an exemplary experience in foreign language education. Beginning with a French Academy, the program's early conception also included Governor's Foreign Language Academies in Japanese, German, Latin, Russian Studies and Spanish.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs