The Middlebury Summer Arabic Program far exceeded my expectations. It was more rigorous, more difficult, and more productive than I had imagined. I could not be happier with the curriculum, my professors, and the summer program administration. I would not recommend it for the casual learner; this program is for those who want Arabic boot camp!
Before coming to Middlebury, I had been told to expect an intense summer. It never registered for me just how intense it could be!
I came in knowing the alphabet, having recited the Qur'an since the age of 4. Aside from that, and a smattering of Arabic words and Qur'anic passages, I had no knowledge of the language. I took the placement test upon arrival and was rather embarrassed with my performance on most of the sections (e.g. the writing section; in lieu of any Arabic, I turned in the English sentences "I cannot compose in Arabic. Sorry!")
All the same, I was placed in level 1.5. This meant that, starting after the orientation weekend, we would speak nothing but Arabic. The first day of class was exactly that: 100% Arabic. Not a word of English was spoken in class. On the conceptual level, this is exciting. On the reified level, this was world-shattering.
I had never realized just how much I relied on effective communication to keep me sane. Humor, compassion, catharsis, prayer, even thought all require language proficiency. For a lover of words to suddenly become mute was too much to bear. The first week or two of Middlebury was devoted to simply "treading water". Some left the school, the rest toughed it out. But it was worth it.
By the third week of class, we were all able to communicate on a basic level. There's no doubt our grammar was horrible and our vocabulary required supplementation with a perpetual game of charades. But we made it. We could understand each other, we were learning in class, and we made it.
The learning curve from that point on was stupendous; I cannot imagine gaining basic proficiency in a language so quickly in any way other than total immersion. Yes, we had more than 5 hours of class a day. Yes, our homework load was up to 5 hours a day. Yes, we had extracurricular obligations. But did we learn an unbelievable amount of Arabic in a very short time? Yes.
If I could critique the program, it would be in relatively minor ways. The homework was very heavily inclined towards haptic learners. I'd estimate that 75% of the homework was simply writing Arabic. Not composing, mind you; more often than not the only mental effort was to fill in a blank, but a whole sentence had to be copied word for word. This was not good for me. As a heavily auditory learner, my mind shuts down while copying something. I can engage in copying sentences for a whole hour, and I wont remember a single thing. The rigid and prescribed homework was thus, for me, far less effective than it could have been.
Another problem I had was with the administration; not of the Arabic program per se, but with the University. I had written a post about a certain high-ranking member of Middlebury administration during the orientation phase, immediately before the program began. I ought not to have done so without writing to him first, and for that I have apologized to him and wish to do so now to my readership. I do not wish to revisit the matter any further at present, except to say that I cannot endorse Middlebury administration above the level of the Arabic program itself.
Otherwise, the program was amazing. I made several good friends with whom I hope to keep in contact for several years to come. We had some wonderful conversation about really deep issues many hours into the night. It was like college all over again, except with far better facts, philosophy, and life experience :-)
Another very positive point became evident when I came back to my university in Houston. I signed up for 2nd year Arabic and was told that a conversation with the professor was required if I intended to sign up for any level past 101. During the conversation, the professor suggested that I would actually fit far better with the 3rd year Arabic class! Imagine my shock! 2 months of Middlebury, and I'm entering Rice at 5th semester Arabic? That certainly speaks to the rigor and successful outcome of the program.
So, if you're thinking about Middlebury, know that it is quite likely the best program out there. It is not for the faint of heart, but if you want to sacrifice a summer to aspirations of language acquisition, this is the place to do it!