How To Prepare For Your First Intensive Language Course

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How To Prepare For Your First Intensive Language Course

Today’s post comes from Pat Goodridge, who guest posted here not too long ago (see here).

In it he shares some great advice for getting the most out of intensive language courses and some of the things he experienced recently doing one himself.

Over to you, Pat.

This summer marks the completion of my first intensive language course.

The program, which focused on Central Asian languages like Kazakh, Uzbek, and Uyghur, was an 8-week session at a Midwestern university with a terrific reputation for Slavic and Central-Asian languages.

The program was top-flight: It had received loads of money from the State Department, attracted teachers from the best universities in Central Asia, and was even supported financially by a consortium of elite universities, including Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania, both with which I have an affiliation.

Besides its abundant resources, the program was also strong in terms of its student base, which included two Harvard grad students, one UPenn grad student, one Columbia grad student, and a program director for American Councils.

Language Learning Intensive

A number of them had actually attended this exact program in the past, having received funding to come one summer after another.

At 23, I came in expecting to be the oldest among a group of green undergraduates, and instead found that I was actually well-below the average age of attendees. Such a group of seasoned students and language professionals boosted the intensity of the learning environment immensely (see Tip #2 below for more about classmates).

Though I’ve taken my fair share of regular-speed academic language courses, I wish I had converted to intensive courses long ago; they’re time-effective, and tend to trade the tedium of normal classes for a certain feel of challenging excitement.

They also usually occur during the summer, when the weather is nice, and may (as they did in my case) involve the opportunity to travel to a new, exciting place.

Beyond blasting boredom, the courses are designed based on evidence showing that intensive, immersive courses lead to some of the best results that university language classes can offer.

Keep in mind, I say that as someone who’s far from being a champion of a purely academic approach to language learning.

I did not major in a language in college, electing instead to study linguistics from a theoretical point of view and apply its concepts to my personal language studies.

Likewise, my current graduate program consists of classes focusing on area studies, not simply language. Nonetheless, this intensive program represented a unique opportunity, and I would recommend even the most self-driven language learners consider trying out an intensive course.

Far from your run-of-the-mill undergrad intro classes, these are a journey and an academic experience all their own.

While I experienced very positive results from my own intensive language experience, a number of genuine challenges arose throughout my coursework that led me to conclude that the language-learning option is not for everyone.

The section in my program’s handbook titled “Dealing with stress during intensive courses” says it all; intensive courses are, as the name implies, “intense”. One of the implications of this is that they are not for the casual language-learner or for the lackadaisical student. There was a reason there were so many doctoral students in my program–education is their lives.

And for the length of the intensive course, it’s your life, too.

So I’ve provided some tips and insights for those pondering intensive language study.

Keep in mind that some of these tips may conflict with what your teacher recommends. You may also, however, find that your teacher expounds some of the very same virtues as I have here.

So here are my tips for maximizing your results from intensive language courses:

Tip #1: Not all intensive classes are the same, so do your research beforehand

Even within a niche of language study like intensive courses, differences both subtle and distinct exist between programs.

Choosing the right program based on the characteristics you desire is the first step to a rewarding experience.

One variable to consider is length and timing; my course was split into two sections, meaning I received one grade for each.

Some courses, however, are one long session with one grade, or are half the length but twice as many hours a day. Some have courses every day of the week, others every other day.

Likewise, some begin class quite early in the morning, others in the afternoon. For instance, my class was 5 days per week, from 8:30-1.

This punishing class schedule will be a rude awakening (literally) for most undergraduates. After class ends, however, you have carte blanche for the rest of the day to nap and do homework as you decide fit.

Choose based on your habits and your schedule.

Another point to remember is that when it comes to choosing the course that will most advance you in terms of career, don’t judge a book by its cover—my institute offers 30 different languages, but Middlebury, which is widely considered the best overall, offers only five (Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French).

Also, make sure to recognize the distinction between intensive and immersive courses; all immersive courses are intensive, but not the other way around.

Intensive courses involve 15-20 hours of class time per week, supplemented by lots of independent study, with extracurricular program events thrown in (see my point about activities outside the classroom).

Immersive programs, on the other hand, are just that: you live, study, and do everything else with your teacher, your classmates, and possibly miscellaneous native speakers of the target language.

I’m not an expert on immersive programs, so if you think that’s an attractive option you should research more on your own, but I do know that they can be quite rigorous—Middlebury’s “Language Pledge” entails students speaking only in their target language for the entirety of their course.

Tip #2: If possible, get an idea of who your classmates will be ahead of time

As I mentioned before, I assumed naively in advance that my fellow students would be in a position similar to me (i.e., undergrads, recent grads, or master’s students).

In fact, only one student of about 15 in the entire program was an undergrad, and she did happen to be in my class (though not for long, as I will later explain).

I also assumed that everyone in the class would be starting at a similar or even identical level, that level being ground zero, since mine was a beginner class after all.

Low and behold, there was another student in my class, a 2nd-year PhD, who had grown up in the target country and, though she hadn’t acquired the language fully, had heard it from a young age.

You can imagine how much faster she picked up our assigned vocabulary (much of which she already knew).

And to think that I considered taking the intermediate class after studying a few phrases on my own—the intermediate class had an actual heritage speaker in it—a HERITAGE speaker!

That being said, knowledge differences among students are common, and you should make sure your teacher understands when they exist so that the class remains fair (see Tip #8 about communicating with your teacher).

You want to avoid these surprises and know where you stand ahead of time.

Feel free to reach out to the program coordinator to find out a bit more about the participants:

How much prior experience do they have in the target language?

What’s their level of education?

In what field?

Where are they from?

This will not only help you know what to expect, but will allow you better insight into which section (beginner, intermediate, etc.) is best for you not just from the angle of your abilities, but of those around you.

This second point is especially important, since what this summer has taught me is that when classes are small, course titles actually become arbitrary; what matters in terms of the course speed and intensity is not the name of the course section, but what the teacher sees as a fitting challenge level based on the levels of the students.

Be mindful of this ahead of time so that you don’t pick the wrong class and fall behind (see point #4).

Your classmates are important—you will be spending many dozens of hours with them.

That is why I emphasize this tip.

Tip #3: Know your purpose

No two people in my program seemed to be attending for the same reason.

The West-Coast history professor in my class was taking the course for fun (having received funding). I, too, subscribed to the “why not” reasoning of having received money and embraced the opportunity to study a LCTL.

In addition to personal enjoyment, I also wanted a more well-rounded view of Soviet languages besides Russian, for my master’s work. Others studied the languages for help with their research or because they were traveling to the region very soon.

Some care a great deal about the grade they receive in their class, others are entirely indifferent.

This diversity of purpose is mostly positive, the only drawback being that those taking the language for fun are rarely as motivated or focused in class as those taking it for professional reasons.

My classmate making English-language puns based on how new target language vocab words sound was funny the first few times, but not hour after hour.

Tip #4: For each hour you spend in the classroom, spend 45-60 minutes practicing on your own

At first glance, this schedule may sound excessively grueling.

After all, who wants to spend 3-4 hours in their bedroom learning a language when they just spend that amount of time doing the same in a classroom?

But this concern misses the point that the homework isn’t just about learning, but about retaining information you’ve already learned—with lots of language input comes the necessity to retain that info, which requires additional practice.

Class time simply provides first exposure and some initial practice, but the information can only be best synthesized at home during homework and review.

Practicing with native speakers outside of class helps as well, though you’ll already be speaking plenty in class.

Tip #5: Keep up

The wording of this tip is simple, but its execution rarely is.

That’s because each day of class for most intensive programs is equal to one week of material in the regular school year. One implication of this is that keeping up can be very difficult.

The first day of the third week of my summer intensive language course, I was on my way to see my professor at her office hours and spotted one of my classmates, the undergrad student, outside the building, speaking on the phone.

I wondered to whom she was speaking.

I went into the room to meet with my teacher, who told me that the student would be leaving after the end of the first session (typically summer intensive language courses are split into two sessions). I was sad to see my classmate go, and something that made the situation especially unfortunate for me was that I felt much the same way she did: lost, overwhelmed, and behind.

She didn’t quite know what she was getting into.

Neither did I, as a matter of fact, I just had the prior experience to carry me through.

I would therefore encourage you to really have a strong vision of what the course will be like for you before you decide to attend.

I myself was guilty of missing this, as I was taken off guard by the pace of the course, it’s day-in-day out consistency.

These courses can be a substantial lifestyle shift for some.

Coupled with that, don’t over-commit yourself with other responsibilities before the class starts; this classmate that left was taking an online public speaking course at the same time as this language course.

Tip #6: Expect to have “off” days

There will be days when you don’t want to go to class.

There will be days when you feel like you can barely utter a complete sentence, or when your pronunciation or grammar is so flawed that it makes you cringe with embarrassment. Then there will be others days where you plain don’t want to talk or interact at all.

If you’ve studied the target language in the past, you will sometimes feel as though you somehow knew more when you first arrived, like you’ve regressed.

These mental states are simply the result of the neuroplastic learning process, and they will pass as your brain recovers.

Be persistent.

Tip #7: Don’t be bound to your text

Diversification of resources is important to learning any language.

One needs to balance his or her sources against one another in order to ensure that the most accurate translations, grammatical information, and exercises are used. In science, this is known as “cross-checking”.

While most teachers understand the importance of this as well (in my class, we regularly used scans of a Russian-made Kazakh book in addition to our main text), few diversify class resources sufficiently.

Even if you have a main text, use websites, apps, and other books outside of class.

Different resources have different strengths, so cherry pick to find the best of each and optimize your catalogue of learning materials.

Tip #8: Build a relationship with your teacher

Students report increased bonding with teachers during intensive courses, which I would imagine is highly conducive to faster, better learning.

I must admit that in the past I have been guilty of being too reticent about approaching my professors. This fact is especially unfortunate given that the student-professor relationship is one of the most important one can ever develop.

I managed to skirt by for years without really knowing or talking to professors, whether those of languages or other subjects.

However, such a habit is important to break if you’re taking an intensive class, since intensive classes tend to be not only smaller, but involve spending far more time with other people in a shorter span.

This reinforces the importance of being open with your professors about things like the speed and difficulty of the class, as well as about what areas might be giving you trouble.

If you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll have a professor that is very receptive to feedback and to your needs as a student.

My professor was especially good at soliciting this feedback from us on how to improve her teaching or the structure of the class; she must’ve asked in Kazakh at least every two minutes “sorak bar ma?” (“Are there any questions?”).

She had come all the way from Central Asia, and we as students had each descended on this Midwestern city from all corners of the country, so everyone wanted to make the most of their time there. She was also always available by email, text, and phone.

She was even willing to Skype-in a student who was away on travel one day.

Usually, outside activities will also help you get to know your teacher (See Tip #9).

Tip #9: Take advantage of opportunities outside of the classroom

If you’re taking a class as part of an isolated program, there will most likely be coordinators who will organize events for professors and students.

Some of these events will be compulsory, others not. For example, we were required to attend the weekly “dastarkhan” program-wide feast each Friday, but were simply encouraged to attend a dinner with the former ambassador of Kazakhstan.

We also had a sailing day, a trip to a nearby lake, and a trip to a cultural picnic nearby major city.

In conclusion, intensive classes are best for ambitious, passionate, and talented language learners.

Intensive courses can jumpstart learners on a new language, but can also get even the advanced student massive gains.

No matter what kind of learner you are, be sure to do your research before taking the plunge to have one of the most intense language-learning experiences out there.

Some top American intensive / immersion language programs

1. Middlebury College Language Schools

Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT

2. Wisconsin Summer Language Institutes

University of Wisconsin, Madison
Madison, WI

3. Indiana Summer Language Workshop

University of Indiana, Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana

4. Summer Intensive Language Program at Monterey (For those on the West Coast)

Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
Monterey, CA

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Cardinal MezzofantiCardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti was a 19th century polyglot who is believed to have spoken at least 39 languages!Learn more
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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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