U.Va.'s Summer Language Institute Celebrates 30th Anniversary of Total Immersion

August 09, 2010
August 9, 2010 — Bill McDonald likes to say he didn't help found the University of Virginia's Summer Language Institute.

"I'm not the founder," he laughed one recent Friday. "I'm the survivor!"

Thinking back to 1980, when the institute first began, the popular German instructor said there were only a few foreign languages offered; "We didn't have any Asian programs in the beginning."

The institute this summer celebrated its 30th anniversary of offering intensive, immersive instruction that allows students to complete two years of language coursework in one summer. It has grown by leaps and bounds; in addition to German, it now offers Chinese, English as a second language, French, Italian, Latin, Russian, Spanish and Tibetan. This year, for the first time, students also were able to study Arabic.

Institute coordinator Caren Freeman said that the U.S. government's designation of Arabic as a "critical language" played a large part in bringing the language to the Summer Language Institute.

"The SLI offers a richer, more effective learning environment than can be offered through regular summer session, due to the larger number of contact hours inside the classroom and the extensive co-curricular programming that occurs outside the classroom," she said.

Freeman said the Tibetan program is popular. "The Tibetan SLI maintains a consistently robust enrollment due to the international reputation of U.Va's Tibetan Studies program and the fact that there are few summer language schools on the continent which offer high-quality Tibetan language instruction."

"We are the only program to my knowledge that offers two full years of language in one summer, completing the entire language requirement for Arts & Sciences," McDonald said.

Anyone can enroll in the eight-week courses. The institute attracts a diverse array of students, McDonald said, including "professionals and lifelong learners who have varied backgrounds, interests and career aspirations. Many are from U.Va – approximately 60 percent of participants – but a significant number of students come from outside the University, and a handful of students come to us each year from universities overseas."

This summer's class included students from Ivy League universities, community colleges and area high schools.

One of McDonald's students said she came to the institute because she wanted a challenging learning environment. But there was another reason she came to Charlottesville. "I have always wanted to attend U.Va," said Gale Morris, a rising senior at Saint Paul's College in Lawrenceville.

Morris originally wanted to study Spanish, which often has to turn away students due to high demand. She was convinced to switch to German by McDonald, or "Herr Mac," as he is efficiently and affectionately called.

"Herr Mac" relishes teaching. "I come in an hour early every day and ask, 'How can I make it better?'"

Eight weeks of language study can be very intense, he said. "Once you hit the second week of June – after five weeks – it hits you, because you are doing this 9 to 5. It is very demanding."

Still, McDonald said the immersion approach is the best way to absorb a new language. "We are back to the natural way we learn languages, through the ears, through exposure, and repetition."

This summer, 163 students joined more than 3,000 other institute graduates, including 25 in McDonald's class.

"I want controlled chaos," McDonald said. "It is not a teacher-focused classroom, it is noisy fun. It's like a first-grade classroom."

— By Jane Kelly