Are Summer Language Immersion Programs Worth It?
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- Summer immersion programs fit a full year of language study into just two months.
- Programs teach critical and rare languages, as well as popular languages like French and Spanish.
- The immersive experience lets you live full time in your target language.
- Students often come out with impressive language skills — but also fatigue and debt.
The typical summer language immersion program condenses a full year of language study into just 6-9 weeks. The immersive experience and heavy credit load mean spending every day of the week in class, leaving homework and co-curriculars for evenings and weekends.
Co-curricular activities aim to enhance the core curriculum by expanding students' understanding of their language's cultural context, from art, food, and history to current political issues.
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Given the rigor and class time, many summer language institutes are expensive. Summer immersion programs can run from a few thousand dollars to more than $10,000, depending on your student status and room and board needs.
The intensity and cost of summer language immersion programs may feel daunting for some. But if you're driven to advance quickly in a foreign language, enrolling in an immersion program could enrich your summer, your education, your career, and your life.
What Is a Summer Language Immersion Program?
Summer language immersion programs are generally run by colleges and universities that specialize in 3-15 languages. In these rigorous programs, you'll attend classes all day, engage in co-curricular activities, and complete homework. You'll also socialize with peers in your target language and work together on culminating projects.
While the summer term can pack a normal semester's worth of credits in a matter of weeks, immersion programs can pack a year's worth of credits into a matter of months.
Whatever language you decide to study, the immersive experience allows for fast progress in a strict, focused atmosphere.
Many summer language institutes prioritize critical languages, i.e., those with strategic importance to the U.S. and that carry a high demand for more speakers. Languages like Arabic, Chinese, and Russian are not only important politically and economically but also come from cultures that merit in-depth study in a quickly globalizing world.
Arabic, Chinese, Russian, and Japanese summer language programs are among the most common immersion programs, taught at institutions like Beloit College and Indiana University Bloomington.
Other language programs, like the one at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specialize in less commonly taught languages, or LCTLs. LCTLs include most languages beyond the "big three": French, German, and Spanish.
What Do You Learn in a Summer Language Program?
Research has found that we pick up languages best when we're fully immersed.
While you can travel to another country to get that immersive experience, immersion programs in your own country may provide greater linguistic gains.
A brief, intense timeline can also boost gains. Short-term immersion, like the kind experienced through summer intensives, has been shown to foster significant improvement in reading and listening skills.
The learning outcomes of summer language programs revolve around immersion, or constant exposure to the target language. Some programs, such as Middlebury's Summer Intensive Language Program, ask students to make a pledge (and even sign a contract!) to speak only the target language for the program's duration.
Beyond language skills, immersive programs introduce social and cultural contexts to enrich the learning experience and build a broad understanding of other cultures and customs.
Pros and Cons of Summer Language Immersion Programs
Like any intense experience, language immersion programs have their good and bad aspects. Consider how the academic and personal benefits of committing to an immersion program stack up against the known challenges of long hours, big price tags, and stress.
Pro: You'll Make Rapid Progress
Language institutes cram as much as a year of coursework into just two months. You'll not only sail ahead in credits, but you'll also benefit from a packed curriculum, highly trained instructors, and lessons that integrate your target language's cultural and social context.
Con: You'll Have to Work Hard — Really Hard
Summer language intensives are … well, intense. You'll be in class all day every day, with homework and co-curriculars to complete outside class as well. Expect your summer to feel like one long finals week in a foreign country.
Pro: You'll Be Part of a Motivated Cohort
Immersion means gaining confidence in another language without leaving the country. It also means learning and living alongside other highly motivated students.
Because these programs attract a variety of high-achievers, you'll likely be part of a cohort that stimulates your desire to succeed and introduces you to new ideas about what you can accomplish in the future.
Con: Tuition Is Often Steep
Language immersion programs can cost a lot since you're paying for the concentrated time of instructors as well as room and board. While scholarships are available, expect heavy competition due to the caliber of students often attracted to these rigorous programs.
Pro: You'll Get Perks for Being Bilingual
Many students simply take enough Spanish to check off their college's foreign language requirement. But being truly fluent in a foreign language is a rare skill that can empower you personally and professionally.
You'll likely feel more confident when you travel abroad. What's more, research shows that many employers look favorably upon candidates with foreign language skills.
Con: There's a High Potential for Burnout
You'll learn a lot in a summer language immersion program — but will you retain it all?
Without keeping up with your target language beyond the program's end date, it's all too easy for learning gains to drain away. If you find the experience more stressful than invigorating, you may be tempted to step away from language learning. Too much time away may lead you to lose some or most of the rapid progress you made.
Is a Summer Language Program Right for You?
A summer language institute is a great choice for students who are passionate about boosting their language proficiency.
Between constant exposure, helpful co-curriculars, experienced instructors, and a competitive cohort, you're well situated to come out stronger in your chosen language.
That said, the challenge of summer language intensives can be daunting. And the anxiety that can come along with a heavy workload and high expectations may ultimately make your summer language intensive a negative experience.
If the intensity of a summer immersion program doesn't sit well with you, there are plenty of other ways to get ahead in your target language.
For example, you could do a summer study abroad program. Many colleges and nonprofits host summer study abroad programs.
Another option is to enroll in either in-person or online language classes during the summer term. This allows you to earn a typical semester's worth of credits in less time.