When I heard about the concept of Middlebury Language Schools several years ago, I have to admit that I was skeptical. Many, many people disagree with me, but I've always felt like speaking a foreign language to another speaker of your native language was...incestuous, somehow, on some level, for lack of a better word. The Language Schools here, however, run entirely on that principle: basically, you speak
It also leads to some interesting situations, like the one Jeremy and I witnessed/overheard when we visited here for a conference five years ago. A student returned home to his room (it was next to ours) and walked in on his roommate "hanging out" with another student. A female student. In the dark. The entire awkward exchange that followed was spoken completely in Arabic. If that isn't the height of language study dedication, I don't know what is.
So now that I'm a little more used to the idea, it's not so bad. It's not like we're out in the real world and speaking a foreign language to each other just to show off. And there are enough teachers around to keep the grammar from getting too far off the mark.
The "freak show" part comes in when you have a group of students sharing a table for lunch and they all have completely different backgrounds of Arabic study, including having studied in different countries and acquired different dialects. So you'll have a newbie who speaks hardly anything above textbook, first-year formal Arabic conversing with someone who studied for a year in Egypt and speaks the dialect fluently. The weirdest thing I've encountered so far was the other night at dinner. There was a girl at the table who had studied Arabic for several years and is in one of the higher-level classes here at Middlebury, but she only speaks formal Arabic. Exclusively! - not one word of dialect. I had heard that such people exist, but to try to communicate with one (when you've only ever learned a dialect, like me) was an exercise in futility. It went something like this:
Me: (conversational contribution in Syrian Arabic)
Her: (blank stare)
Me: (lots of elaborate hand gestures to convey a basic point)
Her: (conversational response in formal Arabic)
Me: (blank stare)
Repeat, repeat, repeat. I think everyone else at the table was having a good time watching us.
I know I should learn formal Arabic so I can communicate more broadly with more of those kinds of students, but I just can't work up the motivation when there are many, many others who speak enough dialect - from whatever country - to chat about the basics with me.
I'll leave you with a video we made of Miriam counting to ten in Arabic. Jeremy used it to help teach his class about numbers. She's known how to do this since late last summer in Jordan, and in fact, for a while she could do it better in Arabic than in English. But then all of a sudden she decided it was "uncool" to speak in Arabic and we've really had to work at getting her back in the groove.