MIDDLEBURY — An Abenaki language school will be added to summer programming at Middlebury College this year. The two-week pilot will include immersive classroom instruction and cultural activities for students.

As with the other 10 language schools at the college, students learning Abenaki will sign a pledge promising not to communicate in any other language for the duration of the program.

The pilot will run from June 30 to July 14. Stephen Snyder, the dean of Middlebury language schools, said that some changes will have to be made to accommodate the shorter instruction period, since other summer language programs run for seven or eight weeks. However, he said that at its core, the format of the Abenaki school will replicate the existing model.

“All of the schools re-create a version of the culture with which the languages are associated, and in that sense the Abenaki school will be just like the model we already have,” he said. “The goal of proficiency gains is identical to other schools.”

Immersion in this sense includes a full schedule of activities outside of the classroom — including basket making, archery, woodworking, drum circles, song and dance, and storytelling — to help students improve language skills and cultural proficiency. The program will also have open lectures on Abenaki culture and social activities for students.

Snyder said the School of Abenaki will start small with just 20 students. Rather than open a formal application process, the director of the program, Jesse Bowman Bruchac, will recruit the pupils this year.

“[The students] will be to some extent people who are already involved in Abenaki at some level or another,” Snyder said. “What we’re hoping is that if the pilot is a success that next year we will have open enrollments.”

The Abenaki program will also be structured differently in terms of tuition fees. While the full price of Middlebury’s longer summer language schools is usually around $10,000, this year the college is offering full scholarships to those students who are admitted to the School of Abenaki.

Bruchac, the program’s director, is a citizen of the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation who has spent his life studying and teaching Algonquin languages. Bruchac is one of the last fluent speakers of Western Abenaki, which is native to New England and Quebec, Canada and is considered an endangered language.

In an interview with Vermont Public Radio last week, Bruchac said he was excited to work with the college in creating the language school program.

“To have a program, like has been put together at Middlebury, come to us with an interest in giving us a place to focus and use some of the strategies they use, was incredible,” Bruchac said. “It seems like everybody who I’ve worked with there is very, very excited to be able to offer the language of the land for the first time.”

Jesse Bowman Bruchac is director of the new Abenaki language program at Middlebury College. Courtesy photo

Bruchac has worked hard to make Abenaki more accessible. His efforts include the creation of a free language learning website, an instructional YouTube channel, a Facebook group and the publication of several bilingual books. He is also currently co-teaching a Wabanaki Language course at the University of Southern Maine, according to his website.

The idea to create an Abenaki language school came from Middebury’s President, Laurie Patton, after she invited Chief Don Stevens and Bruchac to commencement in May 2019.

“We want to recognize and honor the people on whose land Middlebury is making its home,” Patton said in a statement about the new program. “We have been partnering with Abenaki educators on a variety of events for the past several years and are thrilled to be taking this next step to bring Abenaki language and culture into our curriculum.”

As Middlebury’s language school staff prepares for the launch of the new school, Snyder said it is too early to say how the program might look after this year.

“One of the challenges, always, for every language is can people make time in their schedules to give up work and whatever else they’re doing to attend,” he said. “We have many people in our schools who are college-aged students who are using this for college credit and it would depend, for instance, on whether or not we could replicate that model for Abenaki.”

For his part, Bruchac told VPR that he has been in touch with Abenaki people from across the U.S. and Canada who want to participate in the language school’s inaugural year, and he emphasized the importance of revitalizing the language and the culture that goes with it.

“The language has always been more than just the language to me,” he said. “I don’t try and speak Abenaki to have new words, I try and speak Abenaki to understand the culture and my connection to it.”

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