The Importance of the Language Pledge

Why do we have the Language Pledge? — Зачем существует «Честное слово»?

In 2006, Director Karen Evans-Romaine wrote that “Students say year after year that the Pledge, the formal requirement that students and faculty communicate only in Russian throughout the program, is the key to our success” (RS Bulletin).

Former Director Benjamin Rifkin studied language gains made in traditional Russian classrooms, study abroad program, and in the summer Russian School. His research demonstrated the effectiveness of the Language Pledge. Among his findings was that students in traditional language classrooms hit a “linguistic ceiling” that prevents them from reaching the advanced level of proficiency according to the ACTFL scale. Rifkin finds that “Without an immersion experience, students of Russian will likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to break through this ceiling into advanced level proficiencies” (13).  Such immersion experiences include study abroad in a Russian-speaking country and a domestic immersion program such as Middlebury’s. Testing results suggest that students experience greater language gains in a domestic immersion program than in a study abroad program. Rifkin concludes:

There may be several factors contributing to the greater language gain for Middlebury summer immersion students.

  1. There is a language pledge in the Middlebury immersion program. With no language pledge on many study abroad programs, students often find themselves speaking English with other American students and with target language native speakers who want to practice their English.

  2. Cultural differences (dormitory or homestay, dining, health and fitness, etc.) require cognitive processing during study abroad, reflection that often must be carried out in the native language rather than in the target language. American students typically experience many fewer cultural differences in a domestic immersion program than they do on study abroad and therefore can dedicate time and energy exclusively to language acquisition in the domestic immersion setting.

  3. The structure of a domestic immersion program puts the students in regular contact with instructors who are target-language native speakers and other native speakers sympathetic to their struggles as language learners. The study abroad program requires students to interact with a broader range of native speakers, not all of whom are sympathetic to the learning process (14-15)

Rifkin, Benjamin. 2005. “A Ceiling Effect in Traditional Classroom Foreign Language Instruction: Data from Russian.” Modern Language Journal 89: 3-18.
Freed, B. F., Segalowitz, N., & Dewey, D. P. (2004). “Context of learning and second language fluency in French: Comparing regular classroom, study abroad, and intensive domestic immersion programs.” Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 26, 275–302.