I wanted to try in this post to demystify a somewhat nerve-wracking, inscrutable process: applying to the Critical Language Scholarship Program. If you’ve reached this post, you probably know that CLS offers summer-long immersive language programs in languages deemed “critical” (hey, that’s in the title!) to US national security. Everyone who wants to apply should feel they can apply — and I hope to help encourage that.
I don’t want to work in national security!
This may sound weird to start off with… but I and some of my peers at uni were legit worrying we’d lose our chances to become CLS finalists if we weren’t planning on working in national security or the military. So, Past Jane, I am here to assuage your fears: participating in the CLS Program does not mean the powers that be are expecting you to take your newly minted critical language acumen and get a job with the military, Department of Defense, NSA, or CIA. Unless you want to.
One of the wonderful things about CLS is that your program cohort will be made up of students representing every kind of academic discipline (from graphic design to history to medical school), diversity in ethnicity/race and sexuality/gender, a vast array of international and personal experiences, and different levels of education (in my cohort, we had college freshmen through PhD students). CLS does a good job of representing who actually lives in the United States; after all, as a CLS participant, you are something of an ambassador while you’re overseas. Your presence and participation in your host country is a powerful form of public diplomacy on top of being an enriching language-learning experience.
The CLS hope is that you will continue to develop your language skills after you leave the program and put them to use in ways you find constructive professionally and personally.
Am I good enough at my desired language to apply?
This is a big one. Many would-be CLS applicants self-select themselves out of the applicant pool because they decide they just aren’t strong enough a candidate to even try applying. Nonsense, I say.
There are several factors to bear in mind here. The first is that numerous CLS languages don’t require any prior experience with the language to apply, so you don’t need to worry about your language level when applying. Languages that don’t require any prior study are Azerbaijani, Bangla, Hindi, Indonesian, Persian, Punjabi, Swahili, and Turkish. If you are interested in these languages, don’t worry about how familiar or not you are with them: just start thinking about why you want to learn that language, what you anticipate doing with the language going forward, and your past academic, personal, and professional experiences that make you a unique CLS applicant. Understanding yourself as a person is key to success in applying for these and any other CLS languages. So start doing some soul-searching.
1 year of prior study is required: Arabic, Korean, the brand-new Portuguese and Russian.
2 years of prior study are required: Japanese (my language of choice) and Chinese.
If you have that required classroom/formal learning experience for these languages and you want to apply, just apply! Don’t second-guess your abilities or “worth.”
Case study: For a hot second, I gave up on my CLS Japanese application, and I had a pretty compelling excuse… which was that I hadn’t studied Japanese in about 5 years. Five! I thought there was no way I would be taken seriously as a candidate. Who sits on their target language for five years without touching it and then has the gall to apply to CLS like “I’m really serious about Japanese”?
It would’ve been easy for me to pass on CLS, leaving it to more obviously dedicated students. Sure, I really wanted to study Japanese through CLS, but on paper, I thought my background was embarrassing.
But then I did that soul-searching I mentioned above, and asked myself why exactly I was interested in picking up Japanese again. Why now? For what purpose? What Japanese going to do for me and my goals? When I sat with my past experiences and future goals and answered those questions, I began to feel like I did have a chance. I did have good reasons to pursue Japanese, and I was a unique candidate. And at the end of the day, what many if not all international exchange programs (Fulbright, JET, CLS, Boren…) want is a candidate with unique and compelling reasons for applying.
Know thyself and you will reward thyself. With scholarships.
So how do you answer those application questions “correctly”?
You know the ones. CLS asks you about culture shock, cross-cultural challenges, possible language-learning challenges, your future professional/personal plans, etc., in order to gauge your motivation for applying and see if you’ll have a productive summer with the Program. I’m going to reiterate time and again: know yourself and know what you’re about.
Before I moved forward with my application, I needed to take a good two weeks to put into words what I wanted my future relationship with Japanese to look like. This meant two drafts of each of my essays, and bouncing ideas off my friends.
I framed my interests and goals through the application by clearly outlining how Japanese fit with my plans, and it went something like this (again, this is just me): I hope to find my way to a career in human rights through an NGO, State Department, or other multilateral organization. Japanese aid and development has made a deep impact across the Indo-Pacific, and Japanese diplomatic presence continues to grow and influence Pacific Rim economies/societies. I want to strengthen my Japanese language ability in order to engage more effectively with those societies and their firm international ties through my work as either a Foreign Service Officer or NGO employee. Closer to home, some of my graduate and undergraduate work has focused on indigenous communities of the Pacific Rim, including the Ainu of Japan. For me, I wanted to use Japanese to competently engage with discourse from Ainu today and the Japanese government on Ainu society, Ainu language revitalization, and activism. I included the above thought process in my application, although obviously phrased a little better. (Pro-tip: be sure you proofread your application.)
Regarding cross-cultural experience and potential challenges abroad… this is a good time to brag about your study abroad/travel experiences, your unique cultural or geographic background, life experiences that have helped you grow, or any other experiences you’ve lived where you were out of your element, facing new and different and things. Talk about your resourcefulness during a cross-cultural encounter. Talk about how you navigated a different country or community’s expectations for your gender that you didn’t anticipate. Talk about a personal challenge you faced in your life or university that drew you to wanting to understand the world more… again, this is a time to shine as an individual. Every applicant will be bringing something completely different to these questions, and there is no wrong answer. As for me, I drew on my prior experience abroad in Japan (and Denmark) to demonstrate I had lived many a cross-cultural challenge and culture shock, and was raring to face those challenges abroad again. I talked about issues like being expected to pour tea for male authority figures in Japan, and then about disagreeing with a Japanese social studies teacher’s characterization of South Korea’s history but endeavoring to have a constructive and positive conversation about it all the same. Again: no wrong answer!
It’s a crapshoot what in your application will land and what won’t. You won’t ever know what the selection committee is looking for in your particular application cycle. (Maybe a conspiracy theory, but in 2018, all but two in my entire Japanese cohort already had visited Japan before, and noted it on their applications… maybe the committee was looking for prior international travel experience? Even more apocryphal, but it is rumored that in one of the previous years, most of the successful applicants in the Japanese program had never visited Japan before. Take with a grain of salt, but it’s pretty demonstrative that there is no “ideal” applicant type, and you absolutely deserve to apply.)
What you have control over throughout the application process is your understanding of what you are about — personally, academically, professionally. Think on it. And give yourself credit.
Am I going to spend an entire summer just struggling in another language if I participate in the CLS Program?
First thing that is true: CLS is tough. Language immersion in-country is basically learning-by-fire-hose: the moment you begin your program, you’re blasted with your target language. You live it, breathe it, make friends in it, get lost in it, make mistakes in it, and achieve in it. There is no escape from it. It greets you when you wake up, it follows you to the classroom, it is the only thing going on in the classroom, it messes with you when you desperately try to get a point across, it bamboozles you when you try to order delicious hot soba noodle soup and you get freezing cold soba noodles with no soup, it makes your language partners laugh when you accidentally come off flippant because you forgot how to use the ultra-polite keigo when talking to authority figures, and it helps you sleep extremely well at night because you’re mentally exhausted after living your target language all day.
Your language teacher will assign either a little or a lot of homework a day depending on their teaching styles, but that homework will invariably put your abilities to the test on a regular basis. You’ll have almost daily quizzes, and you’ll frequently be asked to speak up in your small, intimate class because CLS places much importance on the power of speaking competently in your target language. You’ll be challenged, and you won’t be alone. Everyone else will be living it just like you are.
Second thing that is true: CLS’ purpose is to help you advance and achieve in your target language. The CLS Program’s aim is to boost your language skills and give you the tools to carry your language study forward after you return from your host country. Therefore, you will find help and support whenever you want it.
CLS language classrooms are divided by language ability. You might’ve heard of how every successful CLS application takes the OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview), which is a phone interview in your target language that tests your abilities once before you begin your program and again after you’re finished. This OPI and another, more conventional test you take upon arrival in your country gives CLS a clear idea of your language ability. These tests don’t affect your candidacy and your level is nothing to be ashamed of. I bombed my OPI (again… five years away from Japanese means caveman-type conversation for 15 agonizing minutes on the phone with a very patient Japanese interviewer). And that’s okay. When I took it again upon completion of my time with CLS I found I shot up in ability. CLS works. And your feeling of achievement and grasp of the language will feel stronger than ever.
When you’re in the classroom, you have plenty of opportunities to foster a great relationship with your teacher and other staff, all of whom are available to help you in your learning. During my time on CLS, Japanese classes were divided into 4 separate classrooms, with 4-6 students in each class, give or take. My class was the smallest: 4 of us and an amazing Japanese teacher out of Princeton University. These small classrooms enable huge language gains and plenty of time to get extra help and attention where you need it.
One of my peers had a lot of difficulty right off the bat with Japanese classes, so benefited from a staff member’s extra tutoring after class. Whenever I had trouble with grammar, I used my time with my language partners to ask them for clarification, or we’d read over essays I wrote. It was a great way to bond with them and have conversations on topics I’d never dreamed of having in another language.
It also reminded me that CLS is special precisely because of these unfiltered, candid moments of learning and exchanging of ideas, language, and laughs with people you otherwise may have never gotten to meet.
In conclusion: If you want to apply, apply. You bring something special to the table with your background and goals, and as long as you can express what that something is, you are as qualified as anyone else. You won’t know what’s in store if you don’t apply!
If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me here or on Facebook. And as always, these are my reckons and I’m speaking solely from my own experience. Everyone’s situation is different.
Talking to other CLS alumni will give you a great, broader picture of what CLS is all about and how they went about applying.
Go for it, and good luck!