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Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program

22 Oct Posted by in Uncategorized | Comments

What is CLS?
The Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program offers fully funded summer language institutes for U.S. students in thirteen “critical” languages.  Language institutes are located in countries where the target languages are spoken, and offer intensive language training combined with co-curricular activities designed to expose participants to the wider cultural context.  The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the American Councils for International Education.  The application deadline for summer 2013 is November 15, 2012.

Who can apply to CLS?
The CLS program is open to undergraduate or graduate students at any stage of their education, so long as they are a student at the time of application. (The applicant may have graduated by the time the receive the award and attend the summer program.)  Applicants must be U.S. citizens.  The CLS program is part of a U.S. government effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical need foreign languages. Students of diverse disciplines and majors are encouraged to apply.

What languages are offered?  Is prior study required?
The following languages are offered.  Note that some languages require prior study.  See the CLS web site for detailed information about expectations regarding levels of study:

  • Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Turkish, and Urdu: Beginning, advanced beginning, intermediate and advanced levels;
  • Arabic and Persian: Advanced beginning, intermediate and advanced levels;
  • Chinese, Japanese, and Russian: Intermediate and advanced levels.

What does the CLS program look for in a successful applicant?
CLS is a popular program that receives many applications – even for seemingly very obscure languages like Punjabi or Azerbaijani.  Applicants are strongly encouraged to work with Mason’s fellowship advisors (Dr. Kay Ágoston for Graduate Students, Dr. LaNitra Berger for Undergraduates), who have a great deal of experience with this award and can offer valuable insights into what makes an application successful.  For starters….

  • Show evidence of genuine, ongoing interest and real commitment.  If you have a burning desire to learn an uncommon language, you have probably already looked for ways to study it.  If the language can be studied at Mason, or even outside Mason in the D.C. metro area, get yourself into a course.  The gold standard is to enroll in a high quality language course at your university, but even a less rigorous evening course, a tutor/language partner, or dedicated self-study shows evidence of commitment.  That’s why many languages offer an “advanced beginning” option – many applicants find some way to get started on their own.  The essay questions will ask you to discuss what you’ve done up to now to advance your study of the target language.
  • Show evidence that you have plans to follow up.  One of the most common pitfalls on the CLS application (especially for graduate students!) is to fail to offer a strong plan for how you will continue your study of the language after you return from the CLS summer program.  Even if you will have graduated, you need to put forward a credible plan for how you will maintain and enhance the gains in proficiency you make during the CLS program.
  • Link the language to your academic and career goals.  CLS hopes to cultivate language talent that will be put to use in your studies and your career – whether in academic research that enhances our understanding of other cultures, public service that contributes to U.S. diplomatic and security concerns, or in American involvement in solutions to the myriad global challenges we face.  Things may not turn out exactly as you envision, but you have to have (and be able to articulate) a vision of what you will do with your language skills and regional expertise.
  • Demonstrate that you have the grit and perseverance to thrive in a setting that offers both academic and personal challenges.  The CLS program is academically demanding.  Students will spend hours each day in class, more doing homework, and they may be required to take a language pledge.  Learning another language in an intensive setting can be mentally and psychologically exhausting.  Add to that the stresses of living in another culture and a developing country.  You may have little privacy or free time.  There may be no air conditioning, limited or non-potable tap water, different food, and uncomfortable cultural expectations both inside and outside the classroom.  The application will ask you to discuss why you think the intensive small-group immersion setting is right for you, and how you will contribute positively to the group dynamic.

Find more tips and advice on CLS here.

Graduate students face special challenges with CLS.  An undergraduate student has many years ahead of them to develop their language proficiency and their career goals.  For grad students, the bar is set higher.  By this stage of your education, reviewers will expect to see evidence of your interest in the language and country / region for which you are applying in your academic and professional track record.  If it’s not there, your application will be treated with skepticism.  Graduate students are also much closer to the reality of launching a career, and will be expected to have more detailed and realistic career aims.  (Hint:  Don’t just say, “I want to be a Foreign Service Officer.”)  Many graduate students do win CLS awards, so these challenges are not insurmountable, but graduate student applicants should craft their applications with these higher expectations in mind.

For more information about CLS, see the program web site.  If you plan to apply, please contact the Director of Graduate Fellowships at  In your message indicate your degree program and the language/level you plan to apply for.


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