Concordia Language Villages celebrates 50 years of innovation.
In 1970, Christine Schulze '78 found herself a pioneer in the language education world. An eighth-grader at the time, she attended Concordia Language Villages' first high school credit program at El Lago del Bosque, the Spanish Language Village.
The youth from Fergus Falls, Minn., was no stranger to language. She was born in Germany and had already studied French, German and Spanish. Still, there was something magical about immersing herself in a language and culture, alongside peers from across the country.
"Even for me it was an aha experience," says Schulze, who has been the executive director of the Villages since 1989. "I walked away from that four-week program all the more committed to languages being a big part of my life. Indeed, it probably very much set a tone for me for what I pursued later in life."
One person. One story. But experiences similar to Schulze's have played out countless times at Concordia Language Villages.
This year the internationally recognized program celebrates 50 years that villagers have received their passports, acquired new names and cashed in their dollars for a foreign currency. For 50 years, they have come to learn language and culture. For 50 years, they have left with a wider view of their world.
The Language Villages was born in 1961 – the same year President Kennedy established the Peace Corps and the Soviets built the Berlin Wall.
While overseeing a school for army dependents in Europe, Concordia faculty member Dr. Gerry Haukebo observed how quickly the children learned German. Even more remarkable to him was how their confidence in the language grew after living with a German family for as little as a weekend.
Back in the U.S., he decided to hold a two-week German camp called Waldsee in Minnesota's North Woods. Seventy-five kids attended, and, as the future proved, it was a resounding success.
Today, Haukebo, who lives near Pelican Rapids, Minn., marvels at what the Villages has become. Within five decades, it has grown from a single, two-week session to year-round programming in 15 languages for more than 10,000 language learners, ranging from preschool students to retirees. Year after year, it proves that kids – and adults, too – can learn language and culture through play.
"I think the leadership has done a masterful job in expanding the Villages and getting them recognized," Haukebo says. "(Being a part of the Language Villages) is one of the most fun things I have done in my life."
Learning to Play
There's much to celebrate as the Language Villages marks a half century. Throughout its history, the program has balanced innovation with traditions and rituals. More importantly, it has embraced fun.
When Waldsee began, nobody guessed that sports, music and games could be crucial portals to another culture. Since the 1960s, however, research on how students learn world languages has supported what the Villages has always done intuitively. Participants learn best not from a book, but through active fun. They learn phrases as they sing. They learn verbs while they play soccer. They learn culture as they share meals at a table.
"Ask the average American whether language learning is fun, and I doubt many would agree," says Donna Clementi, the Villages' director of education and research. She is starting her 36th summer with the program. "Being at the Language Villages is fun in the most positive, strongest sense of the word. It's not silly, trivial fun, but it's a certain magic that makes them want to learn more and come back."
Part of that fun is taking on a Village identity, a new name that symbolically reinvents the participant's identity.
"You have a chance to be better at the Villages than you are anywhere else in your life," says Patricia Thornton, director of summer programs.
Every year, the staff members strive to be creative yet never stray from the core philosophy: to prepare world citizens by teaching language and culture through immersion. As the world becomes more interconnected – from international businesses to social media tools like Facebook – the idea of global citizenship becomes even more important, says Martin Graefe, director of year-round programs.
"It's crucial to truly understand people from other parts of the world," he says. "You can't speak a language without understanding cultural aspects of regions in the world where the language is spoken. We prepare young people and others to actively interact with this world."
Kent Knutson '89, Washington, D.C., spent five years as a villager at Skogfjorden and two years on staff in the mid-1980s. The experience made such an impact that one of the Norwegian Village's recipes – meatballs with gjetost (goat cheese) – is now part of his family's annual Christmas celebration.
"The Villages was a great place to learn how to make friends and meet new people from across the country and world," says Knutson, who is now vice president of government relations for The Home Depot.
For Anne Linnee, Minneapolis, the experience taught her how to balance the comforts of home with the excitement of exploration, skills that she uses daily as a U.S. diplomat currently posted to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
"I go from posting to posting with the U.S. State Department, eager to meet new people and explore foreign cultures but also love to return home to the comfort of Minneapolis," says Linnee, who was a villager and staff member at El Lago del Bosque. "The balance became a part of my life the first time I attended the Villages."
The Villages teaches these skills with agility and a willingness to look beyond its own borders.
For example, when Clementi started working at Lac du Bois, the language and programming emphasized France. Today, the French Language Village looks at the world through the lens of all people who speak French. The view is now global – a more accurate reflection of the language and cultures it represents.
"The transition to a global focus is extremely important, and it has contributed to the ability of the Villages to thrive," Clementi says.
The Villages also has a gift for determining where gaps in world language education exist, an ability to give people access to languages they can't find anywhere else. Today, nearly every school district in America is trying to add Chinese to their curriculum, Schulze says. The Villages started its Chinese program more than 25 years ago.
As Odell Bjerkness remembers it, the decision to add Sēn Lín Hú, the Chinese Village, puzzled some people.
"China, back then, was a Third World country," says Bjerkness, who was the Villages' director from 1971-1988. "That's where the visionary part comes in. You had to go out on a limb."
Today, Chinese and Arabic are among the Villages' fastest growing programs.
Schulze expects Mar e Floresta, the Portuguese Language Village that was added three years ago, will experience a similar trajectory in popularity. "People don't realize that more people speak Portuguese than Spanish in South America," Schulze says. As Brazil becomes a bigger player in the global economy, interest in the language will increase, she predicts.
Expanding Its Reach
In addition to expanding the number of language programs it offers, the Villages is broadening the number of people it reaches with language education. Summer camps remain a core effort, but the year-round programs expand the Villages' expertise beyond school-aged youth.
"These programs ignite language learning," Graefe says. "They give students of all ages the courage to try a language."
The year-round programs tend to be short but impactful, giving participants a quick taste of the language. They often work best alongside other efforts to study the language, Graefe says.
For example, adults may attend a weekend program after studying a language through a community education course or wanting to brush up on language skills they learned years ago in college. Preschool children are introduced to a language through songs, role playing and games in a cultural context.
"It's like planting the seed for a more in-depth language and cultural experience," Schulze says.
In addition, corporations and government agencies are turning to the Villages for help in training. National retailers have asked the Villages to train employees in Spanish language and culture, so they can better interact with Spanish-speaking customers. A life insurance company affiliated with a German business asked for a two-day training on basic German greetings and business etiquette.
"They do their business in English, but the hope is they can establish a connection with their German colleagues by using a few important phrases and also understanding what makes Germans tick today," Graefe says.
One reason the programs stay current is the high quality staff that the Villages hires, Thornton says. The staff is a blend of Americans who are proficient in the language, and native speakers who bring the most up-to-date perspectives from their countries.
"We want villagers to understand the long traditions of each country, but it's critical they understand what daily life is like in 2011," Thornton says. "They need to understand the traditional arts of Japan like the tea ceremony and wearing of kimono. But they also need to understand its dynamic economic system and the current pop culture."
That has always been an essential part of the Villages experience. True, it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes more than a child to make the Villages sing.
"The Villages has always been about a support team," Bjerkness says. College administrators, Village staff, language teachers, villagers and their parents all deserve a nod for its success. "For the people, the excitement of the Language Villages turned them on, and they did extraordinary things."
Originally published in the Spring 2011 Concordia Magazine