BEMIDJI, MINN. — Students wanting to study foreign languages in a diverse, cultural setting no longer need to leave American soil. But they should still have their passports ready.
Travel to any of the 12 language villages of the Concordia Language Villages program located in northern Minnesota, and a customs inspector will greet you at the gate. Luggage is checked for American items. Anything with English text (including books, CDs, and tapes) is off-limits for the duration of your stay.
American dollars are exchanged for foreign currencies and villagers choose new names. There are restricciones on English. Speaking Chinese, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish is la norma.
"The Concordia Language Villages are a unique blend of language and cultural immersion in a fun, recreational environment," says Christine Schulze, executive director. "Language learning comes alive due to the experiential educational philosophy. You learn German by playing soccer; you learn Chinese by practicing a martial art; you learn Russian by painting Ukranian-style eggs."
The language-immersion program was founded by Concordia College in 1961 when 72 participants, ages 9 to 12, gathered to learn German. It was an instant success. Today, approximately 9,500 "villagers" gather annually from all over the United States and abroad to learn about being a responsible citizen in a global society.
Concordia Language Villages offer six-day, 13-day, and one-month programs from June to August for students ages 7 to 18. Villagers participate in traditions, sports, and authentic activities in the language of their choice. Prices range from $400 to $2,000 but it is possible to receive high school or college credits, as well as financial aid.
Five permanent language villages span 800 acres of rolling wilderness on the tranquil shores of Turtle River Lake, just outside Bemidji, Minn. Construction began in 1969 with Skogfjorden, the Norwegian Language Village, followed by Waldsee (1978), the German Language Village, Lac du Bois (1988), the French Language Village, and Salolampi (1993), the Finnish Language Village. El Lago del Bosque, the Spanish Language Village is the newest addition and will be ready for villagers next summer. All village names roughly translate to "Lake of the Woods."
Each of the permanent language villages has authentic architecture taken from a specific international region. Salolampi, for example, was inspired by the 19th-century railroad station in Jyvaskyla, Finland, and the exterior walls, windows, doors, and trim are faithful reproductions. Some of Salolampi's cabins, as well as the sauna, were brought to Minnesota from Finland. Each permanent village is built with unique attributes from the country it represents.
"We have often been compared to Disney's Epcot Center, but that is an entertainment venue, not an educational one," Ms. Schulze says.
The program heralds its educational purpose even before visitors arrive. Tucked along back roads covered with Norway pines and lady slippers, a bright yellow sign reads: "Caution: Future world and local leaders at work and play." Numerous "international headquarters" surrounded by matching cabins, dining halls, and arts and crafts complexes, begin to peek through the woods. Each European community has ethnic cafes, banks, post offices, and shops.
The villages branch off in different directions. But each is connected by trails and it is possible to attend a soccer match in Germany, or to take a sauna in Finland if the villager doesn't mind hiking a few yards to cross the border.
"The buildings and architecture make it real," says Larry "Lauri" Saukko, dean of Salolampi Finnish programs. "But it's really the people that give us the authenticity."
Much of the academic year is spent recruiting international staff to participate in the language programs during the summer. Concordia employs more than 800 staff members each summer and the language villages are continuing to grow rapidly. "We just added two new languages this past year, English and Korean, and we have discussed Arabic and an African language as possible next steps," Schulze says. "We also just started our first pilot site in Savannah, Ga., and may look to taking the Language Villages on the road to schools across the US.
Programs for adults
The villages are also bustling with activity during the academic year. One-week intensive language programs for adults are available each fall and spring. Family ski weekends, winterfests, and Elderhostel programs offer lots of winter actividades for adult villagers who would like to learn a language or sharpen language skills before traveling abroad.
"I've traveled abroad on tours and crammed by listening to tapes on the way in," says Jan Williams, a four-year veteran of the Spanish and Swedish villages. "Here they understand that it takes time to bridge language gaps. They take away the fear of being unable to speak."
Most adults attend the programs to sharpen language skills. The staff-to-villager ratio is very small, which helps students get specialized attention. But improving fluency is only part of the Language Villages' mission.
"The objective is not to become fluent," says Ruben Ayala-Brener, a village instructor from Argentina whose specialties include teaching the tango. "The cultural part is what is important and brings the language to life. This is a good way to experience another culture without going to another country."
*For more information: (800) 222-4750; www.cord.edu
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society