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Concordia Language Villages: The world of academic summer camps

June. Warm, sunny laughter is spilling from the dining hall. The kids are singing boisterous songs in French about baguettes and tomato salad. The counselors wear silly hats and exaggerated expressions as they lead the mealtime presentation.

July. Hot, green forests echo with the footsteps of miniature conservationists, collecting leaves and learning the names of native plants in Norwegian. Friendships grow stronger.

August. Bicycles speed through the forest. Guitar melodies float over the lake to accompany a summer sunset. The campfire burns quieter, voices sing softly in Danish. The world grows smaller.

Your native language disappears. Chinese, Danish, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish are the languages of these summer camps. Welcome to Concordia Language Villages!

In 1961, Dr. Gerhard Haukebo, a professor at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minn., created a two-week German camp for children ages 7-12. The counselors were college language education majors willing to try a new total immersion language program. Haukebo imagined an entire immersion model that eventually came to include Village passports, "customs", native speakers, authentic architecture, cultural cuisine and realia.

In 2005, Concordia Language Villages, a non-profit organization, will celebrate its 45th anniversary by offering 13 languages to nearly 9500 youth between the ages of seven and 18. Villagers come from all 50 states as well as several other countries for one-, two- or four-week sessions at sites located in Minnesota and Georgia. In addition, there are adult and family programs in language and cultural immersion and Village Weekends for teachers and their students (or Homeschoolers and their parents!) during the academic year.

The Villages have grown phenomenally because the concept of a language-immersion summer camp has been embraced by an ever-growing number of believers: there are more than 100,000 alumni of the Villages program.

Academic camps combine intellectual challenges with fun problem-solving opportunities that expand your child’s interpersonal abilities and build social confidence. Participants wrap their minds around issues that extend beyond their hometown to the greater global community.

For the Hultman-Mollica family of Herbster, Wis., an academic camp was a novel concept they had never considered until their next door neighbor, Paul DelMain, introduced them to the idea. In the summertime, DelMain is known to many as Di Baoluo, dean of Sen Lin Hu, the Chinese Language Village near Cass Lake, Minn. Delmain is fluent in Chinese and French, has a degree in Chinese studies, has taught high school Chinese and lived in China with his family.

"I think Paul enlightened us quite a bit with the idea that there was a camp for languages," admits Lisa Mollica. "Old school camp was a way to get rid of your kids and for them to go horseback riding or canoeing. Fun is fine, but learning something that is going to help them for the rest of their lives and have fun is more appealing."

Lisa and her husband Dan Hultman homeschool their three daughters, Nina (18, now in college), Toni, 14, and Alisha,11. They always believed learning languages was an important value to instill in their children.

After Lisa and Dan spent time in China with a trip DelMain was leading, their three daughters decided they wanted to see the world, too.

"My daughter wanted to go to China, and I said ‘learn the language,’" Lisa recalls.

All her daughters took the challenge up at once. Toni, who was then just 9 years old, remembers her mom telling her about China. "They had been to historical places like the Forbidden City and the Dragon Lady and it was so intriguing I wanted to go. They said they would take me if I learned the language," says Toni. "It took me about three years to catch on but once I did, I learned it very quickly."

After Toni’s fourth summer at Sen Lin Hu, her mother fulfilled her end of the bargain and took Toni to China to visit the DelMain family who were living there at the time.

This past summer, Toni returned to Beijing by herself and attended a course where she started learning Chinese characters. Toni also received a scholarship to Sen Lin Hu from the Freeman Foundation, an organization that promotes the study of Asian cultures and languages.

"I really, really, really, wanted to go to China and I also knew I was going to camp, which was great." Toni says.

Although being in China was exciting, she couldn’t earn the credits there that she needed to apply for college. At Concordia Language Villages, she earned an entire year’s worth of high school credit in Chinese by completing a portfolio of homework and exercises, including reading and writing, in the four-week credit program at Sen Lin Hu.

Students can earn high school credit in 12 of the world languages offered at the Villages. For non-native English speakers, an Intensive English Language Program is offered in lieu of credit.

Academic camps can easily supplement home schooling. They provide a place where children are motivated and interested in the same things. Yet they continue to serve the traditional camp objectives of providing fun, outdoor, healthy places for summertime activities and meeting new friends.

Lisa Mollica likes the exposure her children get to ideas, new cultures and the diversity of people they interact with at the Villages. "It’s not just the language or the fun, it’s the interaction--dealing with a multitude of people from all over the U.S.—the world really."

Villagers and staff come from all 50 states and more then 40 international destinations. They come from a spectrum of economic brackets. Scholarships are available for those who need financial help, while some families can afford to provide scholarships for others.

Sometimes villagers arrive knowing nothing of the language of their Village. Others may have parents who speak the language or they may have taken lessons. No matter what the proficiency level, all the villagers are able to learn at their own pace while participating in activities together.

Alisha Mollica, 11, has been drawn to Spanish since she was very young. She spent her first week at El Lago del Bosque, the Spanish Language Village, when she was seven years old. "I like going because I love learning a language I choose," she says. At home, Alisha watches videos, listens to audiotapes and talks with her father in Spanish.

"Getting up early [at the Villages] makes me tired," Alisha admits. "But not learning the language! I always look forward to next year because I always want to get up to the next level. It’s an interesting challenge."

Villages’ staff uses gestures, drawings, expressions, songs, and skits to communicate in another language. Games, sports and theater reinforce not only linguistic skills, but also cultural awareness.

"The afternoons are the best part," claims Alisha. "You go do activities you’ve signed up for, but it’s in Spanish. So, you play soccer and you have to say ‘pass the ball’ in Spanish: ‘pásame la pelota!’" Alisha’s Spanish flows out without much thought. "I think that’s the best part!"

Because the active structure of the Villages can accommodate all proficiency levels, villagers can attend year after year without getting bored or feeling as though the program has lost its fun. Some villagers choose to stay with one language, as Alisha and her sister Toni are doing. Their older sister, Nina, attended the French Language Village, Lac du Bois.

"At the camp where there’s a credit session, you have older people pushing you up to learn more Spanish and you see them doing Spanish homework. It’s really helpful having other kids around rather then be in a traditional classroom," says Alisha, although she admits that she still feels a little intimidated to speak Spanish when she’s at camp. For this reason, her parents have already registered her for two consecutive two-week sessions next summer. They hope more exposure and supportive counselors will mean more confidence to speak.

Some villagers are drawn to new languages and activities each summer, like sailing at the Swedish Language Village, Sjölunden, then outdoor camping and canoeing with the French Language Village adventure program, Les Voyageurs.

"I want to keep up with my Spanish until I get good enough to have a conversation without having to think about it and then I’m thinking about going to the Chinese camp," says Alisha.

The Villages are a wonderful option for homeschooling parents who are looking to enrich their child’s global awareness and language learning. Many villagers return year after year and many become staff themselves. The benefits and fun memories of attending an academic camp can literally last a lifetime. That makes Lisa Mollica happy.

"Toni has decided she wants to use her language for the rest of her life. She wants to go back to Asia, and teach or make a living using her Chinese," Lisa says. In fact, Toni says she would like to be in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. She’ll be 18 years old then, and probably very fluent in Chinese. As for next summer, she’s already registered at Sen Lin Hu.

For more information on Concordia Language Villages, visit www.ConcordiaLanguageVillages.org or call 1-800-222-4750. To find out about other academic camps visit www.acacamps.org. The American Camp Association (ACA) accredits over 2,300 camps. ACA-accredited camps meet up to 300 standards for health, safety, and program quality.

New! Doing Foreign Language: Bringing Concordia Language Villages into Language Classrooms by Heidi Hamilton, Georgetown University; Cori Crane, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Abigail Bartoshesky, Southern Methodist University; (© 2005 Prentice Hall, 199 pp.)

This book introduces language teachers and parents to the active and engaging language learning philosophy and practices of Concordia Language Villages.$23 + S&H. Order your copy by calling 800-450-2214 or visit www.ConcordiaLanguageVillages.org.