Concordia camps mark 50 summers of 'willkommen,' 'bienvenue,' welcome

Villagers learn Swedish in small group sessions.
Villagers learn Swedish through interactive small-group sessions at Sjölunden (circa early 1980s). 
Courtesy of Concordia Language Villages

Concordia College professor Gerhard Haukebo was no fan of the traditional way schools taught languages to children in the 1950s. He wanted kids steeped in the culture of the language they were trying to learn.

He convinced Concordia to sponsor a two-week experiment in German for high-schoolers in the summer of 1961 at a bible camp north of Alexandria, Minn. It was a success, and Haukebo's approach took root. In 1961, the Moorhead, Minn., college bought 800 acres of forest and waterfront north of Bemidji that now holds the Concordia Language Villages.

Fifty years later, the sprawling camp — once home to herds of sheep supplying fleece to the Bemidji Woolen Mill — uses immersion techniques to teach 15 foreign languages. It contains seven distinct villages built to resemble traditional architecture of Germany, France, China, Spain and other nations, drawing nearly 10,000 language students every year from as far away as Singapore.

Villagers are issued a passport and exchange money
Villagers are issued a passport and exchange American money into German currency, which would have been Deutsche Mark at the time of this photo (1980s).
Courtesy of Concordia Language Villages

Students live in traditional villages built in the style of the language they're learning. They eat traditional foods, and wake up to traditional songs. Each village even has a bank to exchange dollars for the local currency.

The villages have grown from European languages to Korean, Chinese, and the most recent addition, Arabic. Ambassadors come for regular visits. Chelsea Clinton, attended the German village six summers in a row in the early 1990s.

Deep immersion can profoundly accelerate learning, said village director Christine Schulze.

The French village, Lac du Bois.
The French village, Lac du Bois, is built in the traditional style of that country, seen here on July 27. Village staff go to a lot of effort building the illusion. There's even a bank where students exchange dollars for euros.
John Enger | MPR News

"I don't know of another program that has gone to this extent to create what we call the grand simulation of entering another country," she said. "Sometimes there is the reference to Epcot at Disney World, but that was built for entertainment. The villages were built for education."

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