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.
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.
"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."