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Creation of a Playworld at Concordia Language Villages

By Heidi Hamilton | Published: July 7, 2016

Villagers learn to manage a bank account in a new currency.

The key to creating opportunities for learners to try out a new language is a learning community that continuously constructs and maintains a kaleidoscopic playworld. This world begins for each individual at Concordia Language Villages by going through customs at the Village border on opening day with a Village passport and entering the grand simulation of a Village adventure.  Once across the border, each learner ventures further into this new world by taking a name in the target language, opening a bank account in the currency of the target country, and moving into a new residence.  This expansive new world offers a wide range of activities to use the target language in more ways than are possible in the everyday world.

Through the lens of sociologist Erving Goffman’s (1959) theatrical perspective on social life, all interactions between learners and staff in the Language Villages unfold in a variety of front stages – as each participant uses language to perform a range of identities, from a customer ordering a beverage in a café, to an actor receiving an award for best cameo performance, to a medieval knight embarking on an adventure in a torch-lit performance in the woods.  The playworld in its many guises provides the infrastructure for learners to accomplish myriad tasks in different locations within each Village.  These tasks present learners with the opportunity to draw on their developing language abilities.  For example, a villager is expected to use a more formal language style when acting as a waitress with a customer than when yelling across the soccer field to her teammate.  These contextual differences are vitally important to the development of a well-rounded, communicatively competent second language speaker.  

Language used preparing for a medieval theater performance is very different from that used at the Village bank!  

But the magic of this multi-faceted playworld doesn’t happen on its own!  It relies upon crucial backstage activities performed by counselors during times of day when villagers and counselors do not typically interact.  These off-stage moments allow staff critical time to plan activities as well as to reflect on the performances that just took place.  Goffman (1959: 113) explains:  “Since the vital secrets of a show are visible backstage and since performers behave out of character while there, it is natural to expect that the passage from the front region to the back region will be kept closed to members of the audience or that the entire back region will be kept hidden from them.” Villagers only rarely get to peek behind the curtains – when they overhear staff-only planning conversations or if they participate in a ‘counselor for the day’ program.

Staff prepare 'backstage' to lead fun learning activities for villagers on the frontstage of the Village playworld.

The planning that staff members do backstage also serves as a “bond of reciprocal dependence linking teammates to one another…that provide[s] a source of cohesion for the establishment” (Goffman 1959:78ff.).  Our Village staff coalesce into a team guided by six principles (see Hamilton, Crane and Bartoshesky 2005) that support Concordia Language Villages’ playworld.  Our practices related to curriculum and programming: give learners courage to participate and use the language; are learner centered so that learners become invested in their own learning; take place in linguistically and culturally authentic surroundings; take place out of a real need to interact and communicate; are experiential and hands-on, involving multiple senses and drawing on multiple intelligences; are embedded within extended projects and are fully supported by the community of learners.  Readers who are interested in learning more about the way in which these principles are understood within the Villages are encouraged to read descriptions of them.

Eminent applied linguists Marianne Celce-Murcia and Elite Olshtain (2000) have eloquently described the complex interplay between language and context in language acquisition.  We see their insights come to life every day; the design and execution of Concordia Language Villages’ playworlds provide clear and powerful illustrations of how essential situational context is in motivating learners to take chances in a new language.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne & Elite Olshtain.  2000. Discourse and Context in Language  Teaching.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.
Goffman, Erving.  1959.  The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  New York: Doubleday.
About the Author

Heidi E. Hamilton is Professor in the Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University, where her research interests focus on issues of language and Alzheimer's disease, medical communication, and language learning.  Her books include Conversations with an Alzheimer's Patient, Handbook of Discourse Analysis (with Schiffrin and Tannen), Linguistics, Language, and the Professions (with Alatis and Tan), Handbook of Language and Health Communication (with Chou), and Doing Foreign Language: Bringing Concordia Language Villages into Language Classrooms (with Crane and Bartoshesky).  The Language Villages have been a central part of her life for more than 40 years – from participation in her first two-week program at Waldsee in 1971 to her current leadership position as one of two Village Mentors, a term used to denote an expert in language and cultural immersion.

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