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Cultivating Courageous Learners

By Heidi E. Hamilton | Published: January 16, 2018

It wasn't what I expected to hear. 

Sitting in a circle on the floor of Waldsee's Bibliothek, I had just begun talking with a small group of students who were nearing the end of their stay at Concordia Language Villages German program. As part of the many conversations I had with villagers and staff back in 2001 that led to the writing of Doing Foreign Language:  Bringing Concordia Language Villages into Language Classrooms (Pearson, 2005), I was eager to understand the village experience from the perspective of these middle- and high-school-aged participants who had made the decision to live the language with us that summer.

Villagers dance at the International Day closing program.
During the International Day evening program,
dancers represent their village for an audience of
2000 villagers, staff, parents, and guests. 

To start things off, I asked the villagers to take a few moments to think about the ways they engage with world languages in classrooms at home—and then to transport themselves mentally back to their lives with us in a Language Village. What ideas popped into their minds when they thought of language learning at the Villages? Fun, creative, enthusiastic, energetic:  the first words out of their mouths were heartening, but not so surprising. After all, these terms dovetail well with the concept that has guided Concordia Language Villages since its founding in 1961:  to create a rich and exciting summer camp environment within which young people will quite naturally develop an "emotional attachment to the new language," in the words of Erhard Friedrichsmeyer, the first director of our first Language Village program. 

A German Sprachmeister name tag
Villagers who choose to wear a
 Sprachmeister name tag take on
the challenge to speak German all day long. 

The next word, though, did surprise me. Courage. The villagers told me that being in this place—immersed in a different language and surrounded by new games to try, sounds to discern, friends to meet, foods to taste, so many new ways of thinking and doing—had tugged on their inner strength. Initially, they said, the swirl of everything new made them uncertain—even somewhat fearful. But then they exclaimed how, hour by hour, they became aware that they were overcoming their uneasiness. Negative feelings were being replaced by powerfully positive ones. Their courage had been awakened.

Given the nearly non-stop fun that characterizes life in the Villages, I hadn't expected to hear references to discomfort. And yet as soon as a villager’s voice gave it life, it made perfect sense. After all, it’s hard to speak another language. It’s embarrassing to pick the wrong words. It can be humiliating to have to repeat and repeat and repeat, all because your pronunciation is so off-target that others can’t understand what you’re trying to say. It’s annoying to have to come up with prefixes and suffixes when all you want to do is get your idea across. It’s frustrating not to be able to be as funny or as sociable or as adventurous as you are when you speak English. 

Villagers debate at the global summit.
At the International Day Global Summit,
villagers negotiate international issues
from the perspective of a country their
village represents. 

We know it’s impossible to learn anything without making mistakes along the way. So, at the Villages, we design programs that open up opportunities for learners to overcome their inhibitions and get on with living their new language. These programs nurture growth and development as villagers are inspired to push themselves past missteps—and to learn from them.

 

 

  • As Language Masters, villagers can choose to challenge themselves—and their friends—to get through the entire day without speaking any English.
  • On the Superstar Obstacle Course, villagers break outside their comfort zones to use language as a gateway to an entirely new set of experiences, such as co-teaching a song or dance, contributing to the village newspaper, or leading a meal presentation.
  • As Student Mentors, villagers grow into leadership roles, gaining the self-confidence it takes to teach another person what one has learned perhaps not all that long ago.

In embracing these and many other incentive challenges offered at the Villages, participants learn even more about their new language—and they learn more about themselves.

As those villagers in the Waldsee Bibliothek identified over fifteen years ago, the centerpiece of Doing Foreign Language—and the heart of our mission—is cultivating learners' courage. Courage to take the plunge into a new way of speaking, a new way of being. Courage to make funny sounds. Courage to take on a new identity. Courage to take on the next adventure. Courage not to be perfect. And what could be more critical to success? 

About the Author

A picture of the author, Heidi Hamilton

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 a Village Mentor, a term used to denote an expert in language and cultural immersion.

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