WorldView: A Language Blog

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Concordia Language Villages:  Perhaps Even Better Than Being There?

By Dr. Heidi E. Hamilton | Published: February 9, 2016

When I talk about Concordia Language Villages to parents, teachers and others, some ask why they should send a family member or student to northern Minnesota to spend one, two or four weeks surrounded by another language. They wonder why learners shouldn’t go abroad for truly authentic experiences in the language and culture. After all, the price tag might not be so different – and aren’t the Language Villages just offering a pretend version of life in another country anyway? Some may even remember that our motto used to be “the next best thing to being there!”  

Newspaper article from 1972 describing Lager Waldsee, 'Next best thing to being there'

But the goal of Concordia Language Villages is not simply to transplant authentic village architecture from other countries into the Minnesota North Woods. Nor is it to replicate each nuance of everyday life abroad within these Villages in the United States. That’s certainly part of the story, but not all of it. Our Language Villages are not fake versions of overseas villages; they are instead purposefully and carefully constructed nurturing environments that value and support learners’ forays into living life in another language.

Waldsee villagers and staff raise the village Maibaum (maypole)
Waldsee villagers and staff raise the Village
Maibaum (maypole) 

Each day is lived intensely and joyfully. Villagers participate in a wider range of activities than most individuals undertake in a 24-hour period when abroad. Language Village life is akin to life on a theater stage or in a film, where virtually all activity is focused and the Village "troupe" is ready to help. This concentrated activity allows participants to experience and learn much more than they would during a typical day in another country. It's a dress rehearsal for life abroad, a place where learners can gain the courage to step over their inhibitions – their stage fright – and get on with business of living in a new language.

And for many participants, life in the Villages goes well beyond a simple dress rehearsal. It is a time to make lifelong friends, a time to feel strong, creative, valued and open to seemingly limitless possibilities. That’s why so many of us return summer after summer to create the magic that is Concordia Language Villages.

How amazing it is to consider that 55 summers ago, Gerhard Haukebo and Erhard Friedrichsmeyer carried out the first two-week sessions of Lager Waldsee based on what was then a revolutionary idea of “introduc[ing] the child to the language by causing him to associate it emotionally with a whole series of typical camp experiences, which, however are to assume as much as possible the forms and expressions typical of the country whose language is studied” (see Friedrichsmeyer 1962:322; emphasis my own). Although many aspects of the Villages have changed over the decades, this original concept remains intact and continues to contribute to the program’s long-standing success.


Waldsee villagers train with Fußball (soccer) coaches from Germany

We are united by our firm commitment to building a caring, creative, intellectually engaging and fun community. That's the vital invisible force driving the look, the feel and the taste of a Language Village, the activities we offer, and the spirit with which our counselors, teachers and villagers all interact. Young people learn by doing and are supported by a can-do attitude that motivates them to delve into current interests and venture into new areas of discovery. As they widen their personal world, they prepare themselves to carry out our mission of “responsible citizenship in our global community.”

Friedrichsmeyer, Erhard M.  1962.  The language camp, a different approach to elementary foreign language instruction.  The German Quarterly 35: 322-326.

About 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 1970 to her current leadership position as one of two Language Sages, a term used to denote an expert in language and cultural immersion.

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