Roast That Marshmallow in Mandarin, Soldier!

August 13, 2019

It's a late spring afternoon at the Finnish village, with birds chirping and sunbeams streaming through an open window. Nine campers sit deep in concentration, attempting to mimic the nature paintings and poetry of a famous Chinese artist. They’re at least a decade older than the usual campers who flock every summer to the Concordia Language Villages, outside Bemidji. By training and disposition, they’re determined to stay on task. 

A few of the campers manage to wield the delicate Chinese paintbrushes with some success, mixing the perfect shade of green and outlining the shape of a leaf. There’s the occasional clink of a brush swirled in a glass of water, a sigh of frustration, and an occasional giggle. One crew-cut camper, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, gets up for a fresh sheet of paper to start over.

This is what life in the trenches looks like on Day 9 of a 12-day training session in Mandarin Chinese designed for U.S. military linguists. Several times a year, Concordia transforms its renowned youth-oriented language camps into one of the Department of Defense’s nine official Language Training Centers. And it offers service members courses in Arabic, French, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Persian Farsi, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. 

Lessons extend beyond the classroom. 

If you’ve ever dropped off a kid or ventured here yourself as a hobby camper, you’re familiar with the immersive experience. If you haven’t, think chocolat chaud and croissants for breakfast, counselors belting out songs about pretty cows in Normandy, and canoe trips undertaken in the spirit of a voyageur fur trader. At the end, voila: You can speak some French! The whole program operates out of a typical Minnesota lakeside summer camp, set amid 800 acres of northern woods.

For this session, staffers have transformed the Finnish village into a Chinese village, with Mandarin names replacing Finnish names on the cabins. (E.g., Lappi becomes Shanghai.) Maps of China dot the walls, odors of Sichuan spices waft from the kitchen, and boxes of Pocky litter the classrooms. And, acknowledging the hard-core fitness habits of service members, free weights and a bench press occupy two areas that would usually serve as extra bunk rooms. 

The whole situation feels so comfortable you can almost forget all the layers of stagecraft: a Minnesota summer camp-turned-Scandinavian village-turned-Chinese canton-turned-military classroom. Three years ago, the Utah National Guard approached the Language Villages about applying for a grant and running a Language Training Center. The Language Villages had dabbled in military training since 2009, when an alum asked if he could bring his unit to the Language Villages before a mission to a French-speaking African country. 

Educating the military fits the Concordia camp’s mission of developing global citizens, says Martin Graefe, director of the Language Training Center programs at Concordia. In 2017, the program’s first year, 39 military personnel came. This year, 169 service members trained here over the course of 19 sessions. 

Photo by Chad Walker
In the line of fire: The folksy activities at the Concordia Language Villages allow the campers to practice in natural settings.

The goal in each session is to help campers maintain or improve proficiency in a target language. Graefe hires staff, usually longtime U.S. citizens who are native speakers of a foreign language. And the military sends along one language instructor to act as a liaison. 

The Language Training Center sessions already provide about 12 percent of the Language Villages’ revenue. And the program is growing: The Villages recently secured a new three-year contract with the Department of Defense. This will expand the length of each program to 16 days and increase the number of campers to 225. 

The military has doubled down on language training in recent years, explains Dr. Michael Nugent, director of the National Security Education Program. In 2011, the Department of Defense launched its Language Training Centers, which now operate on an $8 million annual budget.

“People have recognized the importance of culture and the intermingling of culture and language,” Nugent says. This is also the way the Concordia program has been teaching since the camp programs started in 1961. 

The existence of the Language Training Centers is no military secret—though when I drove through Bemidji, few locals seemed to know about the defense presence at Concordia Language Villages. We were allowed to visit a spring session on the condition that we wouldn’t reveal any details that could identify specific service members or their missions. To put it another way, while the painting activity seems lighthearted, the underlying mission involves national security. Everyone at the Language Villages goes by names they choose and write on an oval name tag made of birch. This session’s military language instructor wears a tag that reads “Fan.” 

Photo by Chad Walker
Cultural immersion follows classroom work.

“In past conflicts, the military has gone into different places without very complete cultural knowledge, and that’s really hurt us in a lot of operations—to the point of losing lives,” Fan says. “There were times, previously, when a young man would come out into the middle of a street in Iraq wearing all white, clean-shaven. He’d be slowly walking toward a group of American soldiers. When the townspeople would see him dressed this way and acting in this manner, they’d leave—go into their homes and shut the doors. This person had prepared [himself] for death, but we didn’t know that.”

The Language Villages capitalize on their remote setting, amid the national forest lands and lakes of Beltrami County. Concordia sells the experience as “iso-immersion”: “Iso” is a term the military uses for programming that’s free of outside distractions. 

In this case, the isolation is literal. “I’d never heard of Bemidji,” says Chad, who goes by Jia Lun at camp. He learned about the Language Villages from a colleague who had studied there. “And then we drove even farther.” 

To get here, most campers fly over farmland and forests in a puddle-jumper that lands at the Bemidji Regional Airport. From there, they take a Language Villages van, winding around Lake Bemidji and the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe, glimpsing the edge of downtown. Then, the semi-populated lakeside gives way to an increasingly remote, hilly, tree-lined road, and finally a winding driveway, where flags (representing the languages spoken here) signal their arrival. 

“There’s no Starbucks down the street,” Graefe says. “You don’t leave except on Sundays, when you can go to church or into town and take pictures with Babe.”

As soon as campers pass those flags, no more English can be spoken between staff and campers. The one exception? Medical emergencies—including potential allergens. These words go by their English names.

“I don’t love being so isolated,” Chad/Jia Lun says, “but I understand that it’s necessary. It’s like going to the dentist—not necessarily fun, but it’s good for you, ultimately.” 

Despite their commitment to mastering Mandarin Chinese, not everyone here originally chose to learn it. When an enlisted soldier scores well on a language aptitude test, he or she may be assigned to study a certain language. 

“There aren’t a lot of choices in the military,” Fan says. Indeed, even the practice here of sharing meals with teachers is a little out of the ordinary. In regular duty, enlisted soldiers and officers probably wouldn’t be permitted to sit together.

Photo by Chad Walker
Concordia sells its northwoods experience as “iso-immersion”—that is, a place free of outside distractions.

Here, teachers mingle with campers during breaks and at the ping-pong tables. (The staff brought in an extra table to match the enthusiasm for the sport in China.) Sara Nimis, dean of the Arabic Language Village at Concordia, explains that the whole point is to make “it feel like they’re coming to someone’s house.” You learn languages not in isolation—or even in a classroom—but in a community. 

Each teacher becomes a “language parent,” responding to campers the same way a parent might correct a young child. Let’s say a student comes back from the restroom and declares, “I go to the bathroom.” The teacher, like a parent, will respond, “Oh, you went to the bathroom!”

The instructors weave in language lessons at every opportunity. As lunch begins, two campers get up to present on a Chinese zodiac sign and an assigned idiom. Then, they join their classmates and teachers to dig into pots of rice and mapo tofu (tofu in a broth with soy sauce), bowls of mango, and bok choy. 

The entire menu today is Sichuan cuisine. The Language Villages received a grant to send its cooks to cities across China—Chengdu, Xiamen, Beijing, Wuhan—to learn from home cooks and chefs, and the trip seems to have paid off. They’re earning high praise from campers and even some of the instructors who were originally born in China and Taiwan.

Watching the campers play ping-pong in jeans, you can’t always imagine exactly how they’ll use their Mandarin. And, again, they aren’t allowed to say. Some campers are reservists, others active duty. Most of them appear military fit: I spot a CrossFit-style workout on a whiteboard in the temporary gym.

“They could be working with teams of language professionals in many different aspects of translation, international relationships, diplomacy—so many different facets,” Fan says. 

A Department of Defense website describes the job as follows: 

As a linguist in the active Army or Army Reserve, you will be deployed to duty stations around the world, where you will translate highly classified documents and information for military troops and allied forces. Depending on your area of expertise, you’ll be assigned to either a strategic or tactical position. Strategic linguists tend to work from an office, while tactical linguists work more from the field.

The Language Villages partner with both the United States Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command headquartered in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 300th Military Intelligence (MI) Brigade of the Utah National Guard. Utah’s large Mormon population means that kids are well-schooled in foreign languages, often in preparation for mission trips abroad. The government has a reputation for recruiting and hiring Mormons for intelligence positions.

It doesn’t hurt the Language Villages that Bemidji holds a white-steepled Mormon church, which campers can visit on Sunday, an official day off. 

On the surface, this spring session could be any adult camp at Concordia. Everyone must submit to a daily and hourly itinerary full of folksy activities, from drumming to cross-stitching to card playing to snowshoeing to crafting Shrinky Dinks keychains. When that’s done, there’s always more cooking and singing.

“They get you out of your comfort zone real quick,” says Joe (camp name: Bi Defu), who reports that he has never before traveled this far north. He says he loves the lakes and woods and bald eagles. The karaoke? Not so much. 

In addition to Mandarin Chinese karaoke, the campers have “speed dated” with the instructors (with language, not romance, in mind). They’ve also played lots of mahjong, launched a paper lantern, and visited the Mississippi’s headwaters. A full day of this itinerary can be fulfilling—or exhausting. 

Nimis recalls some griping after challenging hikes. “I’ve had campers say, ‘Seriously, it’s raining and I’m wet and we’re still staying in the target language?!’” Nimis adds that speaking a language in less-than-ideal conditions, like hiking through a storm, accelerates learning—especially for people who may need to rely on it in high-pressure situations.

“It builds stamina, which is an important part of training,” Nimis says. She recites this principle to teachers, who may otherwise feel sorry for the campers and relax their standards. 

The military campers take to this routine. Even at night in their cabins and on their day off, they often speak Chinese. 

It would be difficult for them to relax in this Minnesota vacation country setting, anyway, Fan says. When your day job in the military involves an infrastructure of secrecy and protective protocol, “being in a civilian environment is actually more disconcerting.”

This is Fan’s first visit to the Language Villages, and compared to other training experiences, he says, “In this course, I’ve seen a more rapid absorption.” 

While Fan isn’t working with the preteen visitors who usually populate the village, he sounds a little like a counselor whose job it is to tire out the kids. “For these campers who really put in as much effort as they do so they can to get everything out of it—they sleep good,” he says.

As their art projects dry, the campers gather for a language exercise led by Fan. It’s 5 pm, but this isn’t the last language exercise of the day. 

The campers take a few minutes to prepare for their roles as a Chinese-speaking doctor, an English-speaking patient, and an interpreter. The script involves the patient getting shot and the doctor performing surgery with no anesthesia. As it plays out, the patient yells through the interpreter, “Your parents are so ugly!” and pretends to dry heave. 

Such exercises can seem a little far-fetched, bordering on ridiculous. This is by design, Fan explains. Humans are wired to remember crazy scenarios, especially anything involving sex and violence. 

The goal is to have fun, Fan says, but he adds a jolt of reality: “Remember, your mission could require anything from knowing about poetry and music to being able to translate something from a doctor.”

The campers file upstairs for dinner: pork dan dan noodles, spicy spinach, daikon slivers, and, for dessert, sticky sweet bean buns in broth. Fan explains that such role-playing also prepares the campers for the test they’ll take at the end of the session. 

The military evaluates linguists on an increasing scale of fluency, from one to five. Two is considered advanced; most of the campers here have started at a two or three. The service members need to keep up a certain proficiency and take a certain number of hours of continuing education each year. Depending on their progression, service members may be eligible for extra pay. 

Teachers designed tonight’s “fun” activity, a speed-dating simulation, so they can judge how their campers are adapting to speaking in a high-speed, slightly pressurized situation. Tests at the end of the session show the gains they’ve made. 

Ultimately, six of the service members at this session will move up one notch on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages scale. And one will make a rare leap, moving up three notches. More impressive, they’ve improved their scores after just 12 days. Usually the test comes after an entire semester of study. 

After the campers clear the dinner dishes, the spring sun continues to cast a warm glow on a perfect 67-degree day. The instructors decide to hold the speed-dating session outside. 

For the first time, though, some of the campers appear skittish. These high-performing military pros have come up against a quirk of northern Minnesota that appears to make them genuinely nervous: wood ticks.  

by: Sheila Mulrooney Eldred