History of Concordia Language Villages

Gerhard Haukebo.

It started with an idea. In 1960, Gerhard Haukebo, Ph.D., a Concordia College faculty member, suggested the college initiate an innovative program using immersion techniques to teach language. At the time, language education in the United States was focused on the academic pursuit of understanding language and grammar. The idea, as Dr. Haukebo articulated it, was to create extensive opportunities for children to learn and then apply the language within an appropriate cultural context. In short, he wanted to make it possible for children to live the language.

Concordia College sponsored the project in the summer of 1961. The college rented Luther Crest Bible Camp, north of Alexandria, Minn., for the first two-week German session. “Camp Waldsee,” which was limited to 72 campers aged 9-12, was a resounding success.

Interest in the program increased steadily and more “Villages” were organized. In addition to German (1961), French (1962) was added the second year. Spanish and Norwegian (1963) followed. Russian (1966) was a bold addition during the height of the Cold War.

Languages Added

The Nordic languages grew when Swedish (1975), Finnish (1978), and Danish (1982) were added. Soon, a focus on Asian language learning developed into villages for Chinese (1984), Japanese (1988) and Korean (1999). Then we took what we knew about children and foreign language learning and applied it to our own language and culture with the addition of English (1999). Italian (2003) and Arabic (2006) and Portuguese, added in 2008, are the newest Villages.

After leasing facilities and converting them into Villages each summer, a grand idea to construct permanent, architecturally authentic Village sites was conceived. In 1964, the Board of Development Advisors was created. Communities located in the Minnesota lakes region were contacted in search of a large wooded site with relative privacy and lake frontage on a lake suitable for swimming and water sports. It was a tall order.

Constructing Architecturally Authentic Sites

In the end, property on Turtle River Lake near Bemidji, Minn., was procured. The 800-acre site was purchased for $50,000 and included nearly four miles of shoreline on two beautiful lakes with rolling hills, birch forests and a university town (Bemidji) nearby.

Construction of the first architecturally authentic year-round site on Turtle River Lake began in 1969 withSkogfjorden, the Norwegian Language Village. Waldsee, the German Language Village, began to take shape in 1978, and construction of Lac du Bois, the French Language Village, began in 1988. Salolampi, the Finnish Language Village, began construction in 1993. In 2000, construction of the fifth year-round site, El Lago del Bosque, the Spanish Language Village, was finished. In 2006, we inaugurated Lesnoe Ozero, the Russian Language Village to its permanent site on Turtle River Lake. Most recently, Sjölunden, the Swedish Language Village which is modeled after a Swedish fishing village, has taken shape with a boat house, weaving studio, residences and a library.

Notable Visitors and Alumni

Over the years, numerous dignitaries and supporters have visited Concordia Language Villages including Germany’s Ambassadors Peter Hermes (1983), Gunther Van Well (1987), Jürgen Chrobog (1998), Wolfgang Ischinger (2003), and Klaus Scharioth (2007). Other ambassadors have included Finnish Ambassador Jaakko Laajava (1998), Austrian Ambassador Peter Moser (2002), Ambassador of Norway to the United States Knut Vollebæk, (2003), Finnish Ambassador Jukka Valtasaari (2004), and Ambassador of the Principality of Liechtenstein Claudia Fritsche (2004).

Other countries have sent representatives from their consulates or other key Embassy officials. In the early 1990s, Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton visited the Villages, and both had children attend as villagers.

Notable Staff and Villager Alumni include:

  • Chelsea Clinton (Vice Chair, Clinton Foundation)
  • Kurt Andersen (Journalist and NPR program host)
  • Alexander Payne (Movie director/producer)
  • Eric Falt (Assistant Director-General – UNESCO)