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Language, culture thrive in northwoods setting at Concordia Language Villages

Villagers look at a travel log during a hike at Skogfjorden, the Norwegian village, for an afternoon activity at Concordia's Adventure Day Camp recently. Pioneer Photo/Dayna Landgrebe1 / 2
Brian Dutcher, Adventure Day Camp coordinator at Concordia Language Villages, helps Norwegian camp villagers assemble a pizza to be baked in a woodfire oven. Pioneer Photo/Dayna Landgrebe2 / 2

Just outside of the city of Bemidji lies a cultural epicenter of language and global learning.

Wind your way through the backwoods that lead to the Concordia Language Villages, but be prepared to leave Minnesota and the United States behind.

With a total of 15 languages and several different learning programs, Concordia Language Villages offers the chance for kids to "cross the border" to become global citizens.

"Everything we do is aimed at (global citizenship), but applied through language and culture," said Patricia Thornton, director of summer programs at CLV.

With a variety of programs offered, kids ages 6-18 can participate in the weeklong Adventure Day Camp or overnight camps lasting one, two or four weeks. Programs are also available for educators, adults, seniors and families.

Authentic road signs from each country lead to their respective villages in the woods near Turtle River Lake. At the German village, Waldsee, a small replica of a sign from the post-World War II Checkpoint Charlie of divided East Berlin and West Berlin: "You are now leaving the American sector" - the sign couldn't be truer.

"There is a process to check (villagers') bags - schmuggel wachen - for any smuggling of American stuff in it," said Carl-Martin Nelson, director of international exchange programs and director of marketing and communications. "No American books, music or cell phones. If there's music, it's German music,"

Nelson said there was no pledge that villagers had to take to speak the foreign language at all times, but staff members model it to them at the language immersion camp.

Camp counselors and return-villagers called out to Nelson and an exchange of German was uttered so quickly that English felt more like the foreign language now.

"The language learning is built on the idea of pretend - it's a powerful process of how kids learn and create the reality of the village," Nelson said.

To help create that reality, villagers take on an entirely new name, common to that particular country, and are referred to only by that name during their stay at the CLV.

"Being Momako at the Japanese village is easier to role play than being Susie from Bemidji," Nelson said. "We find that this make believe is very important in how kids learn language."

Andrew Hitzhusen is a German villager who has returned to Waldsee for the sixth time. He goes by the name, "Hugo" at the village.

"It helps you craft an identity separate from what you are at home," he said. "'Andrew 'means home to me. I can't go around calling myself 'Hugo' at home." Hitzhusen is a high school junior from Worcester, Mass.

Besides using different names, villagers are exposed to a tastier perk of cultural authenticity - food.

At Café Einbeck, villagers can practice a language lesson they learned earlier that morning, ordering Black Forest cherry cake, chocolate éclairs and coffees specific to Germany.Nelson said learning about a country's culture, like its authentic cuisine or its customs, is just as important as learning the language. Villagers are given the opportunity to practice shopping at the Spanish dulcería (candy shop) or buy souvenirs at the German Marktplatz (marketplace).

"The average day is a little like summer camp, except everything is in French or German," Nelson said.

He also made sure to add that those weren't the only languages to learn. Among the other language programs, newly added languages include Chinese, Arabic and Portuguese.

Many of these villagers at the CLV represent almost all 50 states and at least 30-40 countries, according to Nelson. And while some of the villagers are from the Bemidji area, most come from across the country.

The camps bring an influx of nearly 2,000 people each summer, and with them comes a significant economic impact on the Bemidji area. Nelson said that as camps start and end each week, families stay at local resorts and visit the area.

But even with the cultural and economic impact of the CLV on the community, it's not clear how well it's recognized by community members.

"There is a vague notion that (the community) doesn't really know what we do out here," Nelson said.

A major part of the CLV's events during the summer is International Day, which happens twice a summer, and is open to the whole community. The first International Day is Friday , July 10.

On International Day, all villagers, staff and families meet at the Waldsee village for an afternoon of cultural song, dance and festivities. The event has free admission, and includes an International Bazaar with shopping and international food vendors.

"It seems that people are often surprised that this is out here; they don't know about it," Thornton said of the camps and the event. "We truly want to connect with Bemidji. We'd love to have more people from Bemidji to come."

Thornton also said that while the drive of the camps is international, that includes Bemidji and Beltrami County.

The second International Day will be held Aug. 14 and is open to everyone. For more information on the CLVs, their programs and International Days, go to