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Christine Schulze, executive director, Concordia Language Villages, Bemidji, Minn. IMAGE: Nick Nelson/Forum News Service

Concordia Language Villages trains students to ‘hit the ground talking’

Editor’s note: For 30 years, Christine Schulze has served as executive director of Concordia Language Villages, the unique program run by Concordia College of Moorhead, Minn.

Since 1961, more than 150,000 people have taken part in the Villages, which are located in the Minnesota North Woods and where “everything from the music played to the dishes in the dining hall” represent the language and culture being studied, as ConcordiaLanguageVillages.org describes.

Recently, Schulze sat for an interview with Prairie Business. The transcript that follows has been edited for clarity and length.

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Describe the Language Villages setting.

We have 875 acres on Turtle River Lake near Bemidji, Minn., with about 3 1/2 to 4 miles of shoreline.

And we have, to date, built seven culturally authentic villages. Thanks to a very significant, $5 million gift, an eighth one – a Korean language village – is in design phase right now and likely will be breaking ground in the spring.

Using these facilities and other lakefront sites that we lease around the region, we offer what we believe to be the premier language and cultural immersion program in the United States, if not the world. We train our Villagers to hit the ground talking.

We have summer-camp language- and cultural-immersion programs in 15 languages for young people, as well as other programs year-round for both young people and adults.

During the program’s first summer back in 1961, they had 75 campers. Now, we are close to 5,000 participants in the summer, and year-round, the total is 10,500, including summer and academic year.

Are there other places like this?

Not of this nature. There certainly are excellent language and cultural immersion programs in the United States; I could name a number of them.

But what’s unique about us is that we are an isolated immersion experience, so that when you come, you truly are surrounded 24/7 by the language and culture without the distractions of your everyday world.

That's what's different. And because of that difference, we actually achieve results that are pretty remarkable.

Your summer programs are very well-known. What happens during the rest of the year?

For the rest of the year, we have a whole variety of different short-term programming, because all of the sites are winterized.

For example, since 2016, we have been classified by the U.S. government as an official Language Training Center. We’re one of only nine language training centers that the has designated, and the only one in the Midwest.

Our biggest partner right now is the Department of Defense.

What do those participants encounter?

In total, we offer eight languages for professionals and government employees. They are the critical or strategic languages for national and economic security, so what we offer for adults are Arabic, Chinese, French, Korean, Portuguese, Persian Farsi, Russian and Spanish.

Right now, we’re offering one-week and two-week immersion experiences. For example, one of our partners is the 300th Military Intelligence Brigade of the Utah National Guard, whose soldiers train as linguists. And if you are a soldier linguist, you must annually do 160 hours of language maintenance or sustainment work. They can do a good portion of that here.

Some 40 soldiers went through our program in its first year, and that number tripled to 120 in 2017-18.

And in my view, that’s because in their two-week experience here, more than 60 percent of the participants will advance in proficiency. That's a pretty high rate, because we’re not working with beginners; we are working with mostly intermediate and some advanced students. And the more skilled you are in a language, the harder it becomes to make those kinds of jumps.

Do the soldier linguists try to speak the language all day long?

They don’t just try. They do. In all of our programs, it's very much a comprehensive experience from the moment you wake up till the moment you go to sleep.

So, for example, all of the meals are culturally authentic. We use that as a teachable moment; we call them “meaningful meals,” because everybody talks around meals, and we really take advantage of that.

And then, they are involved with either classroom-based or activity-based sessions. One of our slogans is “Live the language,” and that means you are using the language In functional patterns, like being able to converse at a meal or during an activity.

And would everyone be speaking, say, Arabic at breakfast?

Absolutely. With adults, we push more on using only the target language all the time. With young people – remember, some of them have never been away from home before. So, we surround them with the language and with positive motivation to encourage them to use it as much as they can, but then we have these timeouts where they’re in a cabin group, for example, and we talk about how to get along with eight other 10-year-old boys.

What kinds of companies are interested?

Our biggest corporate client has been Lowe’s, the hardware firm. They have 20-some warehouses or distribution centers around the country, and the front-line people in many of them are predominantly Spanish speaking.

So, the supervisory, operations and HR people felt they needed a language proficiency to interact with the workforce. They’d seen that in the lunchroom, a Hispanic group would be sitting off by themselves, for example.

As a result, Lowe’s brought managers and supervisors here from all of their warehouses. Some came two or three times after that to keep building on their skills.

The company saw a huge impact in performance and productivity amongst its Spanish-speaking population, and higher retention as well, because the employees felt more acknowledged and better respected.

That’s interesting. I would have guessed the top corporate client would be a company with a big presence overseas.

When you think about it, everyone in our society has experienced greater diversity and sees the need for better communication, and that includes police forces, hospitals and schools, as well as corporations.

At the Language Villages, we talk about “traveling abroad very close to home.” And using our “grand simulations,” we help people interact with others from different backgrounds and cross the language barrier.

How many people do you employ?

We have about 80 full-time employees, including our culinary arts department, many of whom have trained at schools such as the Culinary Institute of America and help us create all of these culturally authentic meals.

Then each and every summer, we hire close to a thousand more Language Villages staff. They come from literally around the country – colleges and universities, students as well as faculty – and around the world, because we’re a U.S. State Department-designated sponsor for J-1 cultural-exchange visas.

Furthermore, the staffers can't just speak the language. They have to be able to teach something in the language.

If you are at the Japanese language village, for example, you have to teach Shotokan karate. We have to find somebody who can speak Japanese and teach karate. So it becomes a really interesting issue, and that’s why all of the language village deans right now are busy staffing.

How’s the health of the program?

That’s an important question, because you don't run a not-for-profit today without keeping your eyes on that constantly.

We’re about a $12 million operation. That's our operating budget. But we also raise –  this year will be rather significant because of the $5 million gift – probably $2 million to $2½ million a year as well.

We are enrollment-dependent, so our revenue doesn't just come to us. We work hard at it, and we also look for diversified streams of revenue; hence the Language Training Center.

Moreover, all of the buildings have been built beyond tuition, meaning that it's all outside grants and individual donations. And we fundraise for scholarships to provide access, too.

As a result, we give every year about a million dollars in aid, just so the young people do have the opportunity that they should have if they're interested.

Do students come mostly from the Midwest?

It’s all 50 states. Our top 10 states include California, Texas and New York; we have a lot of activity from the East Coast.

But we also really draw from the Midwest. We are a provider of a quality summer enrichment  experience for young people for the state of Minnesota, and for all of the surrounding states as well.

I bet Bemidji appreciates the Language Villages’ presence.

One of my donors in Bemidji often says it is the ideal situation of having the cleanest, safest industry anyone could ever hope for, and then to have it bring in all of this involvement from around the country, too!

We did a Community Impact Report to celebrate our 50-year partnership with Bemidji in 2016, and we calculated that the program had more than a $6.3 million impact on the Bemidji area over the preceding year. But it’s truly a partnership, and we’re forever grateful for Bemidji’s support.