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US Summer Camp Helps Kids Learn About Foreign Cultures - 2002-08-21

For millions of children in the United States, no summer vacation would be complete without a trip to summer camp. Day camps or overnight camps seem to exist for just about every interest, including sports, arts and computers. In the Midwest U.S. state of Minnesota, there's a popular camp where kids receive intensive foreign language training. But, this camp's organizers want kids to learn more than language.

It is International Day at the Concordia Language Villages, a collection of 12 language camps set among the pine forests outside Bemidji, Minnesota. This is the day when young people who have been learning French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Korean or one of seven other languages show the rest of the campers what they've learned about the cultures of those who speak the various languages. Village executive director Christine Schulze says every year, nearly 10,000 kids come from all 50 U.S. states and 25 countries throughout the world.

"It is really an amazing convergence of staff and kids from all over the world, bringing their languages and cultures to share with each other," he said. "I think it shows a commitment to the importance of language learning in this country."

Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota operates the language villages. The youngest campers, seven and eight-year-olds, usually come for just a week. That's long enough to give them a taste of a foreign language, culture and food and get them interested in learning more. Ms. Schulze says most of the kids here are in the two-week program.

"One could question how much language does one really learn in that short a period of time, but our premise is that you have to start somewhere," he said. "If we can give kids really positive, beginning steps in a language or just simply foster what it is they are learning in school, then this is a process."

Ms. Schulze says many of the children who come here have little or no experience speaking anything other than English. Their language training includes braking down stereotypes associated with various languages. For example, camp teacher Frieda Ekotto of Cameroon wants the young people to know that it is not just the French people who speak French as their native language.

"Right from the beginning, when I came to the village, I made it clear that I am a Cameroonian," he said. "I was colonized by the French. That is one of the reasons I speak French."

Older kids who opt for the four-week language camp receive the equivalent of one-year's worth of high-school level language instruction. One young person is speaking Japanese as he represents Japan in a mock-United Nations discussion on nuclear proliferation held during last year's camp. Advisor John Olsen says the teens write their own speeches at the camp, and are urged to think not as Americans, but as Norwegians, Germans or Japanese.

"The idea is not to be entirely factually correct with these simulations that we do, but more to put them [the kids] in a mindset as if they were coming from these cultures, and to open their minds up to the global community beyond America," he said.

Many of the languages include immigrant or refugee kids working on English skills. The Spanish language village has several native Spanish speakers, and the Korean village is nearly all ethnic-Korean children who came to the United States as young children. Korean village leader Ross King says these kids want to learn about their native country.

That is really important, especially as you hit a certain age and you are growing up in what is essentially still a very Caucasian neck-of-the-woods here in Minnesota and Wisconsin. You look different from other people and you start asking questions and a lot of these kids are very serious about finding more about their heritage country.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Alms is in the Korean village. A Minnesota family adopted her from South Korea when she was just a few months old.

"I am the only Asian in my whole school district," he said. "I have always been the minority. Coming here is like family. I've been able to experience living in the majority."

Her sister, Krista Monson, was born in the United States, but is studying Korean so that she and her adopted sister will have more in common. "It kind of has a magical tie," she said. "I understand how she feels, especially now. I am the minority at camp. I am the only Caucasian in the entire camp [Korean village]."

Camp director Christine Schulze says the goal of the language villages is to prepare young people for responsible citizenship in our global community.

"It is providing kids with experiences that open their hearts and minds to the world," she said. "Not just for when they travel eventually, but going back to their communities. In the United States, all of our communities have become much more multicultural, very diverse. By virtue of being supplanted in a new language and culture for even just two weeks, it gives them a greater appreciation for the diversity that exists, and it is something to embrace."

Since 1999, the Concordia Language Villages has included an English section, where several dozen young people from throughout the world come to learn English and American culture.

Concordia has expanded this program beyond the north woods of Minnesota. It also operates a global language village in China, and an English language village in Italy.