By Christopher Connell

The idea for creating Concordia Language Villages came from a young faculty member, Gerhard Haukebo, who noticed while running a U.S. military school in Germany how quickly U.S. youngsters picked up German on the playground. Haukebo wondered if there was a way to duplicate those conditions in Minnesota.

Concordia put his idea to the test in the summer of 1961. The college rented the facilities of Luther Crest Bible Camp in the Minnesota woods and held a two-week camp to teach German to 72 children ages 9 to 12. They called it Camp Waldsee, the German word for "lake of the woods." The youngsters swam, played games, and put on skits, but even their play was in German.

The Concordia camp was an immediate hit. French was added to the line-up the next summer at Lac du Bois. In 1963, sessions were added in Spanish (El Lago del Bosque) and Norwegian (Skogfjorden), and in 1966 Russian was offered for the first time (Lesnoe Ozero). The college spent $50,000 to purchase an 875-acre property with four miles of shoreline on Turtle River Lake near Bemidji, 140 miles north of the Moorhead campus. College elders reasoned that if all else failed, they could recoup the investment by selling off lakefront lots.

It didn't fail. Instead, with permanent homes for the German, French, Norwegian, Finnish, Spanish, and Russian Villages, the reputation and fame of the Concordia Language Villages kept growing. Concordia built authentic, themed facilities, instituted "passport controls" and served authentic cuisine, all adding to the illusion that these camps were not outside Bemidji but somewhere in Bavaria, by a fjord in Norway, or outside a plaza in Seville. Concordia added camps that catered to Midwest families with Nordic roots: a Swedish camp (Sjölunden) in 1975, Finnish (Salolampi) in 1978, and Danish (Skovsøen) in 1982. Then the Language Villages looked East, opening a camp for Chinese (Sen Lin Hu) in 1984, Japanese (Mori no Ike) in 1988, and Korean (Sup sogui Hosu) in 1999. It added an English immersion camp for immigrant and international children in 1999 and Italian (Lago del Bosco) in 2003.

This past summer it opened Al-WāHa (the Oasis), the Arabic Language Village, with two two-week summer sessions. Already, said Executive Director Christine Schulze, plans are in the works for the 15th language: Portuguese.

Six thousand young people are immersed each summer in the colorful camps, which draw a steady stream of ambassadors and other dignitaries.

"We were ahead of times in the '60s in terms of blending language and cultural immersion. It was without question a revolutionary concept in terms of teaching language - but it no longer is," said Schulze.

Today, Concordia is extending the reach of the Language Villages, with year-round programs aimed at adults, families, Elderhostels, and other potential learners. It operates camps at other sites in Minnesota, in Georgia, and in Switzerland, and sends volunteers to teach English in China. It has trained hundreds of teachers in its immersion pedagogy.

Ross King, associate professor of Korean at the University of British Columbia who doubles as dean of the Korean Language Village, spent all his teenage summers at the camps, immersed in Spanish, Russian, and German. The polyglot King said youths return summer after summer as he did "because it's not about vocabulary and verb forms. It's about turning kids into committed lifelong learners of that language, (and) making language fun for kids."

Language immersion is offered in four of the five critical languages singled out in President Bush's National Security Language Initiative - Chinese, Korean, Arabic, and Russian (the fifth language is Farsi). But almost a third of the villagers are immersed in Spanish, and the most popular languages after that are French and German.

Nonetheless, there is intense interest these days in the work of Concordia Language Villages. Congress recognized the importance of the new Arabic Language Village by earmarking $250,000 toward start-up costs.

Schulze said, "We have always taken on languages at critical times in the history of world relations. We started the German Language Village in 1961 in the same month the Berlin Wall went up." Russian was added while the Cold War was at full throttle.

"We firmly believe that if you can communicate with people around the world, there really is a hope for building bridges of peace and understanding. That's what drives us," said Schulze.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELL is a veteran Washington, D.C. journalist and former assistant bureau chief of the Associated Press.