Introductions to the Six Guiding Principles of Concordia Language Villages Programming

From Hamilton, Heidi E., Crane, Cori, and Bartoshesky, Abigail.  2005.  Doing Foreign Language.  Pearson.

1.  Giving learners courage

We’ll start our journey right here, at the heart of the Concordia Language Village philosophy – giving students courage.  Courage to take the plunge into a new way of speaking, a new way of being.  Courage to make “funny” sounds.  Courage to take on a new identity.  Courage not to be perfect.  And what could be more critical to success? 

It’s hard to speak another language.  It’s embarrassing to pick the wrong words.  It’s humiliating to have to repeat and repeat and repeat, all just because your pronunciation of the ‘r’ is so bad your conversational partner can’t even understand what you’re trying to say.  It’s annoying to have to try to remember all the prefixes and suffixes and word orders when all you want to do is get an idea across. It’s frustrating not to be able to be as funny as you are when you can speak English.

These inherent challenges in learning a foreign language can be demoralizing to some learners, but actually seem to invigorate and energize others.  The trick for us is to figure out a way to support the internal motivations of some learners while providing external incentives for the others.  The trick for us is to set the tone for learners to have courage to step over their inhibitions and get on with living in the new language.

Concordia Language Villages activities are designed to provide support to learners as they make tentative steps forward.  They are meant to en-courage -- in the sense of giving courage -- learners to continue to use the target language even in the face of these challenges. 

2.  Learner investment

We all know you can’t force a person to learn.  All the talking in the world – all the theatrics at the front of a group – won’t sink in if a learner doesn’t want to learn or simply doesn’t care.  Awakening the interest – that’s the key.  But what can we do to create an environment in which young people will be invested in their own learning? 

In response to this challenge, many speak of ‘student-centered’ education, but the term seems to mean different things to different people.  In the Villages, ‘student-centered’ works on at least three distinct, but related levels: content, management, and personal growth.  First, villagers are asked what they’re interested in learning about and how they’d like to learn it.  What kinds of expertise – language-related or otherwise – do they have?  Second, villagers are frequently put into positions of leadership within the Villages.  They share areas of expertise with fellow villagers and sometimes teach younger ones.  And, finally, villagers aren’t allowed to get complacent, learning only about areas with which they’re already familiar.  They’re often nudged out of their comfort zone, encouraged to try new things, all with the goal of personal growth in mind.

3.  Linguistic and cultural authenticity

It seems like such a basic idea – the notion that surrounding learners of a language with authentic language and culture is a good thing.   Carrying on a conversation with a native speaker, reading a comic strip, watching a candy commercial, trying to play a balalaika, learning to play bocce, ordering from a menu – all in the target language – can really bring the language and culture alive.  Those adjective endings and verb conjugations leap right off the pages of the textbook and get put into active duty.  The learner understands that the language is used by real people for real-world reasons; learning to use the right preposition at the right time doesn’t just lead to an A on a test, but can actually make the difference between being understood or not.

In the Language Villages, however, this idea of surrounding learners with authentic language and culture means more than it might seem at first blush.  It isn’t enough just to learn about the standard language or about the culture of the early 21st century.  Villagers are exposed to the range of variation in language and culture across both time and space. Counselors and teachers come from all over the world, so learners are often given opportunities to hear different regional dialects of their target language and to learn about regional differences in cultural products and practices.  Learners use the language in a wide variety of situations during their stay in the Villages, so they have a chance to try out different styles of the language as they relate to the formality of the situation.  Some villages even have historical programs that enable learners to learn about their target language and culture at earlier stages of its history. 

4.  Creating a need to communicate

When you were a student, did your teacher ever ask you a question to which he or she already knew the answer?   What’s the capital of Alaska?  What’s the square root of 144?  When was George Washington born?  Of course!  In fact, many classrooms are made up of that kind of rhythm:  teacher’s question, student’s answer, teacher’s evaluation of the student’s answer.   Most students become accustomed to this rhythm and happily enter into its daily dance.  And this type of routine certainly has its place in the learning cycle.

But such questions can become quite stale after a while, leading some students to tune out.  Sometimes such students seem to be asking themselves why they should bother answering a question publicly to which almost everyone in the classroom already knows the answer.  It just doesn’t seem worth it.  In order to combat this problem, many teachers set up role plays which contain some sort of information gap. Typically in this type of role play each learner has a piece of information that the other learner needs but doesn’t have.  Such a need propels the interaction, leading each person to continue to speak with the other until he or she gains the necessary information.

In the Villages, needs-driven interactions occur naturally.  As villagers move throughout the village over the course of a day, they ask and are asked many questions on topics that genuinely interest the questioner and to which he or she is in need of an answer:  Is there any more bread?  Who still needs to brush his teeth?  What colors do you need for your painting?  What kinds of chocolate do you have?

This kind of needs-based give and take in the target language heightens learner interest in designing an utterance that will serve its purpose and provides an incentive for the student to listen very carefully to the response.  This move from unnecessary to purposeful communication can be enough to get even the most reticent learners to focus and learn.

5.  Experiencing the language

Engagement.  That’s what this principle is all about.  How do we get learners to dive head-first into their learning?  To be alive in the moment – to be ready with open minds to really learn?  We’re not talking about sponges sitting in their chairs ready to soak up whatever we may offer them.  We’re talking about active, curious, searching minds, ready to interact with us in the learning process.

When I think back – more than thirty years! – to my high school days, two images pop up almost immediately:  the first  is of my sophomore English class producing a video of our  1970s version of The Great Gatsby; the second is of my junior chemistry class filling a balloon with two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen and imploding it to produce a tiny bead of water.   As hard as I try, I can’t come up with the name of another book we read in that same English class or recall the details of a single paper-based assignment in chemistry.  The whole-body experiences that produced the film and the water helped to make the knowledge stick. 

And that’s what we hear from many of the learners at CLV – that learning the language in this experiential way helps it stick in their minds.  They contrast this way of learning with cramming for pencil-and-paper tests; those aspects of the language that helped them get an A or B on the test seem to disappear within a week or so.  They simply didn’t stick.

6.  Learning within extended projects

Have you ever built a tree house from scratch?  No, not by driving to the lumber yard and picking up some two-by-fours, but by hiking out into the woods and locating just the right trees, cutting them down, stripping the bark, and moving on from there?  Have you ever learned to play the balalaika well enough to join with others to make beautiful music?  Have you ever woven a rug based on your own design and painstaking precision?  Have you ever worked as the editor of a community newspaper?

Many villagers take part in such projects each summer and they do so by using the target language.  Most of them come away from the project not even knowing how to express what they’ve done in English; the only way they know how to talk about carpentry or weaving is in the target language. 

Such project-based learning makes good sense for a number of reasons.  First, working on a project provides a coherent focus for the learner.  Rather than learning a wide range of disparate and unrelated aspects of the target language, the learner is able to work consistently and repeatedly with a manageable range of vocabulary and language functions.  Second, a project offers the learner a way in which to link the use of the language to the acquisition of another domain of knowledge or skills, such as newspaper editing or playing the balalaika. Third, participating in such projects offers a wonderful and seamless way to build a learning community rooted in fun, joy, creativity, adventure, and excitement about learning.  Each member of the community uses language in concert with others to produce a product – one as fleeting as a moonlight concert, another as long-lasting as a stained glass window built into a residence hall.