They always say you can never go back, but I did my best to disprove that wisdom when I took my family to Spanish immersion camp last week in Minnesota. It’s a truly unique camp with campers from all over the country gathered together in a summer camp atmosphere to soak in all the Spanish we could. Granted, I used to attend the sister Concordia Language Village camp Lac du Bois for French rather than El Lago del Bosque that we attended this week, but there is much about them that is the same.
I was happily surprised last week to find that there was so much that hadn’t changed from my memories. Many of the experiences and routines were the same at Concordia Language Villages from when I was a villager 20 plus years ago. Then again, there was plenty that was different, too.
And different doesn’t mean bad. Change happens – and some of the changes I really appreciated. Like not having to walk a trail for five minutes to find the communal bathroom in the middle of the night – at least at the village we were in for this camp!
There are other differences, too, because this was Spanish versus French. This was a new location and not the sites in Bemidji I attended. This was a Family Week which has some different setups than traditional sessions just for kids. So take all of it with a grain of salt, knowing that every experience will be different.
Several Surprises from Summer Camp
At this location, there are bathrooms inside the cabins. Not all locations are set up this way, but there are options now via Concordia Language Villages where the bathrooms are in the same building where you sleep. I never really minded walking down a trail to a communal bathroom, but the convenience of this is… nice.
And speaking of cabins, our setup is slightly different, as well. The cabins are divided into countries – Mexico, Argentina, Peru, etc – and then further divided into rooms that are equivalent to the cabins I remember, which are named after cities and monuments – ergo, we are in Aconcagua. Though the rooms have the same four bunkbeds I remember, we share our room with no one. Gustav, the camp director, does a wonderful job of respecting families’ privacy by having each family assigned to a room and (generally) not sharing. We had all unpacked on one side of the room anticipating sharing with another family and were pleasantly surprised to have the room to ourself at the end of the day.
Also in our rooms, I noticed that many items were labels in Spanish from the closet to the lights and more. I don’t recall labels from French camp, but I love the reinforcement of the language.
In fact, even the restrooms had reinforcement with posters in Spanish on everything from various ways to ask “what’s up?” to parts of the body to culture of various countries and more.
Language classes are divided by level. Maybe we did this when I was a kid, but I don’t remember having specific language classes, nor having them set up by skill level within the language (except for when I attended the four week high school credit program, which necessitates division by level). When we first arrived, each of us went through a quick evaluation of our Spanish proficiency, and we were assigned a level. And yep, if a class is too hard or too easy, you can change at any time. We’ve had four people leave the class I’m in to move down a level, with one adult returning to give it another go – and that’s totally fine.
The adult classes are more structured than what I had as a kid (excepting, of course, the high school credit program). We are learning in a more typical classroom setting, with pens and papers and lists and whiteboards. I like the structure of my class, and even though we all feel lost at times, we also feel like we’re making significant progress. Shame on me, I didn’t bring a notebook so have been borrowing paper, but that’s something adults should bring to Family Week. Kids, on the other hand, are learning through activities and games so that it doesn’t feel like school and don’t need to bring anything aside from themselves.
Learning is so much about attitude, and I love how the counselors at El Lago del Bosque are recognizing this. At the conclusion of dinner the past two nights, there has been a Super Espanol hero who has shown up. We ask si o no questions to determine a mysterious counselor who then awards a villager who has been trying hard with Spanish a necklace. That person is then photographed and featured in the “newspaper” the next day. Little Miss was pretty proud of herself!
With Family Camp, counselors have their own cabin. I suppose this one shouldn’t surprise me. Parents are here to supervise our children, so we don’t need to have the counselors in the rooms with us. Personally, I like the trust that the camp places in us as parents. Of course, during the “typical” sessions that are kids only, counselors are bunking with kids to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to do.
Along the same lines, there is no official lights out the way there is with a typical session. Parents are the ones to police their children and determine appropriate bedtimes, which also means that the nighttime activity is optional. Yes, our cabin is louder than I had expected during siesta which was always reserved for writing letters, resting, and other silent activities – and it was strictly enforced by the counselors. The family week offers more leniency, and we had some kids with minimal supervision who gather in our common room and play (loud) games or run through the hallways. The same happens at night until they are all called to their rooms. Not surprisingly, the first and the last nights were the latest ones with worn out campers heading to bed much earlier the other three nights. It’s definitely a different experience!
Parental trust extends further with the welcome to camp, as well. I remember very strict customs upon check in where our bags were examined by “customs officers” to ensure they contained no contraband – no electronics, no food, no gum, etc. For Family Week, the camp trusts parents more to ensure that kids are not sitting around reading English language books while chewing gum and texting their friends.
One of my favorite additions that we discovered is the library. There is a small lending library that villagers are welcome to frequent at camp to pick up books in Spanish. They are various levels and difficulties, and Little Miss thought it was a hoot to find something to read that she’d never seen before. It wasn’t hugely publicized, but it was there – and we took advantage! It’s isn’t huge, but it’s definitely sufficient.
Singing and dancing remain a huge part of camp. My husband and I signed up to learn the bachata (which we performed on the last night with the rest of our class) as our activity without kids. We sing before the telenovela as a “theme song” and after the meal is introduced – just like I remember. Interestingly, many of the songs at Lac du Bois were made up songs to existing tunes and/or songs that mentioned Lac du Bois within them. Sort of fun was that most of the songs we sang at El Lago del Bosque were songs I know from the radio or Zumba. I never knew the words until now, but they were tunes I definitely recognized.
Similarly, we always learned songs simply by singing them when I was a kid. We might break down the words and phrases, but it was all auditory. While this is the same for the telenovela and the before meal songs, the songs we were “taught” at our singing time had the words written out for us to reference. I haven’t decided yet if this made it harder or easier to learn and remember, but we all had fun regardless!
When I attended previously, I was always somewhat surprised that I made friends from various other locations. I had assumed that a camp in Minnesota would be filled with Minnesotans. Throughout my years there, I had friends who were from South Carolina (Hi, Farrell!), Arizona (Hi Sam!), California (Hi Ethan!), Wisconsin (Hi Margaret!) and more. Interestingly, this time around, folks from Minnesota seemed to be in the minority. Of the 69 campers, we had 3 families from Chicago. There was a family from Columbia, Missouri. There was a family from Texas, from Boston, Pittsburgh, Washington DC, Madison, and more. The appeal has definitely spread – and I love seeing Concordia Language Villages recognized throughout the country for the treasure it is.
So no, you can’t go home and have it be the same. I’ve learned that driving past my childhood home that is already so different from what I remember. The mall I grew up working in is not even recognizable. And both of those instances sadden me. Concordia Language Villages may be different in many ways, but it’s retained its character and though it is different, I’m so glad I was able to go back!