Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Concordia Language Villages, part 7: Final Thoughts

This is the final post in our series about our recent trip to Concordia Language Villages' Lesnoe Ozero Russian family camp! So far, we've discussed what CLV is and what makes it different from other language camps, how to prepare and pack for a week (or more) at camp, toured the gorgeous Lesnoe Ozero Russian camp setting, walked through a day at camp, drooled over all the delicious food, and reviewed how and what we learned during our week.

In this last post, we'll offer up our final thoughts on our experience.

What did you like best about Concordia Language Villages?
Overall, we were very, very impressed with our experience at CLV. I first wanted to come to CLV 25+ years ago. That's a lot of time to build anticipation. I was not let down. My husband originally agreed to come because he knew it meant a lot to me. He not only had a great time, but he has already enthusiastically recommended the camp to his fellow expat colleagues. Our son started camp excited to learn Russian but hesitant about the outdoor setting. His previous camp experiences were held indoors to support his more inside interests. He had a blast exploring the great outdoors.

As far as our favorite aspects, in no particular order.

1. We loved meeting the other families attending camp with us. It was wonderful to build new friendships with other globally-minded parents. I enjoyed hearing how other families are raising bilingual children and teaching them to see themselves as citizens of the world.

2. Related to that, it was so cool to see our son watch other children his age who were fluent in (or learning) another language. He vacillates between being proud of being bilingual and trying to hide it, so it's important to us that D realizes that speaking two (or more) languages is perfectly normal and that lots of kids do it.

3. Going to camp with our son gave us a unique opportunity to see how he interacts with his peers and other adults when he wasn't necessarily aware of our presence. As the week went on, he became much more comfortable with his friends and counselors and would want to be with them even though we were around. We saw his kindness, his silliness, his willingness to try new things, and his need to work on certain social skills!

4. The camp setting is simply gorgeous. My husband loved being able to enjoy the outdoors with his family. (I'm more of a glamper at this stage of life!). Canoeing was a big highlight. There were plenty of things to do, even if we ran out of time or energy to do them. And exploring the outdoors was fun for my son, who saw a turtle laying eggs, caterpillars convening on a tree, geese, loons, fish, and even a few mosquitoes.

5. Specifically, I was happy to be back in Northern Minnesota. The camp brought up lots of happy memories of summers with my grandparents, who lived only twenty minutes away for most of their lives. Even though my grandparents have passed away, I felt like I was able to connect the generations by sharing the beauty of the North Woods with my family.

6. The food was incredible! The kitchen staff really did an amazing creating home-cooked culturally appropriate food. We are adding several new recipes to our meal rotation at home because we were introduced to them at camp. I also greatly appreciated how well the entire staff (in the kitchen and out) were aware of our son's food allergies and made sure he was able to enjoy almost everything served).

7. The staff was friendly, flexible, and fluent in the target language.  Our son was overwhelmed for the first day or so, but the counselors met him where we was, and gave him individual attention to help him feel comfortable and make sure he understood what was going on. We are so grateful for that. Niels and I really loved our language lessons and learned much more than we anticipated. Special shout outs to Lara (the dean), Masha (the assistant dean), Shura (who was D's angel and kept parents in the loop), Yulia and Sambu (our family counselors), Margosha (who taught Niels and I), Ekaterina (who shares D's love of the космос/cosmos), and Dima (who took most of the photos I didn't take in this series of posts), and Tamara and entire kitchen staff who keep our bellies full and happy.

8. Being able to see our son grow more independent and confident. We talked to many parents who said that going to family camp was a way to ease into the idea of overnight camping. Our kids had a safe opportunity to explore a new setting and way of learning without feeling too far from mom and dad. We saw our son learn to play checkers, pay for treats and souvenirs at the store by himself, choose his own cultural activities, and make new friends. We say him do hard things. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn't. But he was willing to try, and we are very proud of him for that. By the end of the week, he was running around like he had lived at camp his whole life. As parents, we were able to see how camp was set up and how the one-week campers were cared for by the counselors. At six, our son is too young for a sleepaway camp, but attending Family camp with him helped us feel better about the prospect in the future.

9. We loved the variety of ways we could learn about the culture: arts, sports, songs, food, media, informal discussions...there really was something for everyone, from the youngest campers to the oldest, from those like us who were totally new to Russian culture to Russian immigrants who came to camp to learn more about or share their heritage. Related to that, we loved that camp was not just a language camp, but also a culture camp, and that the two ideas were fully integrated, because that's how the real world works when you travel some place where a different language is spoken.

10. And finally, our son realized he could survive without screen time! We are a techie family, that's for sure. We don't have a problem with our son using our iPad, phones, or computer because these devices have opened up a whole world of knowledge that we wouldn't be able to teach him. (The kids knows way more about science than I did after high school!). That said, we told him that he would not have any tech time the entire time we were at camp. He didn't ask for it and he didn't complain about it the entire week. We was having too much fun during the day and too exhausted at night! Of course, ten minutes after leaving the camp grounds, he asked to play his favorite rocket-building app!

I will say, though, that I'm grateful for the social media presence onsite. As a parent, I loved seeing photos of camp and updates on the day on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as the Lesnoe Ozero blog.

Was there anything you didn't like?

Our complaint list is pretty short. The futon in our cabin seems to be broken (it can't be re-positioned into a couch) and one of the fans wasn't working. But not a big deal. There were a few hiccups in communication before we got to camp, regarding our son's almond milk (the camp provided soy, which he loved), and during camp, when we had some confusion about where our son should be. In both circumstances, the issues were very quickly resolved. The rules about boating were rather strict, and the kayaks weren't available due to the registration tags not yet arriving. That was disappointing, but the boys did get one nice canoe ride, and honestly, we weren't at a loss for things to do. Finally, the camps are a bit out of the way (17 hours by car for us). There isn't anything to be done about it, and we wouldn't want the location to change because it's really perfect. But it is a hike so transportation costs do increase quite a bit.

Do you think you get enough value for your money? 
Absolutely! When we considered the comparable cost of our cabin, all-you-can-eat meals, available activities, setting,...and the language learning, CLV is a better deal than a week vacation at someplace like Disney or Great Wolf Lodge or a cottage near the ocean. There's certainly not anything wrong with a trip like that, but we feel that the experience we got at Concordia is a more unique experience that will pay dividends for the rest of our child's life.

Would you come back to CLV? 
We would love to come back to Concordia Language Villages. Our priority as a family to spend time every other year in the Netherlands to see Niels' family. It's unlikely that we would be able to afford both a a trip to Europe and a trip to CLV in the same year. But, we have limited time before our son would want to go to camp on his own, so we are already discussing when we can go back. We aren't yet sure if we would go for more Russian or would want to try a new language. We wish we could do them all!

How can I work at CLV?
One of the cool things about working at Concordia Language Villages is that counselors don't have to commit to an entire summer like other camps require. This means that the counselors who come tend to be older and more educated, which helps with the learning aspect of the camp. Also, the camp prefers to hire native speakers, although heritage and other speakers who have lived in countries that speak the target language are also welcome to apply. You can learn more about the positions and requirements on the CLV website.

How can I found out more about the languages offered at CLV?
Here's a handy link to the main page for each language:

The language I'm interested in studying isn't offered at CLV. How do new languages get added?

Sigh, perhaps this is our only real disappointment with Concordia Language Villages. They don't offer Dutch, our heritage language! We spoke with Lara, the dean of Lesnoe Ozero, and she told us that many of the more recent camps were started because of groups that worked with sponsors to start a camp for their language group. We have already been in communication with the Dutch embassy to discuss the possibility of a Dutch camp. Fingers crossed. 

And finally, what did your son think of camp?
Let's ask him!

And with that, the sun sets on this series about Concordia Language Villages. 

Goodbye and thank you for reading!

You can learn more about the CLV method on the Concordia Language Villages website. 

You can see more photos of our week at Lesnoe Ozero on Facebook.

Other posts in this series:
If you have any other questions about Concordia Language Villages, leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it.

I was not compensated for writing any post in this series. My motivation was to provide the kind of information I was looking to find. Consider this my very verbose evaluation. Keep in mind that our family attended the Russian camp, so some details may vary for those attending one of the other language villages. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Concordia Language Villages, part 6: What We Learned

Welcome to the latest post on our family's recent experience at Concordia Language Villages' Lesnoe Ozero Russian family camp! So far, we've discussed what CLV is and what makes it different from other language camps, how to prepare and pack for a week (or more) at camp, the gorgeous Lesnoe Ozero Russian camp setting, what a day at camp looks like, and all about the delicious food!

Today, I'm going to talk about the learning process and what we actually learned. Don't expect this to be a long Russian lesson. Instead, I want to keep the information helpful to anyone wondering if the cost of camp in any of the 15 languages offered by CLV is worth it. (Spoiler alert: we think so!)

We've had many friends and family ask how much Russian we knew before camp and how much we knew at the end of the camp. Let me start with a bit about each family member's language backgrounds.

Niels was born in the Netherlands. His native language is Dutch. Growing up, he learned English starting at a young age in school, but really became fluent by watching TV and movies. In the Netherlands TV is subtitled in Dutch, but not dubbed, so he heard English, even when he was reading the Dutch translation. The Dutch school system also introduced German and French. Before camp, Niels would say he is fluent in Dutch and English, proficient in German, and has a working knowledge of French. He knew no Russian other than da, nyet, and the names of some Russian rockets.

I (Jen) was born in the US, in Minnesota, about 3 hours from Concordia. Growing up, I had a natural love of language (I was a professional writer before my brain injury). I learned a little Spanish from Sesame Street and friends of my dad, but not enough that I felt comfortable saying anything but numbers. It wasn't until high school that I started studying French. I took two years in high school, and two years in college. Despite the fact that I was even a French education major at one point, Niels' French is much better than mine. I graduated from college with a degree in Linguistics (the study of languages). My senior thesis was a translation of John 1 in the Bible from Greek to Nepalese. I tell people that I know a little about a lot of languages, but am not fluent in anything other than English. In addition to my formal studies in French, Latin, and Greek, I also dabbled in Spanish and ASL before meeting my Dutch husband eight years ago. I would say that now my Dutch is passable. One of my greatest achievements in recent years was a trip to the store in Holland by myself, where I was able to get everything I needed, speaking only in Dutch, and without native speakers switching to English because they could tell I didn't know Dutch. Before camp, I had no Russian language knowledge, other than playing with the Lola's ABC train in Russian for a few weeks. 

Our son has been learning both English and Dutch since birth. He is several grade levels ahead of his age peers in English with vocabulary, reading, and spelling. He is on par with his Dutch peers in reading, but lags a bit with speaking and writing. He has inherited his daddy's natural ear for languages, so he speaks and reads Dutch without an accent. He has taken short intro classes in Spanish and ASL, and has had some exposure to French, German, and Russian from friends who have stayed with us at different times. Before camp, his Russian was mostly limited to space terms.

In an earlier post, I talked about some of the reasons people come to Concordia Language Villages. Certainly, language learning is a huge motivation, whether it's to get a leg up in school, to make travel easier, to communicate with family, or just out of a pure love of language. But Concordia is more than just language study. It's also about immersing oneself in another culture and exploring the food, history, arts, and unique contributions to the world that speakers of that language make to the world. As parents, we feel that one of the greatest attributes of CLV is that it partners with us in teaching our child to be a citizen of the world. 

We didn't have any expectation that we would come away fluent in Russian at the end of our week, but we did want to gain the ability to sound out Cyrillic letters, feel confident that we could have a basic conversation with Russian speakers, and learn more about a part of the world none of us has (yet) explored. In that respect, camp was a smashing success!

The teaching method is slightly different for parents and kids, but in a nutshell, kids have a full immersion experience with no English except for cases of medical emergencies or safety issues, and maybe the reflection time with the counselors each day. The camp staff recognizes that parents come for different reasons and have different needs to connect with work or home. Plus, we're older and don't learn as easily. So, there is lots of grace for us to dive in or check out as much as we'd like. 

Another reason parents are occasionally addressed in English is because at family camp, the parents are their child's primary caretaker. We don't go through counselor training, so we get an English cheat sheet to know what's going on!

On the first night, we filled out a form explaining our language experience. These were used to place us in our groups. All three of us were put in the beginner groups. 

The kids at family camp focused on speaking and understanding Russian in the same way that kids would learn their first language. We adults focused on reading as well as speaking and understanding, like we would if we were traveling to Russia and needed to be able to get around, find the sign to the bathroom and other important things. 

In our first class, we were introduced to the Cyrillic alphabet. 

And cheat sheets.

Every language has its challenges. Part of the trick with Russian is that with Cyrillic letters, some look and sounds like English letters and some are completely new. That's fairly easy. But some letters look like English letters but sound like something else. Others sound like English letters, but look different in Cyrillic. Those are the ones that will trip you up. The payoff is that many words, once you sound them out, sound like their English counterparts. By the end of our first lesson, we were already reading!

During other lessons, we decided what we wanted to study. Sometimes we translated the lyrics of the songs we sang throughout the day. Other times we worked on conversational phrases. I was impressed by how much I understood after only a few days worth of lessons. I can really see how it's possible for the four-week students to earn a year's worth of academic credit. 

One of the things that really made the linguistics major in me listen up is the way our brains process learning a new language. Our teacher told us, as we were experiencing the phenomenon, that our brains learn a second language through our first. This is why so many people feel the need to translate everything they are learning into their native language. Eventually, though, you break through that wall and can think immediately in the second language. But where it gets interesting is that you learn your third language through your second language, and so on. When I didn't know a word in Russian, my mind came up with words in Dutch I didn't even realize I knew. And now that I think about it, when I am speaking Dutch, I am more likely to sprinkle in French than English if I don't know a word. Fascinating.

Photo Credit: Lesnoe Ozero Blog
The young beginners, according to our 6-year-old, just played. Unbeknownst to him, the play was actually learning. As they played games and sang songs, Russian became more familiar. 

Photo Credit: Lesnoe Ozero Blog
But camp is more than lessons. We were surrounded by Russian words, maps, signs, and songs. We learned culture through music, videos, books, art, sports, games, nature and food. 

There is a rhythm and redundancy in our day that helps us see patterns. We learn to anticipate what's next because this is the song we sing when we raise the flag. When we hear "свет, камера, съемка!"(Lights, camera, action), and see staffers making the corresponding motions, we know that they are going to act out the components of our meal. We are greeted several times a day, formally before each session and informally as we walk around camp. 

Like anything else, you get out of camp what you put into it. If, as a parent, you are looking for a beautiful place to unwind while your kids get to learn a new language, make new friends, and have lots of fun things to do, family camp will give you what you need. If your goal is to learn a new language together, you have lots of opportunities to jump in and learn as much as you can soak up. 

Niels and I agree that one of the best parts of camp for was building friendships with other global-minded families. We loved the formal and informal discussions we had with the other parents at camp. 

Photo Credit: Lesnoe Ozero blog
By the last day, several of us were talking about staying in touch, visiting, and connecting through social media. 

This was our son's first experience at an outdoor camp. It was also his first opportunity to see what a sleep away camp looks like. Many parents attend family camp before sending their children to CLV on their own. We were thrilled to watch our son grow in confidence as the week went on. For the first day or so, he mostly stuck to us and was overwhelmed by all the activity choices. By the end of the week, he was wanting to sit by his friends during meals and gatherings. This is huge for him! He also loved being outside. My nature-loving husband is very happy with  that. 

You can learn more about the CLV method on the Concordia Language Villages website. 

You can see more photos of our week at Lesnoe Ozero on Facebook.

Other posts in this series:

If you have any other questions about Concordia Language Villages, leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it.

I was not compensated for writing any post in this series. My motivation was to provide the kind of information I was looking to find. Consider this my very verbose evaluation. Keep in mind that our family attended the Russian camp, so some details may vary for those attending one of the other language villages. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Concordia Language Villages, part 5: The Food

Welcome to the latest post on our family's recent adventure at Concordia Language Villages' Lesnoe Ozero Russian family camp! To recap, my first post explained what CLV is and what makes it different from other language camps. In the second post, I shared how to prepare and pack for a week (or more) at camp. In the third post, I took you on a (short) tour of Bemidji, MN and the gorgeous Lesnoe Ozero Russian camp setting. Yesterday's post took readers through a day at camp.

Today I will show and tell you all about the food!

I've mentioned before that my motivation for writing this series is to offer up the information I wanted to find before we decided to attend camp. There are many glowing reviews on the different camp-related sites. And the CLV website is packed with very helpful, albeit biased, information. I did find a series written by another blogger last year. Her posts on Concordia Language Villageswhy to attend, how to pack, how camp was the same as when she was a kid, and how it was now different, not only whet my appetite for camp, but also inspired more questions!

One area I was very interested in learning about beforehand was the food. I enjoy cooking and like to make foods from other cultures. The only Russian food we had had before attending camp was pelmeni, which we made from scratch when our family hosted a student from Moldova last year. (By the way, it's delicious!)

I am very fortunate that our son will eat almost anything we serve him. We weren't concerned that he wouldn't at least try new foods. (If he doesn't like something, we've taught him to still thank the chef for their work: "Thank you for making this. No more, please, I don't prefer it." It's pretty sweet when he remembers to say it). However, I was concerned for his dairy allergy.

I mentioned in the packing post that CLV does an excellent job of working with campers who have food restrictions. Our son can have dairy that is cooked, which makes life much easier than when all dairy was off-limits. I noted his allergy on his health forms and talked to someone from camp before we arrived, After our arrival, the nurse reviewed his allergy information with us, and the chef spoke to us before our first meal. Even the staffers outside the kitchen were aware of his allergies. The counselor in charge of cooking class reviewed the recipe with me to confirm what was okay, and the staffers who sat at our table each meal made sure D had safe milk to drink. I felt very confident that everyone at camp was concerned about our son's safety! 

Our kitchen staff made all the culturally-appropriate food from scratch each day. It's a huge job to make meals for the hundred or so campers and staff eating three meals and a snack or two each day, so we have mad love for this crew.

Now, with those preliminaries out of the way, let's get to the food, shall we? 


After the staff shows us what we are going to eat, the food is brought out to each table and we eat family-style. No one will go hungry at camp. Even if someone doesn't prefer the main part of the meal, there's plenty of other things to eat. That said, I'll start with my son's least favorite food from camp, каша (kasha) or oatmeal. Can you see how excited he was? He filled up on bread with jam and fresh fruit on kasha mornings.

On the other hand, his favorite breakfasts were the ones that included кексы (keksy) muffins, scrambled eggs, melon, and сосиска (sosiska) sausage. And every meal had fresh-baked bread with butter and jam.

Another example of a good morning was the day we were served hash browns and hard boiled eggs with our fruit and bread. 


Except for the night we celebrated New Year, lunch was our biggest meal of the day, and it was served in three courses. The first course was a salad or soup.

For our very first meal, we had the most well-known Russian soup, борщ (borscht). I had never tried this beet soup before, but was pleasantly surprised. My first lesson in Russian camp was that many Russians add sour cream to soup. (This explains why we used so much when our Moldovan friend stayed with us!)

Another traditional Russian soup is щи (shchi), a cabbage soup made with spinach, sorrel, dill, carrots...and topped with sour cream. The recipe came from the Russian Heritage Cookbook, which looks like a book I need to put on my wish list.

Other days we had soup that was more familiar, like cream of broccoli...

...and tomato. 

The salads we were served didn't have lettuce or spinach, but were mostly vegetable salads featuring any combination of cucumbers, radishes, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, onions, dill, and apples.

After our first course, a meat course was served. There were some vegetarians at camp and they had their own main courses available. However, there was plenty to eat even if you skipped the main course.

My favorite meal was served on the first full day, тушеная курица с капустой (tusshenaya kuritsa s kapustoy), or braised chicken with cabbage. Don't let the simplistic look fool you, it's really good. The chicken and cabbage is seasoned with dill, paprika, and cayenne pepper. I've already made this once since we've been home and it will have a regular place in our meal rotation.

We enjoyed another chicken cabbage casserole that was a big hit. I think the main difference between this one and the one from the day before is that this one doesn't have dill. Maybe. At any rate, check out that happy boy's face!

Another day we had бефстроганов (beef stroganoff). I've made this at home, so it was welcomed with gusto.

Our last lunch was smaller, so our stomachs would have plenty of room to enjoy the feast we would enjoy later that night when we celebrated New Year. We have quiche often, so we enjoyed this meal very much.

The third course was a favorite: dessert!!

On the first day, we were served some flaky cookies called quark (farmer cheese) cookies. I started to enjoy mine before I thought of taking a picture. I asked my space-obsessed son what quark was and he told me that it was the smallest known particle of matter. While that could have some implications here, this quark is actually a dairy product. We had an lively conversation about quark later in the week with some of the native speakers. Know I understand that quark is like a drier cottage cheese. It is used in both Russia and Europe (especially Germany-speaking countries), but apparently there is a distinction between the two that I didn't quite understand!

The second day we had what I thought was going to be my favorite dessert of the week, Шарлотка (sharlotka), or Russian apple cake. I will definitely be making this at home!

But the next day, there was a collective "OOOHHHH!" when this deliciousness came out of the kitchen. спартак (spartak) is a chocolate layer cake that tastes as incredible as it is looks. D has already asked me to make this for his next birthday. Fun fact: Sparktak means Spartacus, so it's also a very popular sports team name.


Our last meal of the day, with the exception of our New Year's banquet, was lighter than our lunch meal, I've read that lunch should be your biggest meal of the day, so perhaps I will try to incorporate that idea at home this summer. 

Dinner on Tuesday featured фаршированный перец (farshirovannyy perets) stuffed pepper like my mom used to make. 

Another night we had breaded pork. Every meal included a vegetable (usually served a salad) and either rice or potatoes, and bread. 

Being in Minnesota, I expected at least one meal featuring fish. I choose not to eat fish or seafood, but I think Niels ate enough for me. 

After his try-it bite of fish, D opted for a pea sandwich instead. 

New Year's Banquet

On our last full night, everyone dressed up to celebrate New Years. In Russia, New Year is an even bigger event than Christmas, which is celebrated January 7. (We were visited by Father Frost and company after our dinner feast). 

The staff worked extra hard to make lots of different salads and hors d'oeuvres for us to enjoy before the main course. 

I believe the top salad in the collage below is the traditional салат Оливье (salat Oliv'yea), or Olivier Salad. It's a mayonnaise-based salad with potatoes, peas, ham, carrots, onions, and celery.

Niels piled up the goodies on his plate, not realizing that another course as coming!

Our main course was chicken Kiev with rise. It's been a long time since I've made this at home, so I will be adding it to my meal plan this month.

Dessert was a strawberry-cranberry whipped cream jelly roll cake.

Once again, as a parent, I was grateful for the staff's awareness of our son's dairy allergy. D was served this cake, which did not have uncooked dairy. 

I tried to help him taste test it, but apparently, he didn't need my help. 


Most of our snacks were healthy options like fruit or popcorn, but one day our lessons were divided up with the presentation of Пончики (ponchiki) or donuts. They look suspiciously like Dutch oliebollen, so Niels was pretty excited to try them! (Yes, they did taste the same, and yes, they were delicious). 

Overall, the food at camp far exceeded our expectations. It's a tall order to make a week (or more!) of meals for a large group of people. I didn't expect that we would love everything, but we liked a lot. On the first night, our son asked if pelmeni would be served. He was disappointed to learn that it wasn't made at family camp. I totally get it. It's very time-consuming to make for just our family, it would take all day to make enough for everyone in camp. That's why the credit-campers make it! Many hands make light work!

My only disappointment was that we didn't leave with a book of recipes (or links). I'm working on gathering some of my favorites, so look for links to be added to this page.

In the meantime, here are a few of my new favorite Russian food blogs:

I was most pleased with the way the kitchen staff worked around our son's dairy restrictions. After the last meal, D paid his respects to Tamara, who took such excellent care of us all!

You can see more photos of our week at Lesnoe Ozero on Facebook.

Other posts in this series:

If you have any other questions about Concordia Language Villages, leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it.

I was not compensated for writing any post in this series. My motivation was to provide the kind of information I was looking to find. Consider this my very verbose evaluation. Keep in mind that our family attended the Russian camp, so some details may vary for those attending one of the other language villages. 

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