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. 

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