Family camp

Nestled along the wooded shores of Turtle River Lake, about 12 miles northeast of Bemidji, Concordia Language Villages is a tranquil setting for a Minnesota camp. 

But as soon as visitors arrive at the 875-acre property, they quickly find they’re no longer in Minnesota. 

At Concordia Language Villages, villagers (not campers) are quickly immersed into one of the 15 different languages spoken at the camp’s many cultural immersion programs. 

Village passports are required to cross the border into the country they’ll inhabit, complete with their chosen foreign country’s food, language and customs.  

And it’s not just the kids who can experience these immersion-style adventures.

Concordia’s weekend and weeklong family camps allow entire families to learn a new language — and culture — together. 

Preparing for travel?

Can’t afford an international trip? This is it — without the expense and without having to leave the state.

In fact, many families who plan global travel experiences often go to family camp together first to get a feel for the language and culture of the country they plan to visit. (Family camp is free for children 3 and younger.)

 Martin Graefe, senior group director at Concordia Language Villages, said family summer programs are becoming increasingly popular: Last summer the camp experienced a 65 percent increase in its family programs alone. 

Concordia also offers family camps during certain holiday breaks — such as the three-day weekends of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Presidents Day — and during the MEA break each October.

Erik Tennant of Apple Valley, brought his 16-year-old son, Ryan, to a French family weekend camp last year for the second time. He wanted an immersion-type program to complement his son’s high school French class. 

“We’re building up to a trip to France,” Tennant said. “I wanted to help him connect with the language and have it become more natural.”

“It’s super fun,” Ryan Tennant said. “It forces you to say something in French, even to get your food.”

Start them young 

Graefe said more families are recognizing the benefits of having their children become bilingual early in life when they’re at their most receptive to learning.

Overall, enrollment in Concordia Language Villages programs is up 12 percent in the past year. 

“Families understand that their kids are going to be exposed to people from around the world in today’s global economy,” Graefe said. “Parents today are much more engaged in their children’s lives.”

When children learn languages, they have an easier time than grownups because they don’t see the words as foreign. They’re just new, Graefe said.

That’s why they have a higher success rate of pronouncing words and enunciating correctly, Graefe said.

More than words

A typical day at family camp varies. 

Food is an integral part of every culture: At the Japanese camp, villagers awake to morning exercises and a typical breakfast of fish, rice and miso soup. At French camp, lunch may feature Tunisian couscous. 

Every meal at each language program is freshly prepared by staff. 

Each program incorporates music and songs — in both small and large group activities — to help villagers learn their target language. 

Each village within the camp has its own waterfront for canoeing, swimming and other water activities. (At the Swedish camp, villagers can earn a badge in sailing.) 

Languages with the highest enrollments at Concordia’s camps, in order, are Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Japanese and Norwegian. The Arabic program is small but growing and offers many scholarship opportunities. 

Other popular language camps include Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Swiss, Finnish, Danish, Italian and English. 

Making it a tradition

Nearly half of all youth who attend a Concordia Language Village camp return a year later, Graefe said. About 45 percent of villagers are from Minnesota, but the rest are from throughout the U.S. or abroad. 

Francois Fouquerel, dean of the French Les Voyageurs program, is a native of France and has taught at Concordia Language Villages since 1985. When he leads the French family camp with villagers of all ages, he speaks only French. He uses hand gestures and animated facial expressions to get his messages across, too. 

“We give people the encouragement to learn and produce things in a fun and supportive environment,” he said. “They’re going to be excited about learning French, and they will have tasted food they’ve never had. It opens your mind to other cultures, and they can take lessons from here for the rest of their lives.”


Amy Colon drove from Minneapolis to bring her 5-year-old son, Oskar, to French family camp. Her son spent two years in a French immersion preschool, and then moved onto kindergarten at a Chinese immersion school. 

Colon said learning a new language came easier to him at his young age than it did for her when she tried to learn Swedish as a teen. 

She hopes being multilingual will open doors for her son in the future with college scholarships and job opportunities. 

“It’s flipping me out how fast he’s picked up languages,” Colon said. “We’ll probably be returning to these French family weekends because it will keep him in the game. I also want to have time away with him. 

“This is a great resource in our backyard.”

Jodie Tweed is a freelance writer living in Pequot Lakes.