Ahead of its Time
When Sen Lin Hu, the Chinese Language Village, rounded up a few dozen villagers for its first session 25 years ago, there was only one Chinese immersion school in the country. When elementary and high schools were still emphasizing mostly European languages, Concordia Language Villages expanded its program to include the world's most commonly spoken language.
"In the summer of 1984, a day didn't go by that we didn't get phone calls and requests from news organizations and individuals because we were such an oddity," says Patricia Anderson, Sen Lin Hu's first dean. "At the time, the most prevailing question was, why on earth would you want to study Chinese?"
As China opened up to the rest of the globe and rose as an economic superpower, the reasons to study Mandarin have since become strikingly clear. Preparing young people for careers, travel and global interaction point again and again to the study of Chinese.
"It was very forward thinking," says Anderson, who now is a Chinese language instructor at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. "There were enough innovative thinkers who knew Chinese would play an important role in the future of our country."
Today, Sen Lin Hu is one of the Villages' fastest growing programs, sporting one-, two- and four-week sessions, as well as preschool, family, adult and teacher offerings. Villagers can also continue their Chinese studies as college students at Concordia, which recently added a minor and major featuring a study abroad program at Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, China. Now in its third year, the Chinese program has nearly tripled its number of students.
Concordia Chinese assistant professor Dr. Tao Ming, who also taught a few weeks at Sen Lin Hu during the summer, says his college students quickly learn that the Chinese language isn't nearly as difficult as they imagined. He breaks it down for them in daily one-hour lessons.
"Few people had access to studying this language before," says Ming about Chinese as a second language. "But my students aren't overwhelmed. It's much easier than they thought. My job is to crack that mystery for them."
That demystifying happens right before your eyes at Sen Lin Hu. One morning, during a small group session, the main gathering building on the Village's Cass Lake site has become a theatre. A group of five girls and three boys laugh and whisper to each other as their camp counselor turns on the CD player for the second time. As the music starts, they sway to the tune and begin singing along in Chinese, telling the story of two people who fell in love. They belt out the chorus and their counselor watches from the side of the stage, giving them cues for dance moves and a few words. They're practicing for a performance for the entire Village, likely not even realizing how much Chinese they're learning in the process.
"It's fun and exciting and they love to be here. It's such a happy experience," says Jeff Lamb, a dean at Sen Lin Hu and a former villager. "But it's also learning while doing, actually being involved in the process. We're teaching all of the time in everything that we do."
Like the theatre lesson that morning, swimming, boating, tai chi, pingpong, crafts and calligraphy serve as vehicles to make Chinese a very real and usable language for the young people. The same holds true for bringing to life the Chinese culture through hands-on experience with customs, art, food and, of course, language.
"We have native speakers who come directly from China and Taiwan. They bring what's most current in Chinese culture," says Patricia Thornton, director of summer youth programs. "We want to teach not just the ancient but the very modern, too. We want villagers to understand the longevity of the Chinese culture."
As Sen Lin Hu celebrated its 25th year with a special ceremony during International Day in July, Anderson couldn't help but reflect on the number of young people's lives changed by their time at the Village - including her own. She's since spent her entire career teaching Chinese, proud to have played a role in leading the movement.
"Early on, the Chinese Language Village was not thought to explode the way that it has," Anderson says. "That has a lot to do with how Chinese language programs have exploded across the country. Now the prevailing question might be posed, why would you not want to study Chinese?"
Story: Amanda J. Peterson / Photos: Crystal Mohr/Briann Koterba
Facts About Chinese
- World's most widely used language
- Member of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages
- Spoken as a native language by more than 880 million people - or one out of every five people
- Official language of the People's Republic of China, including Hong Kong and Macau
- One of six official languages of the United Nations
Spoken by more than 5 million people in North and South America