YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids

COVID-19 tipped at least half the world over, and then we all got to sort through the mess and try to sift a life of our own out of it. For parents, remote learning—and some emergency, un-planned-for home education—has been one of the biggest transitions to negotiate.

school supplies - 1Home schooling challenges those of us who chose it enthusiastically; it’s an even taller order for those reacting to unprecedented interruptions in modern school systems. Finding the right resources can make or break parent-led education efforts. Today I’ll share my child’s experience with foreign language programs offered by Concordia Language Villages (CLV).

I’ve posted in the past about attending in person “family camp” at CLV’s German language facility, Waldsee. Learn more about summer camp here.

Waldsee Wilkommen - 1

Fast Facts about Concordia Language Villages’ online “Virtual Village” programs

I’ll format this as fast facts* in an attempt to efficiently answer the unfamiliar reader’s likeliest questions.

I’m rushing to post this before the spring semester begins for academic credit programs, because attendance is vital—and mandatory!—for those looking to earn official credits. I’ll address any follow up questions in the comments, or add an update if I discover I’ve missed covering any major questions.

What is/are Concordia Language Villages?

In 1960, a Concordia College faculty member suggested an innovative immersion program for teaching foreign languages to children. Each language gets a summer camp “village” in Concordia’s home state, Minnesota, where participants hear, speak, live, and eat according to their target culture.

Visit CLV’s Who We Are page to hear their own full answer to this question.

The key point here is the language immersion approach. Showing up at camp, kids—even complete beginners—are immediately plunged into a monolingual world in their chosen target language. CLV has spent decades building their unique pedagogy to support an efficient transition that brings children from their comfortable native language to at least basic functionality in a new one.

It’s amazing how fast that can happen in a prepared environment!

Which languages are taught at CLV?

Fifteen (15!) languages are offered in CLV’s full program, but I’ll stick with those available in virtual form in 2020-21 for this post. Those are, in alphabetical order:

  • Arabic
  • Chinese
  • Danish
  • Finnish
  • French
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Russian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

It is important to note that only the most popular of these languages are offered in the longer term, more intensive sessions at CLV.

What kind of online class is a “Virtual Village”?

First let me clarify that CLV is offering three types of virtual experience for kids. There are

  • Clubs,
  • Classes,
  • and Academic Year High School Credit programs.

Some languages offer adult learning and there’s also German family programming. Since I’ve not tried those, I can’t offer a review, but my in person Family Camp experiences with CLV have been excellent.

Most languages only offer Clubs. These meet once a week for one hour per week, and sessions are six weeks long. Consider this a playful supplement to home or school education. Clubs make sense for kids who still attend hybrid or remote school who would like to practice a foreign language or gain exposure to a new language they may be curious about studying.

CLV Classes are akin to many other “online home school” courses I’ve found for my own kids. These meet twice a week for an hour per session (30 minutes for grade schoolers); as with Clubs, a Class is a mere six week commitment.

High School Credit virtual village programs are offered in:

  • French,
  • German,
  • Italian,
  • Japanese,
  • Norwegian,
  • and Spanish.

The spring term starts soon—January 26, 2020—so don’t hesitate if you want to enroll your teen.

Because the High School Credit program is accredited and offers 180 or more hours of instruction for the full year, home schoolers can rely upon it as a complete unit of study. When my son applies to college, for example, CLV’s Virtual Credit German class will appear on his “high school” transcript alongside the courses he’s taken at local colleges.

Pupils enrolled in institutions may be able to transfer this credit to their school in order to advance levels or free up time for taking other courses, but that would be at your individual school’s discretion. I’ve had arguments with friends about the value of credit programs outside of public school enrollment when said school disdains anything they didn’t offer themselves. I can’t prove it, but I’d guess colleges will always be more impressed by the kid who studied anything extra vs. those who stuck with the routine offerings of narrow-minded, parochial districts.

Who can join Virtual Village sessions?

  • Clubs are open to kids age 8-18
  • Classes are offered for Elementary (30 minutes/week), Middle, and High school levels
  • and Academic Year High School Credit programs are for 9-12th graders.

Is a CLV virtual offering worth the steep price tag?

My family’s answer is a resounding: Yes! That doesn’t mean the numbers will add upso well for every family.

The basis for my answer? Our older child attended two weeks of Virtual Villages summer camp, in Russian and German. He has been enrolled in an academic credit program this fall, and we opted to continue with the spring session based upon the program’s quality.** Our younger child will be joining a CLV Club in January 2021.

Virtual “summer camp” weeks in 2020

One week of CLV Virtual summer camp cost $325 in 2020. We were so grateful they pulled together a program at all, and my son enjoyed participation online better than he did going in person. Note that this opinion comes from a true introvert!

Online “camp” was not really the equivalent of a traditional week on site at one of language villages, however. It wasn’t nearly as immersive. Then again, it was 1/3 the cost.

Academic Year Virtual High School Credit for 2020-21

By autumn 2020, CLV started hitting its virtual stride. Probably because there was a lot of relevant course material available from their history of hosting on site academic credit programs, this experience has been a valuable one for my home schooled kid. There are two class sessions a week, plus required homework assignments to be completed in the meantime.

A couple of mandatory book purchases were required for the year to the tune of about $35. Admittedly, I didn’t follow up on more esoteric borrowing options after ascertaining my local library was unable to supply a copy of either European title.

Be aware that CLV credit programs cost more than in state tuition for courses at our local community college. Our local community college doesn’t offer German or Russian, however. It’s more aligned to the cost of private college tuition: expensive! That said, if you have a younger teen or concerns about how your child would fit in with a mature college crowd, CLV’s program is designed specifically to educate secondary school students.

In a good language class, it’s vital for the students to mix and chat with each other. Not all 14 year olds are ready to engage in casual conversation with college students.

I’m very comfortable describing the educational value of Concordia’s unique methodology as being equal to or better than my own experience of college level language courses, which I’ve taken at three universities, one public, two private. My experience at CLV family language camp compared favorably to the most challenging, stimulating class I ever took: a semester of full immersion Japanese at Cornell University.

For dollars and cents specifics, take this comparison I pulled off the internet: Harvard University offered a 7 week, virtual due to the pandemic Chinese language class (4 college credits) for $3,340 in 2020. CLV’s Japanese language spring semester program lasts 24 weeks, offers one “high school credit,” and costs $3,860. In my planning notes from previous years, I’d noted that the CLV summer “sleepaway camp” credit for which the participant would earn high school credit cost $4,830 for the four week camp.

Comparing these programs is more apples-to-apples than looking at less sophisticated local offerings, though lucky you if you can find something better and cheaper in your neighborhood!

CLV Classes

For those who can’t even imagine spending so much on an extracurricular program—or for home educated kids who already use other resources to form the bulk of a year’s language credit—the CLV Classes might be a great fit. This is the one offering in CLV’s arsenal for which I haven’t enrolled either of my kids, so I’ll just share the posted details and price to put it in context.

A Class will meet twice per week. It costs $395 for a six week session. There are two more sessions available for registration this academic year in Spanish, for example. That would give you (2 hrs × 6 weeks) of instruction, possibly multiplied by two if your child does both sessions.

As a home educator, I use the “Carnegie unit” method of approximating how much time my kid should spend to equal a high school course. That means 120 hours of instruction. If you want to create a home school language class for your child, you would want to spend another 96 hours on other work in that language to roughly equate to a school class if you’ve signed up for two sessions of CLV Class; if this were just a spring semester course, cut that down to 36 additional hours.

I offer these numbers as a ballpark for concerned parents who didn’t intend to be home schooling, yet find themselves a year into a pandemic with under-educated children. I highly recommend free resources like Mango and DuoLingo for language skill supplementation; along with Mango access, I get Pimsleur audio CD’s from the local library for my home educated kid.

I’ve written about language acquisition tools for myself here and here and here. Presumably these same resources would be useful to teens and young adults.

CLV Club for extra-curricular, after school enrichment

Finally, the least expensive, least intensive CLV offering is the Club product. Clubs meet for one hour per week over six weeks; each session costs $195, and there are two more sessions this school year. I have enrolled a kid in one of the clubs, but it doesn’t start until tomorrow, so I can only describe the claims for now.

Campers at CLV Waldsee playing chess outdoorsClub will meet once per week, after school. It’s a 60 minute session, and it’s designed to be fun and enriching. My younger child gets a little language instruction at school, but, like most American middle schools, it doesn’t match my idea of academic rigour. I’m not expecting the Club to replace school language instruction, but to enhance it. I have a lot of trust in Concordia’s ability to make that happen.

Bottom line: why give CLV your tuition?

Growing up a middle class nerd in Oregon, if I’d have heard of the CLV program, I would have begged to attend. My parents would have told me it was too expensive! I’ve heard that a famous daughter of a president went, but I don’t have evidence for that assertion.

I highly recommend CLV’s summer camps for families that want to learn languages together, and for outgoing kids with a mild- to moderate- degrees of interest in foreign languages, or introverted kids with a passionate interest in the same. I’ve heard it argued that a family should just travel to the target nation for the same amount of money… but that will be less effective IMHO if you head to a nation where average adults speak excellent English when compared to your minimal-or-less knowledge of their tongue.

CLV has spent over 50 years developing a highly effective process for coaxing children into assimilating a new language and culture with all of their senses. The virtual programs are not quite as robust as the live experience, but they still represent an enthusiastic and thorough offering that brings knowledge to kids wrapped in a joyous appreciation for the value of cultural immersion.

The educational quality is undeniable, and the level of fun is pretty good, too. If schlepping your kids to Minnesota for an expensive camp was never a possibility, consider taking advantage of this year’s virtual offerings like my family has. Perhaps you will be as sold on CLV’s value as I am. Either way, your child will definitely further his or her knowledge of a foreign language, so long as s/he shows up and takes part in the exercises.

* Because anyone who has visited my blog before will know that I wasn’t blessed with a gift for brevity. There’s always more I want to say!

Accreditation by Cognia

For example, we would be in a position to consider enrollment in a private high school if our child hadn’t preferred home education. Subtracting tuition for CLV and community college courses, we still come out ahead financially vs. the full cost of prep schools in our region.

** Those who have studied German through the widely available Goethe Institut program will appreciate my son’s positive comparison of the CLV academic credit program with his prior level A2 Online-Kurs with that institution founded by the German government

DuoLingo rank in top 3% explains how I passed pandemic time

Perhaps because the pandemic gave me fewer distractions, I stuck with DuoLingo for most of 2020, primarily studying German and Spanish this time. I practiced there more than ever before, and I earned my longest continuing streaks.

I believe I created my DuoLingo account sometime during DS1‘s first year of home schooling, which would put that half a dozen years ago or so. My history with the platform is therefore fairly long, but my use has been sporadic. I come and go with all of my language studies, often in preparation for a trip, but I also use Pimsleur tapes and other resources, and I jump around between languages including those I started in school (Spanish, German, Japanese) but also occasionally French, Russian, or any other language I’ll be encountering in my travels.

Books foreign language learningI’ve tended to view DuoLingo as a game, a dabble, or a linguistic lark. I’m already on record on this point: I am a dilettante.

According to the 2020 Year in Review report Duo sent me this December, I ended up in this year’s top 3% of users. Who would’ve thought it? Yay, me!

DuoLingo 2020 Year in Review analysis

Whether these reports are a new feature, or if I’ve simply been “inactive” by winter in the past, this is the first time I remember receiving such a summary.

2597 minutes of language learning only averages out to about 7 minutes per day, roughly 50 minutes per week, so my minor obsession with the platform over the summer wasn’t too pathological. Nor is such a commitment sufficient, really, for anything except a nifty end-of-year ranking worthy of a self-congratulatory blog post.

Am I great at German now? Na ja, I’m afraid I still require subtitles to watch Nailed It! Germany or Dark on Netflix. Fluent, I ain’t!

Then again, the power of spaced repetition for retaining knowledge is undeniable. I’m hardly fluent in any language but my first, yet I have certainly cemented additional vocabulary in German and Spanish in 2020.

DuoLingo’s tag line is something like: “Learn a language in just 15 minutes per day.”

Analog wall clock showing 12:06The reality is that few will actually commit to the process, and almost no one can achieve fluency using any single tool. Even if you do commit 15 minutes per day to DuoLingo, you’ll be unlikely to be ready to address the United Nations without a whole lot of “something else” under your belt.

Also, the CEO is the person who invented CAPTCHAs, so there’s that working against DuoLingo’s place in my heart, too. I despise those stupid things.

Screen grab from DuoLingo showing 129-day streak achievementMany of us are susceptible to game-ification, however, so I encourage langauge learners to give DuoLingo a try. Extrinsic motivation isn’t such a bad thing for a necessary—yet repetitive—task like vocabulary study. I jealously guard my months’ long streak of continuous* days’ use of the platform. No stack of flash cards has ever kept me on track so continuously; not even the fear of low grades in college courses was as compelling as hoarding an imaginary currency called Lingots.

I’m 21 topics away from completing Level One of every available topic in German, the language I study most often on the platform. I’ll earn a completely meaningless Achievement dubbed “Conqueror” when I make it to that lofty(?) goal.

I’ve only topped out at Level Five on a single topic, Basics1 before the castle icon indicating Checkpoint One. It’s interesting, actually, recognizing from perusing the DuoLingo chat boards how some of us approach a language breadth-first, whilst others prefer a deeper dive, completing each topic up to its max in turn before moving on to the next.

I suppose the choice to do otherwise feels as obvious to other learners as mine does to me!

German has five Checkpoints or collections of topics, whereas Spanish has seven. Some languages are more popular than others, and the platform seems to offer more content for the languages users demand. Rational of them, I suppose.DuoLingo screen shot showing one more Topic to complete before Checkpoint 3 Castle is reached

I’m just shy of Checkpoint Three en español.

DuoLingo is free, so it is well worth its price. Ads are a significant annoyance when using the iOS app, but I don’t see any in the web version running on my desktop though I do employ multiple ad blockers.

The number of ads shown seemed to increase with total usage on the iOS app; I might not have kept up with it if I’d seen ads after every lesson from the beginning like I do now.

It’s worth noting that the ads in the app occur only at the end of each topic lesson, so I can and do cover my screen with my hand until the close button becomes available, and unwanted screeching video noise pollution can be silenced when it does occur. Moderately annoying still ads outnumber intensely annoying video ads on DuoLingo in my experience, but the ads to which you will be subjected are no doubt dictated by some algorithm outside my ability to predict on your behalf.Calculation of 41 weeks + 3 days times minutes per day = 417,600 minutes

I appreciate DuoLingo’s year end report for an accounting of how I spent 2597 minutes of pandemic isolation. Now if only I had such complete records for the other 415,003 minutes of it. I have some doubt that the balance was spent in so edifying a manner!

* Full disclosure: I have used a “Streak Freeze” save at least twice, so my current 129 day streak is somewhat less impressive than it looks.

FYI French has nine, Russian has five, and Hebrew has seven. You’ll have to do the resources yourself for any of the other 32 languages available to English speakers that are not in my DuoLingo queue.

Language learning gets silly: Duolingo and a love of mayo

I’ve read on the internet that some people think the worst part of Duolingo is its silly sentences.

Really? Wirklich?

Silly sentences are my very favorite part!

Screen shot of DuoLingo lesson about love and mayoA recent example?

Ich liebe dich nicht, ich liebe nur Mayo.

If you guessed that this sentence means:

I don’t love you, I only love mayonnaise,”

you would be correct.

Now the question becomes, do you love this sentence, or do you hate it?

It’s okay by me if you love this sentence and you love mayonnaise. This is a place for Really Wonderful Things, not judgement, at least so far as condiment choices go. Just don’t expect me to join you in tasting spicy hot sauces.

Condiment bottles: ketchup, mayo, mustard, harissaAt least one language learning blog complains that nonsense sentences do budding polyglots great harm. No one needs this sentence! Why study this?

And yet, for me, the process of practicing vocabulary can get a little dull. By the third repetition of the same phrase, I start to act out, if only in my mind.

Okay: more often than not, I act out outside of my mind, and by proclaiming dull stuff in loud, silly voices from my desk. My kids just adore this behavior while undertaking distance learning, as you can imagine…

Music iPod headphonesI suppose that there are dutiful users of Pimsleur and other audio language study programs who slog cheerlessly through the spaced repetition of those early, monotonous phrases.

My name is X.

I am from Y.

What is your name?

Do you come from Y?

I speak Z.

Do you speak Z?

For me, this inevitably leads to acting out these phrases in the most extreme accents and postures I can manage whilst attempting to approximate the correct “target” foreign accent in a Monty-Python-esque masquerade.

When I’m laughing, I’m learning. Rote repetition turns into a bit of fun. If I’m internalizing the correct grammatical construct, does it matter if my sample sentence borders on insanity? I expect there are lunatic speakers of every living language.

Duolingo loves to talk about ducks and what they do. It’s quirky, but I think it is actually one of the better aspects of the program. The weirder the sentence, the more attention I end up paying to an otherwise predictable practice question. Contrary to what the critics suggest, I can see differences between how the platform presents unique languages that reflect each diverse culture.

I have less loving things to say about the evolving intrusiveness of ads in the ecosystem. Duolingo is far from perfect, but very much worth its price: free.

With a little sprinkle of silly spice, Duolingo has recently kept me committed to a 58 day streak where I’m practicing two to four languages every day. There are worse ways to season one’s studies!

My level varies between 1 and 3 between each of the languages I study on Duolingo, so I’ve seen more than just the most basic introductory lessons for at least German and Spanish.

I would advise, however, that beginning a completely new language on Duolingo seems unlikely to be satisfying or particularly effective, especially where a new alphabet is required. I’ve had classroom exposure to both Russian and Hebrew, but my alphabetic weakness renders the lessons too hard on the mobile platform where you get five strikes (lose 5 ♥) and you’re cut off for the rest of the day. I only study non-Roman-alphabetized languages on my desktop computer with Duolingo for that reason: you don’t run out of hearts on the desktop! Even French stymies me in writing; silent letters are my kryptonite. Sigh.

Travel Pairings: Literature & lodging in Catalunya, Spain

What to read before making a trip to Catalunya, Spain—the region that includes Barcelona.

When I begin planning to visit a new destination, my thoughts turn first to literature. Oh, I always skim a guidebook or two, and I do the now obligatory stroll through TripAdvisor and Google’s offerings, but I go places to try to understand them. I want to get a sense of the gestalt of the community.

Who are these people? How has the local culture evolved? Why does a visit here offer up its particular sounds, tastes, and experiences?

For a bookworm like me, the answers—or at least, the first teasing tastes of truth—come most readily via literature. Whether the perspective of a book is that of an insider or a sojourner in a foreign land, the contours of the place begin to take shape as I delve into its stories.

What I read before visiting Barcelona

Black Bread by Emili Teixidor

Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas R. Hicks

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (skimmed)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti

Major Themes: Spanish Civil War and man’s relationship with food

I began my exploration of Catalan culture with one of the few novels I could find translated from that language: the award winning Black Bread. Here is a great work of literature, evocatively written, even in translation. It was a lovely read, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I do love a heavy novel bursting with symbolism, deeper meaning, and complex themes. I.e., this isn’t a beach read.

Spain Catalan book quote Black Bread - 1And here is some of what I noticed about the intersection of Spain and Travel: so very many people seem to think only of the hedonistic pleasures of warm sand and tapas when they contemplate a visit to the region. My visits have all been in late fall or winter, and my interests tend toward museums and history, so take my reckoning with that grain of salt. Continue reading

Why I study 6 foreign languages recreationally

I must begin by admitting that I’m not really a polyglot. I’ve only mastered English. I’m not even brave about using my foreign language skills with friends or strangers. My brain is piping up with answers, but my cowardly lips remain zipped.

I have been a passionate fan of the very idea of language study since childhood, however, and I dabble in a few world languages. I wish, in a theoretical way, that I could speak with every person in the world. I know. I can be a little sentimental.

In high school, I studied Spanish (four years.)

In college, I took classes in Spanish (one more year), German (one year), and Japanese (one semester.)

Outside of academia, I’ve studied Russian (6 weeks at the Boston Language Institute) and Biblical Hebrew (synagogue based adult class), plus I’ve self-studied most of the above and also French. I’ve worked to learn at least a few common and helpful phrases in both Icelandic and Catalan before specific trips. I like to be a polite visitor.

I also avoid traveling without the ability to speak sentences I’d be too embarrassed to mime. I usually begin by memorizing, “Where is the toilet?” I’ve never visited any country without at least learning please, thank you, and hello. I also try to keep at least one exclamation of delight on the tip of my tongue: ¡Qué maravilloso!

Buy why else have I spent so many hours over so many years on this exercise when I have nothing concrete to show for it since good grades on a transcript decades ago?

I can feel my brain stretching

I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so there’s no monetary gain. Then again, I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so the intellectual workout ranks right up there as its own reward. Especially when my children were very young, and their care was so mind-numbingly boring, even listening to nursery rhymes in another language offered mental relief from feed, burp, change, repeat (and, occasionally, sleep…)

When I’m really working at integrating  new language into my working vocabulary, I can feel my brain stretching. I’m probably not the only nerd who thrills from the act of intense learning. Like the high that comes after aerobic exercise, there’s an emotional payoff to brain fitness. It’s also nice to imagine your brain looking better in a swimsuit getting healthier after each session.

Languages are inherently interesting, complex structures

Studying a romance language, for me, at least, was fun and interesting, but nothing like the kind of mind-blowing revelation that Japanese presented. I’m no linguist, either, so I can’t explain this deeply, but everything from sentence structure to word classes was, frankly, foreign. Learning even a little Japanese was like re-learning how to think.

Never in my life have I taken a more difficult, more stimulating, more thrilling class than my one semester of Japanese immersion at Cornell University. At the end of every session, I felt like the hero(ine) walking into the sunset behind the credits of an action movie. Victorious, and exhausted.

I’m forced to reconsider things I thought were obvious

Even when studying languages much more familiar—the short words in German, and the long words in the Latin-based romance languages—I find it delightful to make connections across cultures. Some modern words are obvious candidates for cognates. The world is so small and interconnected now, it’s hard to imagine new words like “computer” not carrying over into languages other than English.

But I loved discovering the word for “furniture” was so similar between Spanish (mueble), German (Möbel), and Russian (мебель)—they all use consonant sounds M-B-L with vowels appropriate to the target language. Most Russian vocabulary up to that point had been so strange. It made me reflect that the very notion of owning enough household stuff to require a collective name for it could be modern. Or perhaps the idea to name that stuff came from western Europe, or the people with better stuff adopted a name from the west so the word caught on with social climbers… I’m not sure. I don’t even know if the word is older in Russian as opposed to western Europe. I sure enjoy pondering the possibilities.

And, in Japanese, the color ao means all color shades of blue to green.* That stopped me in my tracks. Color is a spectrum, isn’t it, and at some point, we decide where the stopping point is between one shade and another. But I hadn’t thought of that before. Japanese taught me that.

I could go on and on about compound nouns and meanings within my own language that only became obvious to me after I recognized some interesting facet of a word in a foreign tongue, but the point is made and my zeal for this topic probably exceeds the bounds of decency.

Making an effort is the only way to combat entropy

There’s a running joke in our family that my husband’s most hated nemesis is entropy.

I think it is accepted knowledge that mental acuity is a use it or lose it thing. That’s the exercise analogy I used earlier. I believe the battle against entropy goes even deeper than that.

Making an effort, struggling to do better, learning something new, improving communication in the smallest way… every one of these things is a creative act. Creation is the opposite of entropy. Creation is an inherently positive act.

I learn in order to make the world a better place

I learn to make the world a better place, though my small efforts may have only infinitesimal effects.

I can live with that.

*There is a modern Japanese color word for green, which I believe was introduced only after World War II when Western influence became significant during the Occupation. There are also extra color words for various shades, including some of blue and green, like we have navy and royal (blues) or spring vs. hunter (greens.) You’ll want to follow up with someone much more knowledgeable than I to get the full story on Japanese color words.