French Immersion: My Happy Place

Sometimes when my anxiety is a little too much to handle, I take a moment to close my eyes and go back to my happy place. A place of sweet grass, mosquito spray, and deep blue waters. A place of growth, frustration, and empathy. A place of culture, education, and silliness. A place of tears from laughter, singing, and always dancing. A place of being free. A place of being 100% myself. A place of finding the sun in the hearts of children. A place I never ever want to leave. Lac du Bois.

The main building of Lac du Bois, "Paris", photo by Jean François

The main building of Lac du Bois, “Paris”, photo by Jean François

Lac du Bois is a summer camp in Bemidji, Minnesota. It’s part of Concordia Language Villages, which is a larger program that has 15 villages (campsites) set up around the lakes of Minnesota. Each village has its own language and the buildings within each site are designed with authentic architecture from countries that predominantly speak that language.

Concordia Language Villages sign, photo from google.com

Concordia Language Villages sign, photo from google.com

The goal of these camps is to teach language through immersion as well as prepare young people for responsible citizenship in global communities.

Each summer, all of the camps come together to interact at an event called “International Day.” At International Day, each camp sets up a booth serving foods from countries of their language or has games set up for others to play that are native to countries that speak their language. They even have a “World Cup,” where each camp forms a soccer team and they all compete.

International Day 2014, photo by Julia Schaller

International Day 2014, photo by Julia Schaller

Lac du Bois is the French language village, and is one of the greatest places on Earth.

I first went to Lac du Bois when I was 11 years old. My family heard about the camp through friends of my parents, and my parents both decided it would be a good opportunity for my sister and I. My parents enrolled my sister and I up for a two week, overnight session. We all drove up to Minnesota together and when we pulled our car up to the camp, a counselor greeted us at the window of the car and spoke exclusively in French.

It was terrifying! My dad had taught me some french when I was really young, and my parents put my sister and I in French classes when we were growing up, but I was not ready for complete sentences or even answering questions.

After my parents left, I was hopeless. I had nothing to hide behind and there was no longer someone to speak to the counselors for me. I felt naked and embarrassed. The first night was rough.

Throughout the second day, I bonded with girls in my cabin and from around camp and from then on, I was in my happy place. I learned more about french language and culture in those two weeks than I had ever before in my life. I made lasting friendships. I laughed until I cried, and I cried on the last night with my cabin-mates wrapped in my arms.

Extremely embarrassing photo of my cabin, Lac du Bois 2008

Extremely embarrassing photo of my cabin, Lac du Bois 2008

I then went back to camp for the next four summers. My fifth summer, I went to Lac du Bois for a month as part of their “Credit” program, which earned me high school French credit. They say that one will learn more French in one month at Lac du Bois than potentially a whole year in school (hence why they offer the credit program). They were right.

Language immersion is said to be the best way to learn a language and culture, and it is 100% true. I spoke more French at Lac du Bois than a full year of French class in public school. I was forced to use the language to communicate, since the camp was total immersion.

The counselors are only allowed to speak in the target language, and even the food is francophone authentic. Counselors and villagers come from all over the world. There are always counselors and villagers from the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, Canada, and India, as well as other countries.

Villagers are put into classic summer camp activities like canoeing or soccer, but they are also put into language learning groups. These language learning groups focus on a francophone region or time period and are more education based (but always include crafting, dancing, and interactive games).

Activité Canoé, Lac du Bois 2012

Activité Canoé, Lac du Bois 2012

The entire camp is sort of one big simulation. The counselors put on a show for the villagers, and it’s the most fun show I’ve ever been a part of. There is continuous dancing, multiple skits every day, and songs about everything (even about baguettes at dinner!).

Last year I applied to be a counselor, and I got the job. I went back to my favorite place in the world for my 6th summer, and had the time of my life. This time, I was the one required to speak exclusively in French and I was the one teaching others about francophone cultures and about the language. I was the one helping villagers cope with their frustration and homesickness. I was the one teaching the songs and dances. And, the amount I learned about other countries and French language, was way more than I ever thought.

Journée Sénégal, Lac du Bois 2014

Journée Sénégal, Lac du Bois 2014

In an article posted in the New York Times, author Sindya N. Bhanoo discussed how language immersion is more beneficial than learning through a formal classroom setting. In a study in the journal PloS One, scientists tested the brain patterns of subjects who learned a language through immersion vs. in a classroom. The tests showed that the subjects who learned the language through immersion had the full brain patterns of a native speaker, while the subjects who learned the language in a formal classroom setting did not.

The camps of Concordia Language Villages are hands-down the best way to learn a language. Being fully immersed in anything is the best way to learn, empathize, and adapt to it. Even a two week program makes a difference.

The lake of Lac du Bois, photo by Alyson Kriz

The lake of Lac du Bois, photo by Alyson Kriz

In the middle of the woods by the lakes of Minnesota lies little villages that change the way people see the world. These programs really do cultivate global leaders, global thinkers, and peaceful communities.

Pegida and the Future of Islam in Germany

The movement called Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) has dominated headlines in Germany for months. News reports and blog posts have quieted down in February, so what now? Did the Pegida movement enjoy a prolonged fifteen minutes of fame and will soon fizzle out? Or are we merely witnessing a temporary lull in activity, before the movement once again forces itself into the headlines?

The Sprengsatz blog provides short, well-defined commentary on politics in Germany, and has commented frequently on the issue of Pegida. The blog’s author, Michael Spreng, maintains that Pegida is finished. A combination of factors has led to Pegida’s fading. Mr. Spreng is quick to point out that Pegida’s fall is more the result of self-destruction than the reaction of Germany’s leading political forces. The latter’s attempt at addressing the Pegida issue has been poorly coordinated and at times contradictory. For readers unfamiliar with Pegida, its talking points can be boiled down to this: Muslims and mass numbers of immigrants are subverting Germany’s economy and culture. This complaint is not new; from intelligentsia on down to neo-Nazis and hooligans, the idea that Muslim immigrants are burdening the German state has existed for decades. What sets Pegida apart is its membership from many different social groups. Such a large number of people demonstrating in the streets for a common cause, one as divisive as this, were bound to gain media attention.

Pegida protesters on the march

Pegida protesters on the march (Photo: Zukunftskinder)

Pegida’s apparent strength in numbers hasn’t gone unquestioned, and Spreng is quick to point this out. He distinguishes those caught up in the furor of Pegida as either Anhänger or Mitläufer. The difference is an important one, given that an Anhänger is someone who fully supports a movement. Mitläufer tend to be people who are involved in a movement but whose commitment and conviction is tenuous at best. Spreng considers a large portion of Pegida’s so-called followers to actually be Mitläufer, which is significant in that it means the number of people who actually believe in Pegida’s platform is smaller than people realize.

When it comes to the establishment response to Pegida, Germany’s two leading political parties, the CDU and SPD, have shown a surprising disunity. Standing up against racism and bigotry is a mutual priority for both parties (in the broadest sense the CDU is conservative and the SPD is liberal). While Chancellor Merkel (CDU) has unequivocally rejected what Pegida represents, members of her own party have shuddered at her assertion that “Islam belongs to Germany.” Countering the Chancellor’s assertion was the governor of Saxony, Stanislaw Tillich (CDU), who retorted, “Islam does not belong to Saxony.”

The contradictions continued within the SPD as the party’s General Secretary utterly rejected any notion of holding a dialogue with Pegida. Strikingly, Sigmar Gabriel, an SPD member and Vice-Chancellor in Merkel’s government, chose to meet with Pegida supporters (Spreng uses Anhänger, meaning that Gabriel met with devoted members of the movement). Spreng’s contempt for this is plain to see, and he refers to such actions and contradictions as “spineless” and “opportunistic”

The issue of Pegida would perhaps be less complex were it not for its timing. Pegida’s arrival could not have come at a better time for the AfD (Alternative For Germany), Germany’s Euro-skeptic party. The AfD has had its own share of controversy and accusations of having intolerants within its ranks, but that has not stopped them from making electoral gains. What connects the AfD and Pegida is the issue of immigration. With the appearance that Pegida was gaining popular support from regular, fed-up Germans, the AfD sought to capitalize on the moment and join forces with Pegida. In this regard both Pegida and the AfD are populist movements, whose emergence Spreng again attributes to social and financial angst.

With the CDU and SPD providing confusing and unorganized responses to Pegida, and with the AfD actively seeking to fan the flames of populism, what more could possibly assist in Pegida’s rise? Enter Charlie Hebdo. The terrorist attack in Paris was as tragic as it was inopportune. The tragedy transcends the deaths of innocents in that those seeking to advance a narrative use those same deaths as fodder. Germany’s far-right political forces, both big and small, fringe and legitimate, have sought to describe the Paris attacks as motivated by an entire religion and culture: Islam. Before this situation could progress any further, action had to be taken.

Vigil against terror

Political and faith leaders rally in solidarity after the Charlie Hebdo attack (Photo: DailySabah.com)

Thus Angela Merkel flew to Paris and walked in solidarity, with a throng of other world leaders, for the victims, for free speech, and to show defiance against extremism. What was striking was to see the leaders of France and Germany, historically not the best of friends, tightly linking arms and walking together for a common cause. Merkel then moved quickly to quash whatever xenophobia may have been simmering back home. In front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Merkel stood with fellow German leaders and leaders of Germany’s main religious groups, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and asserted the official position that what occurred in Paris was not indicative of an entire religion’s goals. On the contrary, Merkel has promoted the narrative that extremists who would or have committed terrorism, have perverted the teachings of Islam. Lastly, Merkel addressed Muslim leaders in Germany by declaring that members of the Islamic faith have a responsibility to assuage the fears and bias the German people may hold against them. That process includes an outright repudiation of extremist and fundamentalist ideology. To my surprise, Mr. Spreng gives Merkel full support for her actions, stating “Merkel has done everything right,” and asserting that the Pegida issue is or very soon will be over. Pegida’s founder, Lutz Bachmann, was recently ousted after a picture of him surfaced sporting a Hitler moustache and hairstyle.

Founder and former leader of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann

Founder and former leader of Pegida, Lutz Bachmann. Photo: The Guardian

Bachmann’s indiscretion and the AfD’s beginning to show a lack of support are contributing to what Spreng refers to as the “self-destruction” of the movement. He describes it as an issue worthy of only a footnote in the history books. I am not so convinced. Europe is facing some very tricky situations: terrorism, the financial crisis, the Ukrainian civil war, immigration, social issues, and even the fight against ISIS. Any one of the preceding issues could be the spark that ignites further upheaval on the political fringe. What will be left to be seen, is whether such an upheaval will activate the passions and frustrations of the general population and influence elections.

Korean-German Identity: An Interview with Suin Roberts

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Korean nurses pictured outside of St. Johannes Hospital in West Germany

In my last post, I wrote about the German Village, a community of elderly Korean repatriates from Germany on Namhae Island in South Korea. My inspiration for the post stemmed from a recent series of articles in The Korea Times about the nearly 20,000 South Koreans who went to West Germany in the 1960s and ’70s to work as miners and nurses in the wake of the Korean War. Although they were originally under obligation to leave Germany after 3 years, many stayed and started families. As a result, there are 30,000+ people of Korean heritage living in Germany today. To put that in context, that’s the 14th largest Korean population living outside of Korea worldwide and the  2nd largest Korean population in Europe behind the U.K.

Featured in the fourth and final article in the Korea Times’ series on the subject is Suin Roberts, associate professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. Dr. Roberts was born in Germany to a Korean miner/nurse couple who decided to stay. She has also written a book called Language of Migration: Self- and Other-Representation of Korean Migrants in Germany and graciously agreed to do the following interview about her personal familial, cultural, and linguistic background for this blog. I’ve compiled a few additional resources for anyone who is interested in learning more about South Koreans in Germany, including a German-language Deutsche Welle article on the question of integration for second-generation Koreans, an English-language post on where to experience Korean culture in Berlin, and a dual German- and Korean-language online forum for cultural exchange.

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Suin Roberts

RK: Your parents were a miner and a nurse who came from Germany in the 1970s, correct? Did they meet in Korea or later, in Germany?

SR: My parents were from South Korea and actually met in Germany. My mother (from Gwangju) went as a nurse and worked in a psychiatric hospital in Langenfeld (in fact, she is still employed there) and my father (from Seoul) worked as a miner in Aachen. Later, he retrained and became an electrician and worked for Bayer (Leverkusen).

RK: What brought your parents to Germany, and why did they decide to stay? Were they involved in the 1977 protests?

SR: My parents had decided to leave Korea for economic reasons and a feeling of wanderlust. They needed to earn money for themselves and their families back in Korea and saw the recruitment to Germany as an opportunity: It was something that could help them escape struggling post-war Korea and in addition to that, it would allow them to see and explore Europe.

During the time of the 1977 protests, they had already been living in Germany for several years. Even though neither of them had originally planned to stay in Germany, they decided to stay, because they had met each other and started a family together. At the time, quite a few Korean nurses, who had already worked in Germany for at least three years, were looking into immigrating to the US. My mother had also applied to a hospital (and received a contract offer) in Chicago, but in the end, my parents decided to stay in Germany, because they thought that the healthcare system in Germany was better and more reliable at the time.

RK: What was the linguistic environment in your home like when you were growing up? How much Germans did your parents speak, and how much Korean did you grow up speaking?

SR: I would say that I was certainly a native speaker of Korean during my first few years, but I don’t remember myself as one. My memory only goes back to preschool (Kindergarten in German, so children between 3-6 years in Germany attend Kindergarten) and by that time, I was completely fluent in German. As long as I can remember, I have always spoken German with my parents. While my parents spoke both, Korean and German, at home, I have always felt more comfortable speaking German with them than Korean. I believe that my parents tried to use more German at home in the beginning, because back in the 1970s and 1980s, migrant parents were told to speak German at home so that their children wouldn’t struggle in school. I did attend a Korean Friday school (a few hours of Korean language instruction provided by a local Korean association), but of course, this type of school was more about socializing with other Koreans and less about language learning. So, not surprisingly, my friends and I would always end up speaking German during recess.

In retrospect, I spoke very little Korean growing up. My interest in Korea and the Korean language is more recent, maybe since graduate school, when I took Korean-language classes and started to explore K-Pop culture.

RK: What was the general attitude toward Koreans in Germany while you were growing up, and what is it now? How does it compare to attitudes in America?

SR: In my home town (ca. 50,000 people), there were only a handful of Korean families while I was growing up. My experiences were mainly positive, which means that I didn’t experience any open racism or discrimination. However, I was teased on playgrounds once in a while for my “exotic” appearance. Overall, however, the general attitude towards Koreans during that time was neutral, I would say, ranging from indifference to friendly interest. Either way, one was perceived as a foreigner (Ausländer) most of the time.

Today, I believe the attitude towards second- and third-generation Koreans in Germany has become more accepting, in that one is now being perceived as a German with migration background rather than an Ausländer. Or to say the least, we are in the process of moving towards this attitude.

Korean-Americans have had advantages: 1. The US has always been perceived as a country of immigration. 2. Citizenship laws are based on ius soli (which Germany (partly) introduced only recently), 3. The English language allows for hyphenated identities (Korean-American), whereas in German, one always has to choose one identity over another  (e.g., Deutschkoreaner). Hence, Koreans in the US may have had a different, maybe smoother road to travel on in terms of identity construction…

RK: Did you grow up surrounded by a Korean community? What is your sense of cultural and national identity?

SR: As I have mentioned, my immediate, local Korean community was very small, however, my hometown is situated between Düsseldorf and Cologne, which boasted bigger Korean communities. I did grow up within a network of Korean family friends. So, there were gatherings and get-togethers, where I heard Korean and had Korean food. There were also fieldtrips and yearly cultural events, which we usually attended.

In terms of cultural and national identity, I believe cultural identity supersedes national identity. While in Germany, where I lived my first 24 years of my life, I felt mostly German, however, also Korean in terms of values and mentality. My lack of Korean language skills kept me from pursuing a stronger Korean identity.

While I have lived in the US now for the last 13 years, I have felt mostly American even though I don’t have American citizenship (yet). But life in the US has shaped me culturally and linguistically. I feel as comfortable speaking English as I do speaking German. Actually, when it comes to my research and work, I prefer speaking English.

How would I self-identify? In terms of national identity, it’s a matter of passports for me. I have a German passport and I have applied for American citizenship, so soon I’ll be a dual citizen. But in terms of cultural identity, I have become a Korean-German-American, in that particular order with the focus being on American.

RK: Have you ever traveled to or lived in Korea? Are you close to extended family members living in Korea?

SR: I have spent two summers in Korea during my teenage years, and most recently, I have been to Seoul in 2008 for conferences and in 2013 for an invited lecture at the Goethe Institut. I would like to go more often and actually, I’d love to live there for a while. Korea has changed so much over the years. It’s become such an interesting place in terms of culture, architecture, nature, etc. It has a lot to offer, and I’d like to explore it more.I have uncles, aunts and cousins, and friends in Korea, with whom I try to visit whenever I am there. Recently, we’ve been communicating on a weekly basis via Kakaotalk, a text messaging app. It is exciting to connect this way.