Emily and Teo Valdes lead a Spanish immersion camp at Booker T. Washington State Park, known as the El Pueblo Spanish Camp.

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Students are immersed in new language at Language South summer camp

"Rapido, rapido," a tall boy says as he steps forward, urging the line of five other adolescents behind him to move quicker as they dance under the tree canopy at Booker T. Washington State Park.

Miles, 14, or "Maximo" as he's known here, quickly crosses his feet back and forth over each other, mimicking another student's lead.

The students are preparing for a skit, or a sketch, as it's known in Spanish, as their week at Language South's El Pueblo Spanish Camp winds down.

Though dancing, skits, crafts and games are all traditional summer camp activities, El Pueblo is a camp with a twist. Run by Language South and its founders, husband-and-wife team Teo and Emily Valdes, the camp is conducted entirely in Spanish, one of Chattanooga's two language immersion camps taking place this summer.

"There's no better way to learn a language," said Emily Valdes, as her husband added, "Learning happens best when it takes place with 'risas y sonrisas,'" or laughs and smiles.

The Valdeses met while working at a language immersion camp, Concordia Language Villages, in Minnesota. Emily Valdes attended Concordia's Spanish language summer camps in Savannah, Georgia, and traveled to Spain while she was in high school. Teo Valdes grew up in Orlando with a father who spoke broken Spanish in an English-speaking household.

"I went to a Spanish immersion camp as a young teen. Spanish camp was a place where I grew as a person and also fell in love with the joy of communicating in another language and connecting with other cultures," Emily Valdes explains in a news release.

The two dreamed for years about opening an immersion camp in Chattanooga.

"Language immersion camp allows campers to experience success with a new language in a supportive and fun environment," Teo Valdes said in the release. "We believe there's no better place to start or continue your language learning journey. Campers don't need to be nervous about being immersed in the language because all of our staff are trained in making themselves comprehensible."

After Emily Valdes quit her full-time teaching job at Brown Elementary School, she and her husband launched Language South and she started teaching part-time at Chattanooga School of Language. They recruited 16 counselors from across the country, developed a partnership with the J.A. Henry YMCA and put in a lot of their own money, Teo Valdes said.

"It's crazy to be here on our last day," Emily Valdes said Friday as her husband reflected on how the week had gone much better than he expected.

Miles is one of 45 campers who participated in the weeklong sleepaway camp. The students ranged in both ages and language abilities — some of them are native Spanish speakers and some had to start by learning how to say "hello," or "hola," on Day One, Emily Valdes said.

"Being bilingual, I think it's such a benefit, because you understand more people," said Miles, who is a rising ninth-grader at Chattanooga Center for the Arts.

Miles, who was able to attend the camp thanks to a scholarship sponsored by the J.A. Henry YMCA, which also provided some of the camp's meals and snacks, said the week was "mind-blowing."

"I'm loving the love here," he said. "Meeting new people and learning new cultures. It's all new to me I have a new door open to me now."

The students stayed in cabins, or "casas," divided by gender and age, and spent their days participating in a variety of activities. Though the counselors mostly spoke only in Spanish, students were not expected to do so. Although, some would pledge to only speak Spanish for a day and would don a special badge that said "Super Espanol."

The counselors, some of whom have worked at other language immersion camps, said El Pueblo was a unique opportunity for campers.

The language lessons and other activities the counselors led were all aimed at bringing in culture, but also tying it into the theme of being "lifelong learners and lovers of language and culture," said camp counselor Alice Mendez said.

"The opportunity to step outside their comfort zone, especially since they are so young and don't have the opportunity to travel and learn about these cultures, it's an invaluable treasure for them," Mendez said.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.