Rockland’s recent history tends to be told as an evolution from stinky, working-class port town to increasingly pricey art haven.

But it was back in 1986 when a modest former garage on Gay Street began its transformation into an international destination for language learning and cultural education.

Founded by French teacher Julia Schulz and attorney Joe Steinberger, the nonprofit Penobscot School, recently rechristened Penobscot Language School, draws local and foreign students alike for a current slate of courses in Mandarin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese and English immersion.

“It was kind of supposed to be part college, part experiment,” said Executive Director Joan LeMole, who has worked at the school for the past four years.

LeMole confirmed that the school is unusual in Maine, with the nearest equivalent found only in Portland.

In the fall, winter and spring, Mainers from the Midcoast and beyond come to pick up a new tongue or brush up on an old one in classes, typically, of just a handful of students led by a native-speaking instructor. Italian is “over and away” the most popular language, LeMole said. “People are really into the Italian culture.”

The school building has undergone renovations, and, while small, includes a library, a group room with a TV and a sleek, remodeled kitchen.

Surprisingly, the school manages to find native-speaking instructors for most of the courses – 98 percent, according to LeMole – without reaching overseas or even out of state. “We do import one from Bowdoinham,” she laughed. “It’s a challenge, but I think it’s important.” Those connections also allow the school to help educators and others elsewhere in the state find native speakers to teach or participate in cultural events.

In the summers, students come from around the world to stay with local families and immerse themselves in the English language with long days of instruction followed by excursions to museums, to take a schooner ride, to go on foodie tours or to concerts. The school offers an English course for everyday speaking, one for business English and another geared toward teenagers. Last year brought students from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Colombia, Peru and Morocco.

And in a first this year, in late June the school is running Culture Camp, two one-week sessions for kids, 7 to 13 years old, with a smattering of language learning, culinary exploration, and cultural education and games.

“Kids will visit, if you will, a different country each day with a native speaker as their instructor,” said LeMole. Portugal Day will teach campers about the country’s seafaring culture and give them a chance to go sailing, then head back to the school to grill some Portuguese fare, while on Italy Day they’ll make carnival masks and pasta from scratch.

Culture Camp runs from June 21 to 23 and June 26 to 30 this year, which means there may still be time for aspiring globetrotters to sign up for the second week.

Throughout the year, the school functions as a conduit of global culture feeding into the area’s bloodstream.

Events organized by the school include meals inspired by cuisines from around the world, sometimes accompanied by a talk. In July, an English immersion student from Ecuador will cook an Ecuadorian meal with Louise MacLellan-Ruf, followed by a talk entitled “Peoples of Ecuador and Their Traditional Knowledge.” A Persian meal is planned for September.

During the foreign-language semesters, the school holds free language lunches for anyone to walk in and join. “Anyone can come to those,” explained LeMole. “Free of charge, bring your lunch, we’ve got coffee and tea, hang out and speak Italian. You know, same with Spanish and same with French.” The informal sessions take place after the language classes and are attended by the instructor, plus any students who decide to stick around.

These examples cover just a fraction of the events the school holds, which LeMole herself had a hard time tallying. “We try to have something going on all the time,” she said. The school often collaborates with local organizations and individuals, such as the Camden Conference.

LeMole acknowledged that there are some difficulties in running a small, nonprofit language school in Maine — two others, in Waterville and Surry, have closed in recent years. But she called Penobscot Language School "a thriving place," and its level of activity seems to match the description.

Reporter Dan Otis Smith can be reached at 594-4401 x123 or by email at