Craig Benjamin Jr. said that before enrolling in Howard County schools' Chinese Summer Learning Camp, he knew how to say "hello" in Mandarin. In fact, many kids know "ni hao" because it's part of the name of the popular children's television series, "Ni Hao, Kai-Lan."

But the rising fourth-grader now also knows how to count to 100, say his first name and denote each ocean — all in Chinese. He is among several dozen of the county's schoolchildren who have spent the summer immersed in the program that school officials hope will be the first step in offering a foreign language program in elementary schools.

Howard County's public schools received a grant from the federal government initiative STARTALK to teach its elementary and middle school children Chinese this summer. It comes as the county's board of education approved a pilot program next school year for Laurel Woods and Waverly elementary schools for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

The school system's office of world languages is offering two camps that focuses on marine life themes, where students learn Chinese through studying types of sea animals as well as exploring currents and efforts to save bays. School officials say that focusing on a topic is more effective than merely teaching a general vocabulary. The four-week STARTALK camp concludes Friday.

"I've counted to 100 to my parents. It's really fast when you can get the hang of it," said Craig, who attends Running Brook Elementary. He said his first name is pronounced "Guige" in Chinese. He pointed out that while he knows about the show "Ni Hao, Kai-Lan," he watches only because "I have no choice. I have a 2-year-old sister."

STARTALK has also given language-instruction grants to Howard Community College. Howard is the state's only public school system to receive a STARTALK grant this year for elementary and middle schools, school officials said.

Deborah Espitia, Howard's world languages coordinator, said that as part of the pilot program next year, students will receive a semester of Spanish and a semester of Mandarin. She said that the curriculum will be based on science themes.

"What we're doing with STARTALK is a good preface for that," said Espitia. "We try to immerse the kids in the language so there's very little English spoken. To do that, you have to be able to show pictures or artifacts or act things out for it to make sense to the students, so it's not just a jumble of words and sounds."

Iris Chao, instructional lead for the camp's elementary school program, said that each day the students were immersed in all things Chinese, learning the language by conducting science experiments, makings arts and crafts, and playing games. They also participated in technology/computer lessons and even learned martial arts.

She said that lessons in Chinese language and culture began as soon as students arrived.

"We all gather in the cafeteria to do our morning exercise that schoolkids do in Taiwan or China," Chao said. "Students then walk to the classrooms where teachers stand at the door and greet them in Chinese and shake their hands, saying 'Ni hao' in Chinese. Students respond by saying, 'Laoshi hao,' which means 'Hi, teacher.'"

"I've already taught some [Chinese] to my parents," said Abby Sartore, a rising fourth-grader at Centennial Lane Elementary. "I've taught them colors and numbers."

Amanda Egebrecht, a rising eighth-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School, said she has studied Spanish in school and sought to learn another language. "I wanted to broaden my horizons of culture," she said. "Spanish is more Latin-based, like English, so it's easier to learn. Chinese is not really Latin-based, so it's harder."

Espitia said that the county board of education is expected to revisit the proposal for world languages in elementary schools in the spring and make decisions the following school year.

She said that students in the camps who aren't attending Waverly or Laurel Woods elementary schools can retain what they've learned by logging on to a school website that will feature recordings of what instructors have taught this summer.

Raul Cordero, a rising sixth-grader at Harper's Choice Middle School, said that during the year he will retain the information by reviewing notes and papers from the class.

The students appear primed for immersing themselves in Chinese language and culture at a time when the county is growing more racially and culturally diverse.

"Even if for some of the students they say, 'My mom signed me up for this,' later on they're enjoying the experience and the opportunities," Espitia said. "Sometimes the level of enthusiasm is tied to your success. That's our goal, to make everyone feel successful at learning this language."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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