For nearly 3,000 years, the Silk Road connected trade and culture between China, India, the Arabian Peninsula, Africa and Europe.
Last week, Interstate-95 became a different kind of Silk Road, as 76 high school students from Howard County and surrounding areas traveled to New York City to practice their world language skills.
Since June 20, the high-schoolers have been participating in Howard Community College's StarTalk program, a six-week, four-credit course that teaches critical world languages not normally taught in public schools — languages such as Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and, for the first time this year, the Persian language of Farsi. The federal program is free to students.
Early on Thursday morning, July 21, the students, along with instructors and chaperons, piled into two buses to take a field trip to New York and New Jersey to put their newly acquired language skills to the test, and to learn more about the cultures they were studying.
At 64 years old, Cheryl Berman, the director of StarTalk, had more energy than most of the teenagers on her bus in the early morning light. Trying to keep her balance on the moving bus, the director of StarTalk and world languages at HCC helped Tony Rahi, an Arabic instructor with the program, get a DVD player up and running, and talked about the program.
The StarTalk program has existed at the high school level for five years, Berman said, and the students have been taking field trips for the past four.
On this year's trip, Hindi students were dropped off in Edison, N.J., with its large Indian population, and Mandarin students in New York City's Chinatown. On the second, Brooklyn-bound bus, Farsi students exited at the Brooklyn Museum of Art to observe Islamic art, and Arabic students headed for Brooklyn's Damascus Bakery.
"This is the kind of experience we look for," Berman said, as the bus crept through traffic on Atlantic Avenue and Rahi asked students to translate shop signs in Arabic. "People can look at culture through a prism, and that's how, it looks – far away and very pretty. That's not what culture is."
'We're learning a lot'
For students like Hannah Swearman, 17, of Columbia, the trip was a chance to meet the people who spoke the language they had immersed themselves in for weeks.
Swearman said she wants to be a part of Afghanistan's redevelopment, helping charities to build schools and perhaps teaching English as a second language. The rising senior at Wilde Lake High School planned to begin studying Arabic in college, but StarTalk afforded her a jump start on her future.
"I want to be fluent," she said. "I know more Arabic now, after just a few weeks of this program, than I do Spanish after two years in the public school."
Swearman's friend Claire Reardon, 16, of Ellicott City, agreed. Standing in the shade outside of Malko Karhahani Brothers, Inc., a Syrian shop crammed with shelves of cheeses and olives, and rows of spices and beans two or three deep, the rising junior at Howard High echoed Swearman's observation.
"This is so different from what we're taught in school," Reardon said. "We're learning a lot, and we're learning it quickly."
At the Damascus Bakery, as students murmured to each between shelves loaded with jars of olives and honey, Ghassan Matli, co-owner of the bakery, sent the students on their way to their next stops, which included a restaurant, with some advice.
"When you eat the hummus, the baklava, you'll be able to speak Arabic right away," Matli said. "But you have to eat them with love."
While the majority of participants in the program hail from Howard County, students from Montgomery, Carroll, Baltimore and Prince George's counties made the trek to HCC for a few hours every day. Joe Mack, 17 and a rising senior at Westminster High School, is one of those students.
"There's nothing like this at Carroll Community College, or anywhere in Carroll County," Mack said. "These are the kind of skills I need to learn, too. I want to go into the Air Force, and I've been told being fluent in another language – Arabic especially, probably – makes it a lot easier.
'I want to be a linguist'
Other students joined the program out of curiosity, and a love of language. Christy Tse, 15 and a rising sophomore at Centennial High School currently in the Arabic course, took the Mandarin StarTalk course last summer, and traveled with the group to Chinatown.
This year, she said, the experience was more immersing; the students were actually using Arabic to communicate, in contrast to what they did in tourist- and English-friendly Chinatown.
Tse can speak five languages in varying degrees of fluency, and loves exploring connections between languages and learning how they change over time.
"I want to be a linguist," she said. "Arabic, as a critical language, is really different than any of the others, and I wanted to get a taste of it."
On the bus ride back to Columbia, Rahi noted that too often, students take language courses in high school and in later years, lose any fluency they might have acquired, he said.
"We don't want them to say, four of five years from now, 'Oh, I knew a few Arabic words once,'" he said. "We want them to keep learning on their own."
'We're all the same'
Many of the students intend to do just that, and the trick to cultivating that interest is to involve students in the culture of the language, and to make it relevant to the students' everyday lives, Berman said.
"We're using things that are real to them: self, family, hobbies, food," she said, as Rahi pointed out a horse trailer in the next lane on the highway, using the moment to teach the students the word for horse. Berman laughed.
"Even if it's primitive, we've made a huge effort to pull the language in all day, and the bus ride is part of that," she said.
"If you can get them to love the experience so much, you want them at some point to find out more about it," she continued. "This is just to get them inside it to begin to understand. They're always going to remember this experience, and that's exciting. They'll take out of it what they choose, because you can't force-feed kids. But, you can expose them to the meal."
A short while later as students lobbied for a pit stop in Delaware, Rahi asked them to conjugate five verbs before stopping – the most conventional grammar lesson of the entire day. Student-centered language immersion may not be the conventional way to teach language, Rahi said, but it works.
"That whole other way of teaching, nothing sticks," Rahi said. "Language isn't all conjugating. Language is being able to get a taxi, order food, bargain, talk about your day."
Most importantly, Rahi said, language is about connecting.
"We're all the same," he said. "And we realize that when we communicate. We go up, we go down. We love, we hate. We're people."