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A summer spent learning a new language at Howard Community College

In Jason Rodriguez's classroom at Howard Community College, high school students who began learning Arabic just four weeks ago speak almost entirely in their new language.

"Kayf halik," student Jonathan Hosh said to a visitor.

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"That's 'how are you' in Arabic," said the college's world languages chairwoman, Claudia Duggan.

The students are in their fifth and final week at Startalk, the community college's summer language program for ninth- through 12th-graders.

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Funded by a grant from the National Security Agency, the college credit program provides about four hours of immersed learning in Arabic or Mandarin Chinese per day, four days a week.

Howard County elementary and middle school students show off their drone-piloting skills to their friends, family and instructors from Baltimore-based Global Air Media during the last day of drone camp at the Forest Ridge Apartments Black Student Achievement Program in Columbia.

"In a traditional classroom, there's not this type of immersion, there's not the activities — we have sports day, we go on field trips in which we speak in the target language to everyone we meet," said Maryam Elhabashy, a former Startalk student who is working as an Arabic teaching assistant for the program this summer.

"The students kind of know that the language they're learning in the classroom can actually be implemented and understood outside of the classroom, which is something I don't think most students have access to," she said.

Most students in the United States don't have access to Arabic or Mandarin Chinese learning either. Both are on the U.S. State Department's list of languages that are important to national security but not commonly taught in American schools. They are also two of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

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Elhabashy, who is an upcoming senior at Centennial High School, said she enrolled in Startalk's Arabic courses because she grew up with the language — her dad speaks it — and also because "it's become such an important language, globally."

Startalk takes a practical and interactive approach to language learning, said Rodriguez, a former student in the program who is working as an Arabic 101 instructor this summer.

At Terrapin STEM Camp at St. Mary of the Mills School in Laurel, elementary school students take part in hands-on science activities, from designing LEGO robots to working with 3D printers to touching and holding "creepy crawlers."

"At the end of five weeks, students can't communicate a lot of complex ideas, but they have the basics and fundamentals of having a conversation, or developing a conversation with someone when you first meet them," he said.

"I like that it teaches you things that are useful, like bargaining," said Tineer Ahmed, an upcoming senior at Howard High School and Arabic Startalk student.

During a class last week, Rodriguez and his teaching assistant Yousef Majid pretended they were the owner and waiter at a restaurant and that their students were customers. Majid took all of the students' orders in Arabic.

"We had some plastic potatoes, because we don't have actual food," Rodriguez said. "But the students went along with it perfectly. They had a conversation at their table, in Arabic, about what their parents do and their likes and dislikes."

These types of activities help students to know vocabulary words, instead of just memorizing them, said Majid, a former Startalk student who is an upcoming senior at Howard High School.

"You kind of have that sentimental feel, where you remember it for a long time — not just for the time being," he said.

The activities at Startalk also teach students cultural knowledge and context for the languages they're learning, Rodriguez said.

"If a student was to continue their education of Arabic, there's a high probability that they would travel to the Middle East," he said, "and knowing the cultural conventions is really important."

Rodriguez, who recently graduated from George Washington University with a degree in international relations, studied abroad in Amman, Jordan.

For 30 years, kids have come to Howard Community College's Columbia campus during the summer to learn about a variety of unusual topics, from duct tape art to special effects makeup to jedi training. Administrators for the summer program, Kids on Campus, try to change over a third of the courses each year to keep students coming back.

One of Rodriguez's Startalk students, Jonathan Hosh, said that four weeks into the program, he's able to have conversations in Arabic with his family members.

"They told me, 'Soon you'll be able to talk like us,'" he said.

He chose to take Arabic because he wanted to be able to communicate with his grandfather, who doesn't speak English.

"And I wanted to learn more about who I am," said the graduating senior from Hyattsville.

Elhabashy said that learning a language also allows you to learn about others.

"It kind of gets you to connect with people globally. And I think the more you can connect with people around the world, the more you can gain experiences and knowledge of people's backgrounds and cultures," she said. "And it buries any judgments or prejudices that are so prevalent, especially in today's society."

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