Rebecca Nason wants to learn to Mandarin Chinese as she pursues a career in technology or diplomacy and was disappointed when a scheduling conflict kept her from a high school language class last year.
This summer, the Wilde Lake High School sophomore is enrolled in a five-week, tuition-free language immersion program at Howard Community College funded by a $90,000 National Security Agency grant.
“China is becoming a tech giant, and so, Chinese is an important language to learn for a future career,” said Rebecca, 15, of Columbia. “I was excited to learn Mandarin and learn about Chinese culture, gain the language experience and earn college credit.”
The summer Startalk program, offered at the community college since its launch in 2007, also has classes in Arabic and has been a recruiting tool for the spy agency and other government entities.
About 12 percent of participants have later pursued a career in government, including national security, said Laura Murray, the NSA’s College of Language and Area Studies technical director and Startalk founder.
“The idea behind Startalk was to learn foreign languages well, you really need to start at a young age,” Murray said. “Young children can absorb languages more quickly.”
Startalk is one of 14 programs under the National Security Language Initiative announced in 2006 by President George W. Bush. The Howard County program is administered by the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland.
In addition to receiving four college credits, the 60 students in this year’s program are hearing from NSA experts about the importance of learning “critical languages” and visiting Smithsonian Institution Asian art museums and Washington’s Chinatown.
Murray said summer study can be beneficial because the months can become “a blank spot for learning.”
“The fact that we offer this [Startalk] as college credit is unique, but it also makes the course that much more rigorous and intensive,” said Margaret Garroway, the dean of English and world languages at Howard Community College. “It is nice to have that combo but it’s also very fun and interactive.”
In addition to Arabic and Chinese, which Murray said hold “strategic interest for national security purposes,” the NSA program also teaches Dari, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Persian, Portuguese, Turkish, Urdu and Swahili.
Worldwide, 900 million people are native Mandarin Chinese speakers and Arabic, 30 with dialects, is spoken by 420 million people in 58 countries, according to Murray.
“The languages we look at …. [are in] areas of the world that are important countries [and] strategic competitors to the United States, whether economically, military or diplomatically,” Murray said.
There is a need across the national security and defense sectors for employers to be able to read and understand certain languages to provide advice to decision makers, Murray said.
Betsy Hart, interim executive director of the National Foreign Language Center and Startalk program director, said “we think it gives them a global perspective … and exposes them to other cultures in the world.”
Other programs are offered from kindergarten through college, but most participants are in middle or high school, Hart said.
Beside providing funding, the NSA recruits from the college, including those in the summer language program.
Garroway said there is no official tracking of how many students from the college are recruited and begin careers with the NSA, based at the Army’s Fort Meade in neighboring Anne Arundel County.
For each language, two elementary levels are offered and students have midterm and final exams. Online classes are available so the students can advance their studies during the regular school year.
Rebecca has studied European languages, but has never learned a non-romance language. She is enrolled in the first level of the Mandarin program.
“The first couple of days I was super confused, but right now I am having a lot of fun and learning a lot,” Rebecca said.
Rebecca has talked with classmates and teachers in Mandarin, written Chinese characters and participated in written and spoken presentations.
“I thought the [Chinese] characters would be more difficult to learn but they are actually quite logical,” Rebecca said.
In the Mandarin class, each week has focused on a different theme, including family, friends, food, fashion and festivals.
One week, the students made dumplings, cold rice noodles and ordered ethnic food.
Christine Manegan, a teaching assistant in a Mandarin class, made bubble tea. Christine, of Urbana, participated in the Arabic program last summer, as she is fluent in Mandarin.
A recent graduate of Urbana High School in Frederick County, Christine,17, is entering Stanford University this fall to major in economics or international relations.
Christine was interested in learning Arabic because “the language is really pretty, especially to write.
“We did a lot of writing which I really liked ... I would look down at a my paper and think, “Woah, I wrote that,’” Christine said.
Before taking the class, Christine really “knew nothing at all,” in Arabic.
“After the five weeks, I felt so much more knowledgeable about the language and the culture,” Christine said. “You become a lot more fluent than what you expect.”
Christine said she is proficient in Spanish, and has limited working knowledge of Korean and American Sign Language. She wants to study more languages in college.
“The best part about Startalk is the students, they are devoting their whole summer to be in a intensive summer language program,” said Yulan Liu, the lead instructor for one Mandarin class.