Foreign languages finding ready ears in Howard


Air Force Staff Sgt. Maha Salamah heard the sounds of Arabic from her Palestinian father when she was growing up in the Virgin Islands.

She hears them now from her husband, who is also Palestinian. But she never learned to speak the language herself.

Salamah was pleasantly surprised when she learned Howard Community College would be offering Arabic for the first time and now plans to spend Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the school learning the language.

Expanding beyond more traditional offerings such as Spanish, French and German, HCC started classes in Arabic and Korean last month and quickly discovered that there were many students ready for the more exotic fare.

"Within two weeks [of the start of registration], the classes were filled," said Cheryl Berman, HCC's director of foreign languages.

The strong interest appears to have two important causes.

Many Howard students want to get in touch with their roots, while others see career opportunities through nontraditional language skills.

"It really did seem that it was important for our students to get exposed to a broader array of languages," said Ronald X. Roberson, vice president of academic affairs.

Arabic seemed like an obvious choice because of the public's heightened interest in the Arab world, he said. And administrators took note of the large Korean population in Howard County in choosing a second language to offer.

Speakers of Arabic and Korean are in high demand by the U.S. government. Other languages high on the list are Mandarin Chinese, Farsi, Russian and Spanish.

A 2002 study by the General Accounting Office found that foreign language skills are needed for diplomacy, military and peace-keeping missions, intelligence collection, counter-terrorism and international trade. The Department of Defense spends $250 million a year on foreign language needs.

"I'm looking to go on to the CIA," said Chris Kaiser, 21, of Ellicott City, who is in the Arabic class.

He considered a career in intelligence about a year ago and read that potential candidates would do well to learn a foreign language, especially Russian, Arabic or Chinese.

For Kaiser, who was a full-time student at HCC, seeing the course offered "was a coincidence ... kind of like an omen."

Others are planing to use their new language skills closer to home.

Heather Leatherman of Ellicott City is in her first year teaching art at Mount Hebron High School, where many students are Korean.

For some, English is a second language and, she said, "I feel like they are really the only students I don't know well."

And, in class, "there are only so many things you can explain visually."

After one night of Korean instruction, Leatherman said her few words were a novelty to her students. But, she added, "they like that I'm taking an interest."

"I just consider myself lucky to have 200 tutors here," she said.

Other students are hoping to connect with their heritage.

Tara Gignac, 22, of Sykesville is a full-time student at HCC. Her mother is Korean, but as the family moved around with her father's job in the military, she focused on English and assimilating with American culture.

When she moved to the East Coast, closer to her Korean grandparents, cousins and other relatives, "I started to realize how difficult it was to have an entire side of my family I can't speak to," she said.

"I think [the class] will help me get through the basics of communicating with them."

Salamah sees her HCC language course in much the same way. "I am in love with the language," the Columbia resident said. "Because I am half-Arabic, I should be able to speak it."

While personal and professional motivation may help inspire students, neither language will be easy, instructors warn.

"I'm telling them it's going to be real difficult," said Anthony Waggoner, HCC's Arabic instructor.

Arabic is written and read from right to left with characters that connect and change depending upon their position in the word. That makes more than 80 items to learn just to get a handle on the alphabet.

"It looks like scribble to me," said Kaiser, looking through his workbook, Your First 100 Words in Arabic.

Still, Waggoner throws in words and phrases to keep the class interesting. On the second day of class, he had students reciting sounds, telling him, "Yes, I have a chair," and repeating other simple phrases.

The Korean class involves much more self-instruction, with students working their way through a syllabus using a textbook and CD-ROM and having a weekly tutoring session with instructor Dall Lee.

Lee first will teach key elements, such as the alphabet, which has 19 consonants and 21 vowels grouped into syllabic clusters.

Then students will be more self-taught, focusing on conversations in everyday situations - from identifying oneself to talking about the weather and food.

"A language is connected to the spirit of a nation," Lee told his class on the first night. "The philosophy and thinking are implied there."

All language students will benefit from HCC's new facilities. The instructional lab building, which opened last month, has more rooms for language classes to meet.

It has a computer lab equipped with tutorial software, and it is staffed with native speakers.

Because the languages are new, and difficult, students cannot expect to become proficient right away, Berman said.

But an early start will get them on their way if they find the motivation to continue.

She is committed to adding advanced Korean and Arabic classes to the HCC curriculum this summer and fall.

"We plan to offer a solid four-semester sequence in all languages," Berman said.

Also in the fall, her department plans to offer American Sign Language, Russian and Chinese.

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