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As Ellicott City's Korean community grows, residents learn the language to connect with their neighbors

Each Monday night, in the dead of winter, Arti Sardesai drives to the Miller Library in Ellicott City, takes a seat and immerses herself in learning Korean. At 49, it’s not easy mastering a foreign tongue, but Sardesai spends the hour studying the structure and nuances of a language that she believes will benefit her work as an occupational therapist in the area.

She is not alone. For 15 weeks about a dozen students, mostly women, pore over their lessons, taught by a Korean instructor in a program sponsored by the Howard County Library and funded by the Korean Education Center in Washington, D.C. Come April, at semester’s end, Sardesai and her classmates hope their grasp of the language, and Korean culture, will help them reach out to a rapidly growing populace in the region.

More than 13,000 Howard County residents are of Korean descent, and they comprise 4.2 percent of the population — more than double that of any other county in Maryland. Moreover, the county’s Korean population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest census data. Asian-owned businesses saturate a busy 5-mile stretch of Route 40, dubbed “Korean Way” in 2016 by the state Department of Transportation.

The Miller Library sits in the midst of that evolving community, so when the Korean Education Center approached officials there about hosting the class, “it was like manna from heaven,” branch manager Susan Stonesifer said. “I mean, you can learn something and literally walk out the door and go up to Route 40 and use it right away.

“It’s a fabulous outreach, a way to show off the richness of our culture and strengthen the diverse threads that make up the fabric of Howard County.”

Class size is limited for learning purposes. A second beginner’s Korean course will start in September, Stonesifer said. The instructor, Jaihong Joo of Elkridge, has worked at Fort Bragg, N.C., tutoring military personnel bound for deployment in Korea.

For Sardesai, the decision to learn the language was a practical one.

“I’m not doing this to answer questions on ‘Jeopardy!’ ” the Ellicott City resident said. “As a therapist, I work with more and more older Koreans with hip fractures and such, and it’s my job to counsel them to improve their quality of life. It’s frustrating when you don’t understand their language — and if a translator is present, that’s yet another person who’s invading [the patient’s] privacy.”

Those clients speak little English, Sardesai said, so even a basic grasp of Korean should help her gain their trust.

For the past four summers, Sarah Hoppers has hosted Korean teens in her Ellicott City home as part of a student exchange program. The middle schoolers chatter away in their native tongue during their three-week stay. It was all Greek to Hoppers — until now.

“I hear them talk and I’d like to know what they’re saying,” she said. And what she gleans from the library’s Korean class should help break the ice.

“I don’t want to impress the kids, and I don’t expect to be fluent, but I would like to be able to contribute,” Hoppers said. “They are here to learn our language and surroundings, but it would be nice if more of us were open to learning theirs as well.”

Though 65, Jo Curtin thinks nothing of tackling a foreign language from scratch.

“It’s good for my brain to do this,” the Ellicott City resident said. A part-time tutor, she has taught English to adult immigrants from Iran, Russia and India. When a Craigslist ad caught her eye — Caregiver needed days to stay with elderly Korean parents — she signed up for the class.

After several sessions, Curtin said, “the instructor encouraged us to go out and practice. When I went to the bank, I spoke to a Korean teller, and she seemed to enjoy it.”

Like others, Curtin hopes her learning helps her navigate the shops and restaurants along Route 40.

“There are all kinds of Korean signs that I can’t read,” she said. “I’d like to be able to greet the people, read menus and ask for things.”

Stacey Freedman was among the first to sign up for the Korean class; she runs the children’s library there. When Korean American families come to Miller Library to register their children for activities, she said, misunderstandings have occurred.

“It would be really cool to be able to meet them halfway,” said Freedman, 48. “I admire people from other countries who have to learn English; it isn’t easy. We can be very self-centered, just speaking English. Say something in their language and people are fairly generous, if you give it a try.”

Of course, she may then be met with an avalanche of Korean chitchat, Freedman said:

“A phrase I’ll have to learn is, ‘I’m sorry, that’s all I know.’ ”

Even those of Korean descent find cause to crack a book. Raised in Howard County, Danielle Han attended Wilde Lake High and speaks fluent English; Korean, not so much. Her parents, both immigrants, hold to their native tongue. So Han, 20, chose to try and bridge that gap.

“I want to bond better with my parents,” the Ellicott City resident said. “I think it will bring us closer together. I’m doing this for family.”

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