Students Get Taste of ‘National Security’ Languages

By Mary Ann Zehr — July 26, 2007 5 min read
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Kathleen P. Murphy is the kind of student federal officials might have had in mind when they launched a program this summer to provide free, intensive Arabic- and Chinese-language classes for high school students.

The rising senior at Bishop O’Connell High School here has clear goals that eventually could lead her to use Arabic in a national- security or diplomatic job.

For three weeks last month, the 17-year-old spent her mornings learning how to pronounce sounds that don’t exist in English and to read a script that looks like squiggles, flourishes, and dots to someone new to Arabic.

The classes were provided with funding from the National Security Language Initiative, announced by President Bush in January 2006 and coordinated by the U.S. State, Education, and Defense departments with the goal of increasing the number of Americans who speak languages critical to the nation’s security.

Language-Skills Deficit

Although Congress never gave the initiative new money, some existing funds were moved around to create a few small programs, including the $5.4 million STARTALK. Administered by the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland College Park, and financed through the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, STARTALK aims to expand foreign-language education in undertaught languages with grants to K-12 programs that can feed into college or university ones.

The National Research Council recently decried the state of foreign-language education in this country.

“A pervasive lack of knowledge of foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry,” the council said in a March report to Congress. The report called Department of Education programs for teaching foreign languages “fragmented” and found “no apparent department master plan or unifying strategic vision.” (“NRC Sees Deficit in Federal Approach to Foreign Languages,” April 4, 2007.)

Amid such concerns, STARTALK provides a modest counterweight, offering instruction for students, along with workshops allowing teachers of Arabic and Chinese to improve the quality of their classes or to earn academic credit toward certification. This summer, 770 teachers took part in the workshops.

Beginning-level classes for 53 students, organized by the 18,200-student Arlington County, Va., school system, were housed at Northern Virginia Community College’s Arlington campus.

Ms. Murphy would seem to be an ideal candidate for such a class. The daughter of a State Department officer, she already has studied and practiced speaking Arabic while living in Morocco and Qatar. She wants to major in international relations and continue learning Arabic in college—and have a career with the State Department.

But Ms. Murphy was a rarity among the 11 teenagers in Nijmeh Zayed’s Arabic class and the seven in Janet Luu’s Chinese class in that she has set a goal of working for the federal government. Most of the others had no plans to get federal jobs, though half said they would consider it.

No one in the two classes was aware the Department of Defense was paying for their language lessons. Not one student said he or she would consider working for that federal agency.

Catherine Ingold, the director of the National Foreign Language Center, said the federal government doesn’t necessarily expect that many of the 1,200 youths who took part in STARTALK this summer will end up as federal employees using that language training.

“What the federal government across agencies is trying to do is increase the proportion of Americans who have professionally usable proficiency in another language and English—whether you are talking about trade, or diplomacy, or as an informed citizen making public decisions, or [in the] military, or intelligence, or for domestic needs,” she said.

Motivations for Study

The Arlington County teenagers’ reasons for spending precious summer days studying Arabic or Chinese vary.

Two said they were taking Arabic classes because of their religious faith. Taimoor Chatha, the son of Pakistani immigrants, and Aasim Rawoot, whose parents were born in India, are Muslims and want to be able to read the Quran in Arabic. Mr. Chatha, 15, will be a 10th grader at Washington- Lee High School, and Mr. Rawoot, also 15, will be a 10th grader at H.B.Woodlawn High School in the coming school year.

A number of students are growing up in families in which a parent or other relatives speak Arabic or Chinese and want a stronger connection with their heritage.

Faris Sanjakdar, who is 14 and will be a 9th grader at Washington- Lee High, said he wants to learn Arabic because of his Syrian heritage. His parents are natives of Syria. “I go back to Syria every two years,” he said. “I’m learning Arabic so I can speak it fluently with my cousins and uncles.”

All but two students in the Arabic class—both from Pakistan— were born in the United States. But several students other than Mr. Sanjakdar have at least one parent who speaks Arabic.

Similarly, some of the students studying Chinese have at least one parent who speaks the language.

Some students who were studying Mandarin said they hope to use it for careers in business; one said he’s studying it for fun.

Interactive Methods

Both instructors in the Arlington program participated in a STARTALK workshop earlier in the summer organized by Northern Virginia Community College and used interactive instruction methods.

Ms. Zayed, a native of the Palestinian Territory of the West Bank, had her students take some first steps toward learning Arabic by pronouncing and reading the names of a dozen fruits and vegetables. She used a computer to project pictures of the fruits and vegetables labeled only in Arabic onto a screen. The teenagers divided up in groups and decided on a breakfast menu, which Ms. Zayed then helped them translate into Arabic. She punctuated her lesson with expressions such as shukran, which means “thank you,” and maashaa allaah, an expression of praise.

Ms. Luu, who is of Chinese heritage, was born in Vietnam and educated in both Taiwan and the United States. To help students learn how to understand and give directions, she labeled desks in the classroom with Chinese words such as feijichang (airport) or xiexiao (school). The students practiced giving each other directions to walk between rows of desks and reach a particular destination.

Mary Ann Ullrich, the foreignlanguage supervisor for the Arlington public schools, who oversaw the three-week summer program, said her district applied for the federal grant in part because it wants to increase the number of students taking less commonly taught languages during the school year. She stressed that students increase their ability to relate to people of other cultures when they learn a language other than English.

“We don’t think of it so much from the standpoint of national security,” she said. “But if we can help to support our defense needs, that’s a spinoff.”

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