Rebecca Nason wants to learn Mandarin Chinese as she pursues a career in tech or diplomacy and was disappointed when a scheduling conflict kept her from taking a high school language course last year.
This summer, Wilde Lake High School’s second year is enrolled in a five-week, tuition-free language immersion program at Howard Community College, funded by a $90,000 grant from the National Security Agency.
“China is becoming a tech giant, and therefore, Chinese is an important language to learn for a future career,” said Rebecca, 15, of Columbia. “I was excited to learn Mandarin and learn more about Chinese culture, gain language experience, and earn college credit.”
The Startalk summer program, offered at the community college since its launch in 2007, also offers Arabic lessons and has been a recruiting tool for the spy agency and other government entities.
About 12% of participants went on to pursue careers in government, including national security, said Laura Murray, technical director of the NSA’s College of Language and Area Studies and founder of Startalk.
“The idea behind Startalk was to learn foreign languages well, you really have to start at a young age,” Murray said. “Young children can assimilate languages faster.”
Startalk is one of 14 programs in 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 hear from NSA experts about the importance of learning “critical languages” and visit the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian art museums and neighborhood Chinese from Washington.
Murray said summer study can be beneficial because the months can become “an empty space to learn.”
“The fact that we offer this [Startalk] because the academic credit is unique, but it also makes the course much more rigorous and intensive,” said Margaret Garroway, Dean of English and World Languages at Howard Community College. “It’s nice to have that combo, but it’s also really fun and interactive.”
In addition to Arabic and Chinese, which Murray says are “of strategic interest for national security purposes,” the NSA curriculum also teaches Dari, Hindi, Korean, Russian, Persian , Portuguese, Turkish, Urdu and Swahili.
Worldwide, 900 million people are native speakers of Mandarin Chinese and Arabic, 30 with dialects, is spoken by 420 million people in 58 countries, according to Murray.
“The languages we look at…. [are in] regions of the world that are important countries [and] strategic competitors of the United States, whether economically, militarily or diplomatically,” Murray said.
There is a need in the national security and defense sectors for employers to be able to read and understand certain languages to provide guidance to decision makers, Murray said.
Betsy Hart, acting executive director of the National Center for Foreign Languages and director of the Startalk program, said, “We think it gives them a global perspective…and exposes them to other cultures around the world.
Other programs are offered from kindergarten through college, but most participants are in middle school or high school, Hart said.
In addition to providing funding, the NSA recruits at the college, including those in the Summer Language Program.
Garroway said there is no official tracking of how many college students are recruited and begin their 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 intermediate and final exams. Online courses are available so that students can advance their studies during the regular school year.
Rebecca studied European languages, but never learned a non-Romance language. She is enrolled in the first level of the Mandarin program.
“The first few days I was super confused, but right now I’m having a lot of fun and learning a lot,” Rebecca said.
Rebecca spoke with classmates and teachers in Mandarin, wrote Chinese characters, and participated in written and oral presentations.
“I thought the [Chinese] the characters would be harder to learn, but they’re actually quite logical,” Rebecca said.
In the Mandarin course, each week 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, teaching assistant in a Mandarin class, made bubble tea. Christine from Urbana attended the Arabic program last summer as she is fluent in Mandarin.
A recent graduate of Urbana High School in Frederick County, 17-year-old Christine 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 for writing.
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“We wrote a lot, which I really liked…I was looking at my paper and thinking, ‘Woah, I wrote that,'” Christine said.
Before taking the course, Christine “really didn’t know anything at all” in Arabic.
“After the five weeks, I felt so much better informed about the language and the culture,” Christine said. “You become much more fluid than you expected.”
Christine said she is fluent in Spanish and has limited working knowledge of Korean and American Sign Language. She wants to study more languages at university.
“The best part of Startalk is the students, they dedicate their whole summer to an intensive summer language program,” said Yulan Liu, the lead instructor of a Mandarin language course.