Strategic Language Students Celebrate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 1 14:27:10 UTC 2006

Strategic Language Students Celebrate--Defense Department Initiated

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006; B03

The graduation ceremony for Howard University's Summer Language Institute
took an offbeat turn yesterday when the man in the seersucker suit
interrupted the handing out of diplomas to whisper something to James J.
Davis, chairman of the school's Department of Modern Languages and
Literatures. Davis nodded and said: "Arabic dancers, to the stage!" And
then the lights went low and two women in colorful, frilly dresses started
gyrating to a sensuous Middle Eastern beat.

About three hours later, after the kung-fu demonstration, the fashion show
and numerous songs, dances and skits, the fun was over. Sixty-nine high
school and college students had received their diplomas for six weeks of
intensive study of Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, Korean or Swahili and were
ready to relax. So were the administrators, who assembled the program with
a nearly $1 million grant from the Defense Department, which is seeking to
build a pool of people with expertise in languages not normally taught in
American schools, where the focus tends to be on Spanish, French, German
and other European languages.

The program is part of a nationwide initiative to expand education in
languages to include those that government agencies need, such as Arabic
and Chinese, said Lt. Col. Jeremy Martin, a Defense Department spokesman.
"It's answering the president's call to increase the strategic language
capability in the United States," Martin said. "It's not just from a
military standpoint, but also an economic standpoint, diplomacy, the
global economy, humanitarian support." Plus, he added, "It's a marketable
skill for them."

None of the students crossing the stage was quite ready to join the
Defense Intelligence Agency or hit Wall Street trading desks. The program,
equivalent to a year of high school instruction or a semester of college,
focused mostly on speaking. But they had come a long way: They had started
with no knowledge of the language they were studying, and the intensity of
the experience kindled a desire to learn more, students said. "I've never
done anything like that before," Lauren Edwards, a junior at Howard, said
of learning Arabic. Classes ran from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week.
The students were lucky if the teacher spoke in English for 10 minutes
during that period, she said, but somehow it worked.

"The first week was not easy. We didn't know anything. The teacher told us
' as- salaam aleikum, ' " the Arabic greeting. "We said it over 20 times,
over and over again. . . . I didn't know a single word of Arabic when I
started, and I feel like I can hold up a conversation now." Raslan
Moutraji, a Howard professor from Syria who ran the Arabic program -- he
was the man in the seersucker suit -- said he had "never seen such
enthusiasm" from a group of students, who were picked from a national pool
of 920 applicants. "Once they started, they learned how beautiful the
language is," Moutraji said. "It's going to be a waste of talent if these
students do not continue learning Arabic."

Edwards, a political science major, said she would. She hopes to work in
foreign affairs after she graduates. Martin, the Defense Department
spokesman, said the military had not decided whether to keep funding the
program but had noted that Howard administrators wanted to keep it going.
Howard won the competition for the grant money, which was offered to
historically black colleges and universities, and most of the students
were black. For some African American students learning Swahili, this
afforded an opportunity to learn a bit about their origins. Alexis Carter,
a rising high school junior from Columbia who commuted two hours each way
by train every day to get to class, said she wanted to go on learning the
East African language, even though she had originally wanted to learn

"It gave me an opportunity to get a piece of my culture -- to figure out
who I am," said Carter, wearing a diaphanous brown gown with a matching
headscarf that one might find in Nairobi. "It's not what you see on TV."

 2006 The Washington Post Company

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