For senior Danielle Tarr, every day at school is a trip around the world and a mouthful of dialects. She is greeted first period with "Assalam alaikum," fourth period with "Hello," sixth period with "Konichiwa" and seventh period with "Salve." Tarr takes four different language classes - Arabic, English, Japanese and AP Latin - two of which, Arabic and Japanese, are being offered for the first time this year.
Gaithersburg, Springbrook and now Blair are the only high schools in the county that teach Arabic, despite the approximately 200 million people who speak it worldwide and the almost 800,000 people who speak it in the United States, according to the U.S. Census. Blair is also one of five Montgomery County public schools offering Japanese.
The new selections were picked based on a student survey administered by the foreign language department last year. With four periods of Japanese with about 25 students each and two periods of Arabic with about 30 students each, it is evident that many Blazers are taking advantage of the new language offerings.
Blair hired Sawsan Darwish from Clopper Mill Elementary School to teach Arabic, while social studies teacher Kenneth Seat and first-time-Blair teacher Yoko Zoll were recruited to teach Japanese. Both Darwish and Zoll are native speakers of their respective languages, adding firsthand cultural knowledge to their classes.
Darwish was raised in Jordan and moved to the United States when she was 22. She taught kindergarten at an Islamic private school in New York for five years before coming to Montgomery County.
Junior Vanessa Hoy is excited to be learning about more than just the Arabic language from Darwish. "I had all these questions at the beginning, about Islam, the countries, the culture. It's so much better learning from someone who is from there," she says.
Zoll also brings experience from growing up in Japan to her class. She came to America just 20 years ago to pursue a teaching career and now holds two full periods of Japanese I. While in Japan, she grew up in the city of Okayama and learned English at the Kansai Gakuin University.
Made in Japan
In room 124, where Zoll and Seat teach, pictures of sumo wrestlers and Japanese landmarks such as Mt. Fuji adorn the walls.
But it wasn't just the intricate Japanese culture that attracted Blazers to the language. I's unique complexity makes Japanese a challenge for students interested in foreign languages. "I couldn't believe how complicated it gets," junior Camille Huang says. "And even though it's not as easy as I thought, it just makes me want to learn more."
In Japanese, there are two different alphabets called "hiragana" and "katakana," each with 46 and 45 letters respectively. Students must master about 2,000 characters to write, read and speak the language, according to Seat. "You have to be motivated to become fluent," he says.
Motivation to learn Japanese stems from different reasons. Tarr, who hopes to become a translator or language teacher, is looking ahead, "While looking at colleges last year, I realized just how expensive college would be and thought that I should get as much as I could out of a free education," she says. "Learning the basics in high school will help me next year in college."
Other students look to their past. "I'm half Asian and would love to know the language of my people," Huang says. Still the class laughs together at the pronunciation of the "Kinki" region of Japan.
New Japanese senseis Seat and Zoll were pleasantly surprised at the student interest as Japanese quickly filled up. "I was shocked that there are four classes�there's a great desire to learn different languages," says Seat, who lived in Japan for 20 years. "I've been doing the East Asian Studies class and a club on this subject, but when I heard I could teach, I was very excited," he says.
Currently, the classes are working on verbally pronouncing numbers and greetings along with some reading and writing. Seat plans to focus on a different theme such as geography or weather every unit and defines the most useful information as the things that you "can actually use on the streets of Japan."
Next year, the foreign language department plans to offer Japanese 2 and Arabic 2, classes that will give Blazers the opportunity to continue deeper into the languages.
Tarr feels that a school as diverse as Blair will benefit immensely from the additional language classes. "Not only are they a great addition to our foreign language curriculum, these new classes will provide Blair students with the ability to broaden their horizons and learn about some foreign cultures that are very different from our own culture, or even French or Spanish culture," Tarr says. "It's about time they gave us more options than what our parents took in high school. Times have changed."