Many an LDS teen spices up the long summer vacation with a relaxing interlude at Especially For Youth. John Monson, a 15-year-old sophomore from Chicago, opted instead for almost four weeks of Arabic Language Camp at BYU.
In terms of his linguistic dexterity, John is somewhat of a prodigy — in addition to taking French in high school, he studies German, Dutch, Spanish and Arabic on the side.
"I'm thinking about going into linguistics," John said. "I like seeing the relationship between languages and what links them together."
In that respect, John shares a critical characteristic in common with his fellow campers — a love of languages. For most of the teens at Arabic camp, Arabic isn't the second language they're learning but more likely the third or even fourth. And like moths drawn to the light, the chance to spend a couple of weeks earning college credit for Arabic 101 is simply too good for them to pass up.
In its third year, the BYU Arabic Language Camp is part of a government-sponsored program called STARTALK designed to get teenagers learning the languages not traditionally taught in schools that Uncle Sam wants more Americans to know. (BYU also offers a Chinese STARTALK camp.)
"This is all part of the whole National Security Language Initiative," said R. Kirk Belnap, an Arabic professor at BYU and director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center. "STARTALK is just one piece of this for high school students. The published rationale for the STARTALK program was that they wanted to develop, get students started earlier so that we could get more Americans mastering these critical languages."
At BYU the program is growing — a total of 61 students will participate in some capacity at this year's Arabic camps, compared to 36 in 2008 and 17 in 2007. The 24-day camp where students stay in BYU-approved housing and earn college credit is occurring twice (June 22 to July 15, and July 20 to Aug. 12). A five-day, non-residential camp is also offered.
Although previous Arabic experience is beneficial, it is by no means a necessity.
"One of our main goals for the program," Brother Belnap said, "is for students of all kinds to learn that Arabic is quite learnable, that they can tackle significant challenges and succeed."
The residential camps include at least eight hours of daily in-class study and mandatory study hall sessions. Class sizes are generally kept below 10 to foster frequent interaction with the instructors. "Apprentice teachers" — college students with Arabic expertise learning how to teach Arabic — also are on hand to assist the instructor in answering students' questions.
"It has been really beneficial," said Dixon Li, a 17-year-old from Sandy, Utah. "It was really hard at first because we had a lot of homework, but I think it's worked out really, really well. In class it's about eight to nine hours every day where we speak almost only Arabic, and then we have homework with a lot of dialogues with Arabic."
During the last few days of this summer's first session of residential Arabic camp, John Monson couldn't help but show off just a little bit.
Students played a game in which they stood two at a time in the back of the classroom. Instructor Laila Lamani verbally gave the students an Arabic verb and pronoun, and the students raced to the dry-erase board to see who could be the first to write the proper conjugation in Arabic script. Within 15 minutes it became very apparent that John was not going to be beaten by his peers.
So John competed against an apprentice teacher. And again, John won. Finally, the apprentice teacher subbed in for Ms. Lamani as the proctor so she could go head-to-head with John. Competing against his instructor Ms. Lamani, a Moroccan and native Arabic speaker, John finally succumbed — but just barely.
If John goes on to achieve prolific Arabic fluency, it won't be the first time. In 2007 Issac Earl of Orem, Utah, participated in the maiden STARTALK Arabic camp at BYU. He continued studying through the academic year using the distance-learning program Arabic Without Walls. Last summer he studied Arabic in Cairo through a program sponsored by the State Department; this summer he's in Jordan.
"He'll have the language ability that most of our graduating seniors are achieving," Brother Belnap said.
"For a kid coming out of high school to be able to achieve this — it's inspiring."