About three dozen students formed rows in the Duncan Hall lobby of Howard Community College and staged an impromptu demonstration of tai chi, a Chinese martial art known for its slow but precise movements. Some students were clearly novices, yet their cadence showed that, at the very least, they were fast learners.
The students are enrolled in an intensive summer language program called STARTALK, a federal government initiative designed to increase the number of Americans learning so-called "critical need" languages.
The program pays tuition for 70 students — from rising ninth-graders to those who recently graduated high school — to spend the summer learning Arabic, Mandarin Chinese or Hindi.
In its fourth year at HCC, the program exposes students to foreign languages and cultures, teaching them such practices as applying henna tattoos, organizing a market bazaar and making Chinese dumplings.
HCC received the STARTALK grant from the University of Maryland,College Park's National Foreign Language Center. HCC officials say the term STARTALK is short for "start talking."
Cheryl Berman, director of both HCC's World Languages program and its STARTALK program, chooses a different theme each year for the program. This year, students are immersed in the mystery "Murder on the Orient Express."
"I want to see all three languages and their cultures mixing together," said Berman. "How do you pull Hindi, Chinese and Arabic together? Geographically, you have to look at it. The 'Orient Express' idea, the train, it comes through … and therefore we can combine [the languages]."
Using lessons from STARTALK classes, students discover and exchange information, perform daily tasks such as ordering food and asking and giving directions, and play guests in a home along the Orient Express.
"[Classes] go from four to five days a week, so I'd say it's an intensive program," said Michael Scott, an Arabic instructor/translator from Catonsville. Other instructors include HCC faculty.
He said the day's class focuses on asking and answering questions regarding information from "Murder on the Orient Express."
"Let's say there's been the murder, and [one of the students] is going around trying to find out who is the criminal," Scott said. "To learn a new language, the starting point is to know how to ask questions. If you don't ask questions, nobody's going to talk to you."
Students say they have already reaped benefits from the program.
Desiree Sojourner, 16, from Clarksville, said she is participating in the program's Hindi class because she is taking a trip to India next summer. "I figure I'd learn about the culture and the language, so I could understand a little more than I would if I was just going," she said.
Maddy Lafuse, 17, of Columbia is a returning STARTALK student who has used the Arabic she's learned when reading packaging of food in Asian supermarkets.
Adam Chang, 19, of Columbia is a former STARTALK student and now a program aide. He came to the U.S. from Taiwan after sixth grade and said that because of the program, "I am actually rebuilding my vocabulary, and I'm also building up a variety of typing skills that I never really learned."
Moreover, when the program's Hindi instructors failed to find an adequate textbook for the class, the HCC's World Languages program created and copyrighted its own.
"Our Hindi teachers gave input with the language," said Berman, "and I did the curriculum and sequencing, and we added the graphics and design piece and published it. What we really want to do with language is make it student-friendly."
Students who excel in STARTALK classes can earn four college credits from HCC.
Some say that if they weren't taking the intensive program they would likely spend the summer working. But the program will ultimately help them in a diverse working environment after college.
"I hope in the very distant future to have some sort of job that would include a lot of traveling," said Lafuse, who added that the language would come in handy in diverse environments. "It's definitely encouraging to be around people who speak many different languages. It makes me want to be more worldly."