When Claire Gothard greets friends and family, the Manual High School freshman may say "hello," or she might surprise you by saying "As-salamu alaykum."
"It means 'peace be upon you' or something like that. I don't know, it's just prettier than plain old 'hello,' I think," said Claire, 14.
Claire and 21 other middle and high school students spent three weeks at Seneca High School immersing themselves in Arabic language and culture as part of a program created by Louisville-based Los Monitos Language Center and the National Security Language Initiative, which provided $84,000 in grant money for the program.
Students from nine schools participated, including Noe Middle, Oldham County Middle, Louisville Collegiate, the Brown School, Atherton High, Manual High, Kentucky Country Day, Eastern High and Oldham County High. There also were two students who are home-schooled.
The classrooms at Seneca High School were decorated with rugs, clothing, photos and household items like teapots that all celebrated Arab culture. For lunch each day, students ate traditional Mediterranean food.
Because of the grant, the program was free to students, said Julie Purcell, who works for Los Monitos and was the summer program's director. To be included, students had to apply. The application included an essay and teacher recommendations, she said.
"These are all students who showed a strong interest in learning the language and in increasing their knowledge of the culture," Purcell said. "You can't separate one from the other, especially from something like Arabic, which is very nuanced."
From the very first day, July 19, the program's teachers spoke Arabic to students 95 percent to 99 percent of the time, Purcell said.
"Oh, it's incredibly frustrating for them at first, but it's the most effective way to become conversational in a language," she said.
Maria Williams, 12, said it took her about three days before she started feeling comfortable.
"It's just hard," the incoming Oldham County Middle School seventh-grader said. "They wouldn't speak in English hardly at all, and you just had to keep trying to understand as they repeated stuff. Then, the third day things just started making more sense."
Maria spent part of one of the last days practicing her skills with Nadia Salem, an Atherton High sophomore. Using Arabic, the girls discussed what they like to do in their free time.
Nadia said her father speaks Arabic, but she doesn't.
"It was a little easier for me because it was at least familiar, but it was still really hard to get used to not using English at all," Nadia, 15, said. "This program has really helped fill in a lot of blanks for me."
The program is unique in that not only do few American students learn Arabic, but few of the National Security Language Initiatives' 300 or so programs focus on the language, Purcell said. About 70 percent of them are focused on Chinese, she said.
In addition to the intense language practice and cultural discussion in the classrooms, the students spoke via Skype with children and adults in Egypt several times during the three weeks, Purcell said.
"One of them is a woman who teaches Arabic to journalists in Cairo and who is an activist there," Purcell said. "They had a great conversation about what poverty and corruption means in the Third World."
Purcell said the program is providing students with resources and opportunities to practice and learn after they leave the program. She also hopes to offer the experience to more students next summer.
As a culminating exercise, the students visited Al Watan, a Mediterranean restaurant and store off Klondike Lane, and were asked to shop and dine using only Arabic.
"The whole point of the program is to get them to a point where they can have cultural exchanges with other people," Purcell said.
Incoming Crosby Middle eighth-grader Breana Owens said she liked the restaurant so much that she brought her family back to try it.
"I spoke Arabic to them then, too," Breana, 13, said. "They were really surprised that I could speak the language. I like surprising people."
Breana wasn't the only one who enjoyed the culinary and language adventure.
"That was my favorite part," said Coleman Powell, 13, an incoming eighth-grader at the Brown School. "It was hard but it made me feel like I had really learned something. I think it's important to understand how language is a unifying factor in the Middle East, and just because we don't live there doesn't mean we shouldn't be learning more than what's in the news."