Eric Thompson said among the first challenges in his Arab immersion class was learning the Arabic word for "yes."
To the Arnold resident, it sounded a lot like the English word, "no."
"So when teachers are congratulating you, you're saying, 'Oh, I have messed up,'" said the 17-year old, who is among dozens of foreign language students in the recent Launch into Arabic Learning and Teaching Program, a summer immersion initiative coordinated by Anne Arundel Community College and the U.S. Naval Academy.
The free four-week program, held at the academy in Annapolis, is offered to rising 11th- and 12th-graders — attendees must be 16 by the start of the program — as well as recent high school graduates and students enrolled at the community college or the academy. Students come from as far away as Tennessee and Ohio to receive individualized and group instruction in Arabic in a curriculum supplemented by guest speakers, video presentations, field trips and cultural activities.
The partnership was launched as an extension of a language learning program grant through STARTALK, established by President George W. Bush in 2006 as part of the National Security Language Initiative to expand numbers of Americans able to speak, read and write languages deemed critical to U.S. national security.
Some 48 students have taken part this summer in daylong sessions divvied up into three proficiency levels: novice (virtually no course experience), novice-mid (some course experience) and intermediate (those with one to three years of previous course work).
Janet Paulovich, director of English Language Learning and Adult Education at the college and co-director of the Arab immersion program, said that by the time students leave the novice class, they should be proficient enough in Arabic to introduce themselves, ask information from people they've never met, buy tickets and order at a restaurant.
By the intermediate level, students should be able to write paragraphs and have extended conversations, she said.
The program is offered along with a two-week teacher training course for instructors and teaching fellows, which includes lesson-planning techniques.
"The whole goal of the program," Paulovich said, "is really to increase the use of learning and interest in learning Arabic. You hope [students] would go on for further language study, and you want to improve the [instruction] of the teachers of Arabic throughout the United States."
Clarissa Burt, the Naval Academy's associate professor of Arabic language, literature and culture and academic director of the STARTALK program, said Arabic is the first language of about 250 million people worldwide.
"Arabic is extremely important for many, many more millions of people who are Muslims, and Arabic is one of the five primary languages of the United Nations," Burt said.
She said the Naval Academy launched its STARTALK program several years ago with the help of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and the program has grown to where teachers receive certification for completing two courses. High school students who attend can receive one semester course credit.
In addition to language studies, the immersion program includes culture clubs that enhance classroom learning through activities such as Arabic belly dancing and Arab-language film making.
"Cultural sensitivity is the big thing," Burt said. "If we can adjust and be accepting and behave respectfully across cultures, then we might be able to more successfully avoid conflict."
Khadijah Nesbitt, 18, of Pasadena is participating in the program this summer for the second consecutive year. Already, she says, she can describe her nationality, greet people and say whether she's tired or hungry in Arabic.
"I'm Muslim, so I want to read Arabic to understand my prayers and read my Quran," she said. "I'm a language lover, so any way to learn a new language was just like — 'jump into it.' "
Daniel Laskowski, 16, of Williamstown, N.J., is in Maryland solely to take part in the program and maintain what he's learned during his regular school studies.
"My mom was searching for summer camps for Arabic and found this one," Laskowski said. "I'm good at the reading and writing Arabic, but the interactive part and the speaking I was never really good at."
Instructor Amani Attia said that over the years, the course has been fine-tuned to improve students' ability to speak Arabic.
"If you're teaching in Arabic country you're focusing on the modern standard variety and classical variety because you have native speakers," Attia said. "Here, you focus on communication, you're trying to teach them to communicate with native speakers of Arabic. We include more dialect here because that's the language they're going to use."
Katherine Haas, 76, a fourth-grade teacher at the Key School in Annapolis, said she hopes to infuse the lessons she's learned in the Arabic immersion class in her instruction next year.
"I started an Islamic unit so the children will know something about the Middle East without thinking on terrorists," said Haas, of Annapolis. "I wanted them to know Muslims are good people. But I knew very little about the Middle East, so I thought if I learn the language, then I would learn the culture and I would be a better teacher."