Critical language program aims to open up new worlds for student - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

Critical language program aims to open up new worlds for students

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It's been just two weeks and Biafra Okoronkwo can already recite the Arabic alphabet.

"At first, it's really hard and you're not understanding much and they barely speak English, so you have to pick up," says Okoronkwo. "But it's the best feeling when you know you're learning it."

The 14-year-old is earning college credit in what is called the Startalk Critical Language Program at Howard Community College.

It starts with hello, but goes way beyond that. Students studying Chinese make tofu. They paint. They learn a traditional Indian wedding dance.

"All the teachers are native speakers. They're sharing their culture with you," says Hannah Swearman. "That was one of the coolest things and I think that made me fall in love with Arab culture."

She will spend the next school year studying in Oman.

"I think that America is kind of a bubble and I think it's important for there to be people who go outside of that bubble," explains Swearman. "Not just be tourists, but really understand the culture of another country."

One day, she might work for the State Dept or an non-governmental organization. Whatever she does, Swearman says, "I want to spend the rest of my life speaking Arabic."

The 117 students accepted to the program are learning Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and Persian. They are what the U.S. government calls critical languages. That is why students don't have to pay tuition. The cost of the program is covered by a federal grant.

"We need speakers of these languages if we're going to do business with the rest of the world, if we're going to try to end wars with the rest of the world," says Cheryl Berman, Howard Community College's Director of World Languages.

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