A student completes an Arabic exercise on a Promethean interactive white board. A British company, Promethean has its North American headquarters in Alpharetta.

While some students spent the waning days of summer break soaking up the sun, a select group of high schoolers headed into the north Georgia mountains to immerse themselves in foreign languages.

A three-week program launched this summer at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega gave bright students from 17 states a chance to dive into one of three languages in high demand from the U.S. foreign service and military: ArabicChinese and Russian.

More than 350 students applied for two three-week sessions of the Foreign Service Foreign Language Academy. Only 96 were selected for the intensive, federally funded program. Half hailed from Georgia. Applications were weighed on merit, physical fitness, global interest and desire to pursue government careers.

Raymond Green*, a senior at Dunwoody High School, wants to work in a federal law enforcement agency like the CIA or FBI. He hopes this career will enable him to travel, a passion since his dad’s accounting job took the family to Sydney for three years.

He selected a language by elimination: Chinese seemed more useful for business. Russian felt a bit outdated. Arabic felt current but was still rare enough that it would set him apart.

“It’s always in the headlines. It’s very relevant right now,” said Mr. Green, who was also glad to hear presentations from federal agency representatives who visited the camp.

North Georgia is a military college, but it’s also a state school. Only about one out of five students are cadets. With federal funding, the college is working to become a hub for instruction in the government’s “critical languages.”

The summer program was designed to forge a pipeline of students for these growing programs while promoting broader interest in language education, said John Wilson, assistant director of North Georgia’s Center for Language Education and a primary organizer of the program.

“The United States desperately needs language speakers in so many instances,” Dr. Wilson said. “There’s a drastic shortage of Arabic and Russian language speakers throughout the world. We can’t find enough to maintain our security interests, and the business interest is the same. We need more proficient language speakers.”

International companies have repeatedly said that speaking another language gives candidates a leg up on competitors for internships and jobs, Dr. Wilson added.

Perhaps that knowledge motivated students throughout the 21-day marathon, which included nearly 150 hours of instruction worth two semesters of high-school credit.

Each day started at 6:30 a.m. with physical training. Breakfast was followed by six hours of class in which teachers were expected to use the foreign language 90 percent of the time. Evenings were occupied with special two-hour sessions in the target language before lights out at 10:30 p.m.

Annie Jacobs, a rising high school sophomore in Fort WorthTexas, was drawn to the camp for its immersion environment and low cost: $350. Daily exercise was an added bonus for the student athlete.

“I’m a soccer player and I run a lot so I thought that was really cool that they were making us do PT every morning,” Ms. Jacobs said.

Sometimes the Chinese sessions went on for what seemed to her too long, but for the most part, “brilliant” instructors found creative ways to keep students’ attention, she said. It helped that the class could steer the lesson toward their interests.

“It was kind of improv teaching, just kind of what came up was what we would learn,” Ms. Jacobs said.

In his Arabic class, instructor Rafik Massik employed music, videos and online games to keep the class engaged. The Egyptian-born 28-year-old, who teaches Arabic at an elementary school in CharlotteN.C., saw the camp as chance to clear up some misconceptions about the Arab world and bring the language to life.

“It’s not only about the language actually; it’s more about the language in the culture,” he told GlobalAtlanta.

With that in mind, each class took a field trip to Atlanta to put their learning into action.

Arabic students learned about Islam at the Al-Farooq mosque on 14th Street and visited the Alif Institute‘s office to hear about the local Arab community.

The Russian class visited an Orthodox church in Cumming and perused aisles filled with Russian groceries at the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market. They also attended a rehearsal of the Atlanta Balalaika Society. Balalaikas are Russian three-stringed instruments that look like triangular mandolins.

The students were enraptured by the warmth and passion that characterized the Russians they met, though they’re “not the most smiling culture in the world,” said Anastasiya Lakhno, a graduate student in sociology at Valdosta State University who also teaches Russian language there.

Ms. Lakhno grew up in Siberia in a city called Krasnoyarsk. A linguist trained in English and Turkish who came to the U.S. to teach her native tongue, she wanted students to understand the value of cross-cultural education.

“I was trying to teach them to be open to everything new,” said Ms. Lakhno. “I said, ‘If you don’t want to keep up with the language, still I hope that this experience helped you somehow to be more open-minded, more adventurous and curious about different cultures.'”

For those who do want to continue with their studies, Ms. Lakhno has offered free lessons over Skype as she starts a new Russian teaching position at North Georgia in the fall.

Students find it hard to maintain their newfound skills when they return to normal high schools, since critical languages are rarely taught at that level.

Spanish is by far the most widely taught language in Georgia schools, accounting for more than two-thirds of the nearly 380,000 students enrolled in foreign-language classes from sixth through 12th grades, according to the Georgia Department of Education.

Mandarin Chinese is coming on strong at 2,474, and brand new programs have been launched in Korean and Arabic. Nearly 200 students at Fulton Science Academy are learning Turkish.

Exposing students to languages at a young age better prepares them for intensive college programs and overseas study, said Dlynn Armstrong-Williams, director of the college’s Center for Global Engagement.

“The earlier you can get them exposed to that then maybe the shock won’t be so great when they come to university,” Dr. Armstrong-Williams said.

North Georgia sees language instruction as an obligation for any college aiming to churn out globally competitive students, she said.

Introduced last year, the Strategic Language Intensive Program allows students to spend their freshman year immersed in a critical language with the goal of later going abroad. The college also offers language camps in the summer, and its international affairs degree program requires both a study-abroad trip and an international internship.

Through a U.S. grant focused on furthering non-traditional language instruction, the college has established a Chinese major and is working on Russian and Arabic majors with the possibility of pursuing Korean and Farsi programs.

A common thread in these programs is the emphasis on cultural competency in addition to language skills.

“Language proficiency is nice .. but if you don’t understand global economics, politics or culture, the language is helpful but it’s limited,” Dr. Armstrong-Williams said.

North Georgia has grown from 3,200 students when she arrived to more than 7,000 today.

Contact John Wilson at jwilson@northgeorgia.edu for more information about the program.


State Pushes World Languages in Schools

Blog: Defining Internationalization: A New College’s Attempt

Further Contacts/Links: 

North Georgia College and State University’s Center for Global Engagement

*Name changed at request of interviewee

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...