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Monday, April 23, 2007

Get 'Em Young

Offutt linguists teach Sarpy pupils Arabic

Working from right to left, Steven Audinet used a dry-erase marker to scrawl the Arabic word for "clown" across the white board in a classroom at Bellevue's Peter Sarpy Elementary School.

Asked if he could say the word, the fifth grader said no.

Steven's Arabic instructor, Air Force Master Sgt. John Whatley, chimed in and said the boy still was working on the pronunciation.

"He's got to learn to speak backward now," Whatley said with a laugh.

School district and Defense Department officials who watched the demonstration this week were impressed by the ability of Steven and eight of his classmates to write and speak in Arabic, Spanish and Chinese.

The fifth- and sixth-graders started learning the languages last month in a pilot program at the school involving language specialists from Offutt Air Force Base.

The partnership formed after representatives from the Bellevue Public Schools, Metropolitan Community College and Bellevue University toured Offutt's language-training center, said Lt. Col. Wes Smith, who runs the center.

The students use the popular Rosetta Stone language-learning computer software to study the basics, he said. They then meet with the linguists weekly to cover topics not addressed by the immersion-style software, such as greetings and numbers.

"Even though we can't be here all the time, we can be here to check their progress and to add to it," Smith said.

Whatley, an Arabic linguist, works with Steven and two other students. A Chinese linguist and a Spanish linguist from the base also teach three students each, for a total of nine students in the pilot program.

Some of the students, including fifth-grader Sergio Gonzalez, are learning their third language via the program.

Sergio's first language is Spanish. He said he learned English when he was about 3 years old, and he's learning Chinese through the program.

Both Sergio and Steven said it was easier to write in their new languages than to speak them. Sergio said, though, that he can have very basic conversations with two schoolmates who also are learning Chinese.

And Steven has fun talking in Arabic with his dad, who currently is deployed to Iraq, Principal Larry Wade said.

Andrea Masek, the students' teacher, said they sometimes write their names on their assignments in Arabic or Chinese, leaving her to wonder who the work came from.

Many more than just the nine students expressed an interest in learning the languages, she said.

"They're begging, 'Can I go to foreign language class?'" Masek said of her other students.

Smith of the Offutt center said the pilot program could be expanded at Peter Sarpy and to other district elementary schools and possibly middle and high schools, if it goes well.

Wade said the program is a "huge success."

"Who knows?" Wade said. "Maybe these students will be back here stationed at Offutt as linguists."

That's a possibility for Sergio, who said his mother wants him to join the military when he grows up.

If he does, he said, he might try to become a linguist.

Only in Omaha...I can imagine the outcry if the Defense Language Institute tried this in Monterey CA schools.

h/t to The Propwash Gang


  • At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I think its a terrific idea. Anything that teaches young people a foreign language seems a bonus to me. I worked very hard to learn a couple languages in adulthood, and I can see the intrinsic value in it.


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