By Chandley McDonald, Staff Writer, IIP Digital (Managed by the U.S. Department of State)
Washington - A love of the Persian language, a fascination with hiking and the outdoors, and a sense of adventure sent Johann, a secondary school student from the United States, to Central Asia to study the language last summer.
In 2006, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs established the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) program, administered by partner organization American Councils for International Education. The program sends American students abroad to learn languages that the United States government deems critical, including Arabic, Chinese, Persian, Hindi, Korean, Russian and Turkish. In this youth program, secondary school students compete for merit-based scholarships for six-week summer or eight- to 10-month academic year language immersion study.
In addition to language study, the program provides a cultural immersion experience. Johann studied with local teachers five hours a day, Monday through Friday. Beyond that, he and his classmates, 15 in all, spent time with their host families, made new friends and joined in such cultural activities as visiting museums, parks and local sites of interest.
Originally from Alaska, Johann learned Persian basically by himself over a couple of years before traveling to Central Asia, where he made the most of his six-week intensive language immersion program. When asked about his approach to language learning, he said, “I try to say whatever I want to say without worrying what I sound like, because if I worry what others think, maybe I won’t want to speak with them as much as I do now. It’s better to just say what I can, and then eventually I will learn to correct my mistakes - with the help of others - as I go.”
In addition to intensive language study, Johann and other NSLI-Y participants volunteered two afternoons at an orphanage. The students said they were grateful for the opportunity to use their new language skills to make a positive difference in the community.
After returning home, Johann reflected on his summer odyssey. “The culture, language, history and daily routines of life ... were completely new for me, making my six weeks there a truly exotic experience,” he said. “But the people I met there were the same people I meet here at home: an older mathematics teacher who takes afternoon naps and tutors his grandkids on the weekends; a taxi driver who looks forward to a beer at home after a day’s work; a professor who prefers to walk to the office because she enjoys the exercise; or a young husband, planning his dream home up on the hillside some day.”
“Despite being in a land where everything was different, I came to know all these characters and more by way of learning their language. The opportunity to learn Persian for six weeks this past summer not only taught me a new language, but also that people are people,” from Alaska to Central Asia.
After coming home Johann has continued to study Persian on his own and has befriended many local Persian speakers. His plan is to keep up his language skills while at university and, “to eventually work in a diplomatic capacity in Persian-speaking countries.”
More information on the initiative is available on the National Security Language Initiative for Youth website
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