Swahili program lets students stand out from peers

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Nestled in a Sycamore Hall classroom, students learned a grammar lesson.

A grammar lesson isn’t unusual in an Indiana University academic building, and it’s not unusual that the lesson was in Swahili either, considering IU is home to the Swahili Flagship Center, the only language program of its kind in the country.

But the lesson was part of the STARTALK Swahili program, an intensive program for eighth- to 12th-grade students. It’s grant-funded, so it’s free to the students, and they earn three college credits.

“The emphasis is to start talking,” program director Meg Arenberg told The Herald-Times. That’s where the name STARTALK comes from, she said.

The nonresidential program for local students — in its fifth year — started Monday and has four weeks of classes all about immersion. Instructors speak as little English as possible and fill the days with lessons, songs and games, all in Swahili. Plus, students learn about East African culture, such as clothing and food.

“It’s the equivalent of one semester,” said Alwiya Omar, who directs the program and the flagship center. “It’s the same proficiency.”

But the challenge so far has been recruitment, she said.

“The target is 25, and we’ve got 15,” Omar said.

Someday, program organizers said, they’d like to expand the program into local schools so Swahili is offered alongside other languages. Swahili is a Bantu language spoken in several east central countries in Africa.

For a duo of first-year students, learning Swahili is a way to stand out in college and job applications.

“I want to be bilingual, and Swahili is less common,” said Benjamin Rogers, who will be in eighth grade at Jackson Creek Middle School in the fall.

Jordan Stanley, who will be a junior at Harmony School this coming school year, agreed. She said Swahili was a less common language that would look good on a job application.

Plus, the interactive teaching style is something they enjoy.

Stanley said the instructors joke around with students. You’re their friend, Rogers added.

The goal is keeping students engaged in the language, Omar said. Students have monthly refresher conversation classes during the school year to keep them active in Swahili.

Plus, students of all levels are in class together.

“Seeing fellow students and the conversation partners shows what’s possible,” Arenberg said.

For Adam Berndt, returning to the program after completing four years, the class provides a way to keep practicing and expand his vocabulary.

Berndt, who did the program as a Harmony student, returned this year as a conversation partner. He said it’s really exciting to have learned the language well enough to be able to joke around in Swahili.

And even though Kenyon College, where he just finished his freshman year, doesn’t offer Swahili, Berndt said he’s met others who speak Swahili to practice with and he plans to use the language as part of a study abroad program.

The overall goal of the program is to expose students to Swahili as early as possible, Omar said.

Arenberg agreed. She said parents and students are very excited about the program and starting college with credits earned.

“These students are really well equipped with an excellent stepping stone,” she said.

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