- The Washington Times - Monday, December 2, 2002

When actor-director Mel Gibson makes his next movie in Latin and Aramaic with no subtitles, as planned, the language barrier won't prove as insurmountable in the Washington area as one might think.
To judge by the range of unconventional language courses offered at area colleges, private organizations and nonprofit institutions, some of the most adventurous viewers in the audience won't need help understanding the script, currently titled "Passion," about the last 12 hours in the life of Christ.
Granted, such a conceit is far-fetched and anyone wishing to learn Aramaic on top of a regular day job will have to search diligently to find instruction offered at a convenient time.
Catholic University, for one, has taught Aramaic in the past. The school can direct enrollees in its continuing-education program, called Metropolitan College, to classes in such studies as Old Irish and Middle Welsh, currently included among more conventional language choices in the School of Arts and Sciences.
Introductory Irish I and Irish II are offered two evenings a week, says Christina Mahony, director of Catholic's Irish studies program. "It is available to anyone, but it is very expensive and only for people who are serious. It is also tough," Ms. Mahony warns.
Mary Bergin, a native of Ireland who is a receptionist and part-time researcher at the Irish Embassy, has been advised to call the Irish Center of Washington at 415 Michigan Ave. NE to keep up in a less formal way with the language she acquired back home in school.
"I'm afraid I will lose it here," she says.
Nearly all local institutions of higher learning have evening language programs. People wanting to spend time at night at Northern Virginia Community College learning or brushing up on Latin or classic Greek two supposedly "dead" languages can do so by signing up at the Alexandria campus for the spring semester, which begins in January. Arabic and Japanese also are being offered then.
Nonprofit organizations such as the Brazilian-American Cultural Institute, at 4103 Connecticut Ave. NW, are another source. BACI, as it's known, has a special interest in perpetuating knowledge of Portuguese, spoken in Portugal and Brazil. Executive Director Jose Niestein reports that the number of students "is escalating dramatically historians, economists, librarians all need such knowledge to function in their professions, where in the past this kind of interest was shown largely by scholars and intellectuals."
BACI has developed its own teaching method to take into consideration the basic difficulties an English-speaking student would have when learning Portuguese, Mr. Niestein says. Classes take place weekdays from 6 to 9 p.m., and general cultural programs are offered throughout the day. A competition is being organized for next September that will award a round-trip ticket to Brazil to the language student who applies and gets the best grades on both a written and an oral exam.
The Berlitz Language Center advertises in the Yellow Pages that it can teach "all languages" a valid claim, says Christopher Ekvall, director of Berlitz's downtown location, at 1050 Connecticut Ave. NW.
"Sure, 75 to 80 percent of the languages we teach are mainstream, such as French, German and Spanish, but in the last three days, I have had requests for Urdu, Tagalog and even Norwegian reared its head," he says, explaining that the company relies heavily on government contacts at embassies to find tutors who can offer small-group instructional programs and also individual lessons.
"I had a rough time with the last one [Norwegian] because, for some reason, that population is hard to come by," Mr. Ekvall reports. "We teach Swedish every couple of months."
(A call to the cultural attache's office at the Norwegian Embassy produced the information that a course called Norwegian for Travelers is taught as part of the Fairfax Public Schools' adult and community education program. "That may be possibly because we have a very active Norwegian Ladies Association in that area," an embassy spokesman says.)
Demand for Japanese has fallen off at Berlitz in the past few years, Mr. Ekvall reports. "It has taken a back seat to Mandarin Chinese out of sheer commercial interest."
Typically, an American businessperson can't afford the time to take a complex Asian language, he says, so Berlitz includes "cultural training and behavior points" along with basic language in short immersion programs. Although it's rare to get requests for African tongues, he notes that Berlitz teaches Swahili out of its Tysons Corner office.
Commercial language schools abound locally, with the majority focusing on conversational and written abilities as opposed to more academic approaches. Berlitz concentrates on conversation, while others specialize in teaching English to immigrants.
The Graduate School, USDA, which is largely an evening and weekend teaching institution at 600 Maryland Ave. SW, runs the gamut in its offerings, with as many as two dozen languages available in its catalog. (For a full description and prices, the online site is GRAD.USDA.GOV/Catalog.) Not every language is taught every semester, but different levels as well as review courses are routine.
Languages currently popular at the school include Arabic and Farsi, says Communications Director Deborah Smith. Hindi has been offered for three years, and Urdu was started this fall.
"Economic and political changes raise or lower demand," she says. "Demand for Russian became strong when the Soviet Union collapsed and leveled off as Russia's economy failed to take off and Western investment in Russia remained modest. Increasing trade with, and travel to, China keeps interest in Chinese steady."
Dropped from Graduate School offerings of the past because of poor enrollment are Hungarian, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Thai and Modern Hebrew.
Arabic clearly has gained favor in recent years as politics increasingly are focused on the Middle East.
Arabic classes at the Middle East Institute, 1761 N St. NW, have grown four times in six years, says department Chairman Abed Shukri, who has taught Arabic as well as Islamic Intellectual History at such institutions as Yale and the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute. The total student enrollment this year is expected to reach 600, with 400 of these in Arabic alone. The other languages taught are Farsi, Turkish and Hebrew.
The reason, Mr. Shukri says, is "professional need," spurred by government and nonprofit institutional interests in that part of the world. Other students, he says, are "people of Middle Eastern descent who want to study the language of their ancestors, academics who want to keep up their knowledge, and then the 'social people,' who have plans to marry into the culture."
Checking in with the nearly 200 foreign embassies and consulates located in Washington is a logical way to inquire about local resources for learning an unusual language or dialect.
Another route is calling the offices of various church groups that have large congregations in the area.
One of the area's oldest and most continuous church-affiliated language programs is the series of Greek classes taught by Alexandros Alexandrou, a native of Greece, for beginning, intermediate and advanced adult students on Saturdays throughout the school year at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, at Massachusetts Avenue and 36th Street NW.
Mr. Alexandrou, a genial retiree who worked in computers, dresses in jacket and tie while standing at a podium in a small room filled with conventional school desks.
The atmosphere is informal.
Classes are small and involve learning the cultural context of the language as well as developing the ability to read and speak Greek.
The basic text is "Modern Spoken Greek," developed decades ago by the U.S. Army's language school in Monterey, Calif. The advanced section uses translations, in Greek, of such popular nonfiction books as Nicholas Gage's "Eleni" and a translation of Leo Buscaglia's "Living, Loving and Learning."
Few class members belong to the church. The intellectual challenge of learning another language is the prime motive for participation, most students say. A native of Colombia in the intermediate course is married to a Greek-American. Another is a native of India, a World Bank employee interested in making a documentary film about Indian influences on Greek music.
"It's among the best bargains in Washington," Radhika Yeddanapudi says, praising along with the others the skills of Mr. Alexandrou, who has been a professional teacher for more than 40 years.
Christos Kyriazi hopes to learn the language well enough to read the New Testament in Greek. Amy Mann, who took ancient Greek in college, has been coming to classes at St. Sophia since 1983 as much out of love for "my favorite country in the world" as for the sense of achievement that comes from speaking a language that has given so many root words to the English tongue.

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