Three Mattituck NJROTC cadets spent the past few weeks participating in a unique summer project: learning to speak Arabic or Chinese.
Caitlin Penny, 17; Nicole L’Hommedieu, 16; and Jonathan Hellermann, 17, just returned from three weeks at language boot camp at North Georgia College & State University, a military college in Dahlonega, Ga.
The Foreign Service Language Academy program at the college, now in its second year, trains high school students in “strategic” languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Korean, French and German, for use in careers in the military, the FBI, the CIA and the Peace Corps.
This is the first time local students have participated in the program, which was brought to their attention by Major William Grigonis.
Only half the students there were NJROTC cadets, but they all woke at 6 a.m. every day for a rigorous physical training program run by the U.S. Army, before spending all day and part of the evening immersing themselves in their language of choice.
Nicole and Caitlin learned Chinese, while Jonathan learned Arabic.
All three, who have taken Spanish courses, found the greatest difficulty was learning the different written languages.
The Chinese written language is made up of more than 90,000 symbols, though “you only need to know 2,400 of them to be literate,” said Caitlin. “It’s really overwhelming at first.”
Jonathan also struggled with the flowing, almost cursive written Arabic, but he felt it was well worth the effort.
“It’s a basic foundation for the future,” he said, adding that he’s always been interested in language and in the Middle East. He said he believed he did about a year’s worth of schoolwork in three weeks. The students will receive high school credit for the classes.
The trip wasn’t all study. The students had a chance to go whitewater rafting in Tennessee and visit Atlanta, where Jonathan visited a mosque and Caitlin and Nicole went to two authentic Chinese restaurants, where their teacher refused to identify such delicacies as pig stomachs and cow lungs before they were eaten.
Though none of the students said they plan to pursue a career in the military, they said they do want to travel the world and learn about other cultures.
Caitlin and Nicole hope to pursue careers in business one day, but all three students were intrigued by a presentation from a Peace Corps volunteer who spoke to them during their training.
They also heard presentations from members of the CIA and the FBI.
“The CIA guy couldn’t even tell us his last name,” said Nicole.
“In the Peace Corps you have two years in the country and it’s total immersion,” said Caitlin. “It doesn’t pay but it helps you get other federal careers.”
“Even in the military, if you know a foreign language, you can get paid more,” said Nicole.