When the 13 teenagers who participated in StarTalk 2009 at the University of Mississippi return to their high schools this fall, they’ll have some interesting tidbits for their “what I did during summer vacation” reports. Most notably, within 30 days, they progressed from zero knowledge of Mandarin Chinese to being able to write and converse in the language.
“I thought it was going to be like the French class I’d taken in middle school – I learned it for 20 minutes to pass the test,” said Zanuib Baig, who soon begins her senior year of high school in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Here, you’re around so many people who speak Chinese all the time. It’s like it embeds it into you. I hope to continue with Chinese. StarTalk far exceeded anything I expected.”
StarTalk is a government initiative aimed at increasing the number of Americans learning critical-need languages. In its third year at UM, the program is an outgrowth of the National Flagship Language Program in Intensive Chinese Program, which immerses students in Chinese language and culture. UM is the only university in Mississippi that offers an undergraduate degree in Mandarin Chinese.
The program has always had a cultural component, but organizers ramped it up significantly for the 2009 class. Students learned to cook Chinese dumplings and write Chinese calligraphy. They made terra cotta warriors from plaster and practiced tai chi in the Grove, a green space in the middle of campus. They watched Chinese movies and listened to Chinese music. And for their closing ceremony, they performed original skits for family and friends – first in Chinese, then in English.
“This third year, I feel like we really struck a good balance between what students were learning in the classroom and the activities outside the classroom,” said Dan Hedglin, StarTalk coordinator. “We’re constantly giving them information, but in a way that’s more entertaining and enjoyable, so they are learning things even when they don’t think they are.”
Students were selected for StarTalk based on academic records, letters of recommendation and personal essays. Once chosen, they received full-tuition scholarships for the second summer term, including room, board, textbooks and meal plan. By the end, they’d earned five hours of college credit before graduating high school; however, it wasn’t all fun and games.
“It definitely taught me hard work. When they say ‘intensive,’ it really was intense,” said Novien Yarber of Oxford. “At first I was skeptical about using my summer break to learn another language, but it’ll open a lot of doors. Learning Chinese this summer was awesome.”
Amber Williams of Ashland said she not only learned a lot about China and its culture but also found out what’s it like to be a college student.
“The program teaches you how to be disciplined,” Williams said. “Nobody’s there to tell you to study because you have a test on (Chinese) characters tomorrow. You have to be well-organized and work hard.”
The hard work pays off. At dinner, students would frequently start a conversation in English but spontaneously break into Chinese for extended periods, without prodding from their instructors.
“At first there’s a fear of the language, that they can’t learn it because it’s so different,” Hedglin said. “You watch them go from being intimidated by the language to actually embracing the language. It’s really exciting that they can see the importance of learning Chinese.”
Donald Dyer, chair of modern languages, said he hopes that this taste of Chinese culture will whet an appetite to learn more at the collegiate level – preferably at UM.
“We’d like them to come here,” Dyer said. “Based on our conversations with them, a large percentage of them will apply to our Intensive Chinese program. We’re pretty excited about that.”[youtube]brOfNVgF1Cw[/youtube]