As students of the StarTalk Louisville program can demonstrate, learning a foreign language is about more than just reciting vocabulary words; it’s about immersing into the cultures, customs and traditions of that language’s country of origin.

Every summer, Field Elementary School is temporarily transformed into an international place setting for the two-week StarTalk Chinese-language program. Decorated with traditional Chinese lanterns, maps of various Asian countries, Zodiac signs, and posters ― all written in Mandarin ― every element of the program is designed to bring a little slice of China to Kentucky.

“The objects around the room bring a sense that language isn’t just a bunch of sentences that you see on the board, then copy down,” said Calvin Grant, a Mandarin teacher who’s been with the program for two years. “It’s actually a new way to interact and learn about the world.”

StarTalk is a federally funded program created to promote the teaching and learning of languages critical to U.S. national security (for example, Arabic, Chinese and Russian).

According to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, learners of Mandarin Chinese would need to study for at least 720 hours in order to achieve basic fluency.

In 2007, University of Louisville professor Dr. Li Zeng and Dr. Helen Pan worked with StarTalk to implement the program here, which is now one of 97 such programs in the nation. Every locality manages their curricula differently, but in Louisville the focus of the program is centered on middle and high school students.

“We want to provide this opportunity and platform for students to continue to learn this language and culture,” said Cheng Fisher, director of the StarTalk Louisville program. “That’s why we have the program during the summer: so students can increase their global competency. It will be something they will carry with them for the new school year.”

Fisher pointed out how the Jefferson County Public School system offers only a handful of Chinese language classes. The program seeks to fill this linguistic and cultural gap by providing the summer classes at no cost to JCPS, Archdiocese of Louisville and home school students.

“The intended impact is to open the students’ minds to other traditions and cultures and to spark an interest in Mandarin for hopefully continuing the language in the future,” said Joel Buno, executive director of Asia Institute – Crane House. “Students gain a better grasp of not only the Mandarin language, but also Chinese culture and arts.”

Such cultural excursions include daily fan dances, Chinese tea ceremonies, paper cutting, and making (and eating) dumplings.

Stephanie Clay, a teaching assistant for StarTalk Louisville, explained that “full immersion” means no English is used during any portion of the program. Clay acknowledged that it can be tricky, but the key to making a foreign language program successful is the ability of teachers to adapt.

“We tend to have lessons set, then students don’t participate in the ways we expect, so we have to change the lesson in a way that they can can get the most out of it,” Clay said. “If students pick up on what we’re saying, they’ll help other students out and translate it for them. It’s nice to hear what they’re actually getting out of each lesson.”

Teachers for the StarTalk program have noted that, more often than not, students are motivated to learn a foreign language when motivated by a personal goal.

Jasmine, a sixth grader who’s spent two years in the StarTalk program, explained that her family is planning a trip to China for summer break next year, which is why she wanted to learn the language beforehand.

“If I learn Chinese, if I become fluent in it, then I would be able to communicate a little bit easier,” Jasmine said. “Also, my parents told me that if I have business overseas, in China, for example, then it could mean I would travel there for my job, or it could lead to a better job.”

With back-to-school season around the corner, a lot of students in Jefferson County are likely experiencing a blend of anxiety and excitement for the road ahead. These challenges, Fisher said, can be made easier once students realize they can conquer a foreign language.

“I feel that learning about a different language and culture makes you feel powerful, significant and capable,” Fisher said. “So, those are some important qualities for 21st century global citizens, and this program is meant to help them search themselves and explore the world.”

Cultural instructor Liwen Lin demonstrates a traditional Chinese tea service. | Photo by Elijah McKenzie
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