The sounds of Mandarin Chinese reverberated on the second floor of Wesley W. Posvar Hall as students bargained for wares including a clock, a purple bar of soap and eclectic pieces of clothing in a simulated Chinese market.
This bustling market was one of several activities for current and incoming high school students learning Mandarin Chinese and Russian in two STARTALK programs at the University of Pittsburgh over the summer.
STARTALK is a National Security Agency program for students and teachers that centers on less commonly taught foreign languages that are of a strategic interest to the United States. The program aims to enroll more students in the study of these critical-need languages and to train more teachers in effective methods of teaching these languages — which also include Arabic, Portuguese, Korean and Hindi, among others — with the larger goals of better equipping the United States not only to improve its international relations, but also to solidify its national security and global economic competitiveness in the years ahead.
Pitt was the recipient of two STARTALK grants, which funded Chinese and Russian programs on the University’s Pittsburgh campus. The free programs were led by Vanessa Wei, an assistant instructor of Chinese in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures and a third-year doctoral student in the School of Education, and Dawn Seckler, associate director of Pitt’s Center for Russian and East European Studies.
The Russian language students — from Pittsburgh’s Brashear High School as well as two Chicago high schools — already knew a little of the language.
The Chinese language students — from Winchester Thurston School, the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Elizabeth Forward School District, Highlands School District and others — were almost all complete beginners.
In both programs, students were taught for more than three weeks in an immersive environment that discouraged the use of spoken English. The instructors and teaching assistants utilized body language, cognates and images to ease the learning process.
“STARTALK programs do not drill grammar or ask students to learn the language by rote. Instead, they organize instruction around sets of real-life situations,” said Seckler. “Students learn the language needed to successfully negotiate scenarios someone their own age would likely encounter.”
In addition to real-life applications, the students participated in activities that enhanced their understanding of the languages and cultures.
“By experiencing and being exposed to these cultural activities, students are able to appreciate and understand why people from a particular culture act a certain way or do certain things,” said Wei.
Among other activities were Russian Orthodox icon painting with local iconographer Randi Sider-Rose and a visit to local restaurant Sichuan Gourmet, where the students practiced ordering lunch in Chinese.
“I like how we get to interact with the Chinese community,” said Seth Ziemke, a student at Elizabeth Forward High School. “It’s a hands-on experience instead of just learning straight out of the textbook. We get to interact and talk with native speakers.”
It was the addition of these activities that made the course more meaningful, added Andrej Momiroski, a participant from the Chinese program and student at Mt. Lebanon High School.
“What I really like about the STARTALK program is that it truly combines this language and culture experience and makes it something really enjoyable,” he said.
During performances at each program’s closing ceremony, the students showcased their newly acquired skills. James Cook, acting director of Pitt’s Asian Studies Center, spoke at the Chinese ceremony and shared with the students and their families his experience of becoming fluent in the language.
“The study of Chinese makes you a smarter person,” said Cook. “It requires your brain to work in ways that you normally would not. And I would say that any foreign language, of course, requires that.”
While the Russian program has concluded, there are plans to have an event this fall to continue the study of Chinese on campus.