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Summer program again brings critical languages to young children

Posted On: July-25-2012

See some of the STARTALK instructors in action in videos on the IU School of Education YouTube page. Watch here and here.

It’s something of a given these days that U.S. citizens should know more about the Middle East and the surrounding region, given the importance it has in world matters. But it’s not a given that students in the U.S. will ever have much exposure to the culture from those areas nor learn much about their languages.

You don’t have to convince Toby Cox of the importance. A senior this fall at the University of Virginia double majoring in Arabic and foreign affairs, concentrating on the Middle East and North Africa, she was in Cairo, Egypt earlier this summer, just as the government was preparing for elections in the wake of former President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. Cox returned from Egypt and came to Bloomington to expand her work on spreading knowledge of those important parts of the world, taking part in the “STARTALK” program at the IU School of Education.

“One of my friends over there found out about the program and encouraged me to apply,” Cox said. “I didn’t really know a whole lot about it before coming, but it seemed like a good opportunity.”

Cox spent three weeks in Bloomington teaching Arabic to students between 3 and 12 years old, one of four language programs conducted at sites around Bloomington. Aside from Arabic, Bloomington area youngsters took three week courses in Chinese and Turkish as well at community sites including the Monroe County YMCA, the Banneker Center, and Girls, Inc. Cox joined a cohort of instructors from across the country and Bloomington for the federally-funded program designed to increase the number of Americans learning, speaking and teaching so-called “critical need” foreign languages.

“This program offers to community centers the opportunity to take advantage of cultural outreach through well-trained teachers who are proficient in the language,” said Martha Nyikos, associate professor in the Literacy, Culture, and Language Education department in the IU School of Education and director of the STARTALK program. “These teachers are highly motivated to teach through fun cultural interactions using cognitively and socially engaging ways to build understanding for people, language, and different ways of seeing the world.”   Nyikos’ particular grant focuses on developmental needs of teaching children another language at an early age (pre K-6) and promoting language programs in other communities.  “Youngsters rarely have a chance to take a foreign language in our elementary schools, let alone have access to languages such as Chinese, Turkish or Arabic at an age when they are most cognitively receptive to new languages,” she noted.

Program participants did online coursework before meeting with Nyikos on campus and beginning the on-site classes. When they finished, they had developed a plan to start a community language program. The programs are designed similarly to the “Bridges:  Children, Languages, World” project sponsored by the Center for the Study of Global Change at IU. Nyikos is the Bridges pedagogical coordinator. The Center partners with language departments on the IU campus and Title VI centers—those receiving federal funding to focus on what the government terms “less commonly taught” languages—to provide volunteers to teach languages in free community programs.

Part of the idea behind the program is to encourage these participants familiar with the languages to consider earning teachers certification to enter a school classroom at some point. “When you teach something, you’re also learning as you’re teaching,” Cox said of her experience. “It’s helped me keep up with my Arabic. And who knows, maybe in the future I’d want to become a teacher.

A linguistics doctoral student from Tulane University in New Orleans drove north for the STARTALK program for exposure to more tangible experiences with her subject. “I work with a lot of data from children’s speech,” said Tianqi Robyn Yang. “I’m interested in the real hands-on data. In this way, I can have a closer relationship with kids and think about it more from their perspectives.”

The experience of working with children in a condensed teaching time gave the participants an immediate feel for what works and doesn’t. “We learn very quickly if we’re using more vocabulary than the kids can handle, so we’ll minimize some of it and include more activities,” said Dijana Sirovica, a participant from California who graduated from San Jose State last year. “So the program was able to help us determine how much they could really learn and which goals we can meet and which we can’t.”

“Dr. Nyikos does a wonderful job of giving us timely feedback the day after, but she also teaches us how to find materials and continue working even when the course is over,” said Cagri Yildirim, an IU School of Education doctoral student in Instructional Systems Technology who is originally from Turkey. “She’s really an advocate of techniques and materials suitable for children’s language and cultural learning.”

Yang described her reason for participating as a way to give back to her community. This goal was much the same for Baqie Muhammad, a PhD candidate in art history at IU who moved to Bloomington from Sudan 20 years ago. "There are so many Arab nationals in the U.S. who have special needs connected with social, health, education, economic and security issues,” she said. “Teaching Arabic for Americans who work in these areas would help create better communication and understanding. On the other hand, the situation in the Middle East, creates a complex relation between America and the Arab world; it demands that Arabic should be taught for those American who work or study in the Middle East to help them communicate efficiently with the people there." 

The partner centers say the summer programming created a great way for participants to learn more about other cultures and praised the STARTALK teachers for their enthusiasm and effectiveness. “I hear students greeting each other and staff in Arabic all the time,” said Banneker Center Program Director Will Rose. “Our group's familiarity with other cultures has been greatly enhanced through your programming. What an opportunity for our students!”

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