Local students learning Chinese as part of a National Security program

Students as young as in 3rd grade are learning Chinese in Syracuse this summer.

49 students from Syracuse area schools, some of them as young as in 3rd grade, have spent three weeks learning Chinese.

The program is called StarTalk (as in 'Start Talk') and it's being run at SUNY Oswego's Metro Center on Syracuse's Clinton Square, funded by the National Security Agency (NSA).

Ching Hung Hsiao, who teaches in SUNY Oswego's Modern Languages and Literature Department, wrote the grant to NSA, which has been running similar programs around the country for the past ten years. The Central New York program is the only one in New York this year, that teaches such young children.

Before the summer camp started for students, the teachers, who are Mandarin-certified, were brought in to learn the teaching system that NSA developed. It's an immersion program, which means that once students walk in the door, they only hear Chinese, no English. SUNY Oswego's Mingte Pan, who teaches in the history department. says teachers "are taught how to use body language, gestures, prompt students." He also says that by emphasizing context, they learn not only the words, but also the cultural contexts that help them understand subtleties that are uniquely Chinese.

There are four classrooms: one for elementary (where today, they were singing in Chinese to recognizable tunes), middle school (where they were practicing martial arts moves to modern Chinese music), high school and heritage (for students with Chinese language background, who were also 'mentoring' the high schoolers).

Some of the students we talked to say the teaching style was confusing at first, but they also say it's been fun, and 'a lot easier than French.' Because it's interactive and high energy learning, we noticed all the students (all ages) were involved and engaged. The day is segmented to include learning periods and breaks where Chinese snacks are served. One Chinese dish is served in the afternoon break. Today it was fried rice. (Chopsticks were in the same equipment storage bin that also held pens, pencils and other school supplies.)

The summer program is part of the National Security Language Initiative, and longterm goals include developing Americans who can speak and understand languages, including Chinese, that are recognized as critical to the longterm national need. "We are in a global society," says Dr. Hsiao. "We need to have that global awareness. And learning a foreign language is the first step."

Here's more on StarTalk:

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