Kent State Foreign Language Academy for High School Students Funded for 11th Year

Federal grant funds Kent State summer foreign language academy for 10th year

A Kent State University summer program that teaches foreign languages to high school students has just received federal funding for the 10th consecutive year.

Professors Brian Baer and Theresa Minick of the Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies received two grants last month totaling $180,000 to host the 2017 Kent State Regents-STARTALK Foreign Language Academy.

The STARTALK grants, funded by the National Security Agency and the National Foreign Language Center, provide $90,000 each for juniors and seniors from regional high schools to spend four weeks in an intensive residential program, learning either Russian or Mandarin Chinese. The program is completely free for participating students, who can earn both high school and college credit upon completion.

“By getting an entire year of college-level study before they enter college,” Baer said, “participants are able to test into intermediate when they enter college. This makes it much more likely that they will major or minor in the language, study abroad. In this way, we’re able set them on the path to advanced-level proficiency.”

Many of the participants, Baer added, end up coming to Kent State to pursue their undergraduate degrees.

STARTALK is a post-9/11 initiative by the federal government started to address a lack of language experts to translate the intelligence reports U.S. agencies were receiving.

“There were piles of transcripts in Arabic that weren’t being translated because they didn’t have enough translators,” Baer said.

Kent State boasts the nation’s only bachelor-to-Ph.D. Translation Studies program.

The academy — now in its 11th year of operation — began when Baer and then-chair of MCLS, Emeritus Prof. Gregory Shreve, submitted an application that won funding from the Ohio Board of Regents for the first foreign language academy in 2007. The program obtained STARTALK funding the following year and has been consistently funded ever since. At its largest, the academy offered five languages: Arabic, Japanese, Russian, Chinese, and Hindi.

The program also has provided support for foreign language teachers in Summit County high schools and primary schools. In 2009, Baer and Minick were awarded a Foreign Language Assistance Program grant through the U.S. Department of Education to fund salaries and professional development programs for instructors of “critical need” languages.

“From that, we created the teacher training component of the STARTALK summer program, the Teacher Leadership Academy,” Baer said. The teachers are trained in STARTALK best practices and in Kent’s best practices for implementing technology.

“We were one of the first programs that so heavily embedded technology into the teaching and the learning of our program,” Minick said. “This helps students to make a smooth transition from the academy into the academic year. Our online learning program has many social aspects to it. They create digital stories and use different voice tools, tools that help them to be collaborative and creative.”

Professor Tatyana Bystrova, who has taught at the program since it began in 2007 and coordinates the KSU undergraduate program in Russian, said students learn language basics quickly by keeping the program’s lessons and discussions in the target language as much as possible. They are soon able to converse with native speakers.

“We have them Skype with people in the country of the language they are learning, and after just a few days of language immersion, you can see they are able to interact with them, and ask them questions, like their name where they work, questions about their family, and then they start getting to know each other and bonding over music other everyday things.”

Bystrova said the value of immersion in another language and culture lies not only in providing students a valuable skill, but in helping them to develop an enriched and expanded worldview.

“In learning the language, that encourages them to have respect for the other culture, and to understand the historic events that shaped the culture and the language,” she said. Communicating in another person’s language gives you a greater perspective on their life and their experiences.”
The program is only one part of the equation, though, Baer said.

“Our program is unique because many others only focus on the summer program component, and then the problem is that students don’t necessarily have any place to go after that,” he said. “And with foreign language, it’s pretty much use it or lose it. If there’s a gap, you really just have to start all over.”

Since the beginning, Baer said, the STARTALK program at Kent State has committed to a mandatory full academic year follow-up component. Students return in the fall, coming to Kent State one Saturday a month for eight months, and supplement their study during the interim with online instruction.
That is how they accumulate a year’s worth of college-level foreign language study, Baer said.

He said program directors also focus on helping to guide students toward advanced degree programs and career paths that will make use of their language skills.

“We figure that’s a better investment of the government’s money,” Baer said. Other government programs also are available for students who demonstrate outstanding proficiency.
“We talk to them a lot about NSLI-Y, a government-sponsored program to support study abroad,” Baer said.

The NSLI-Y — National Security Language Initiative for Youth, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State — is a highly-competitive program with rigorous application and acceptance standards.

“We’ve had at least ten students from the Chinese and Russian Groups who’ve gone on,” Baer said. “Some for the whole year. So they go through our program, and basically finish a year of college language study, then before going to college, they go to live in the target culture for a year, then they go to college. So they enter college at a pretty advanced level.”

Applications are now being accepted for the 2017 academy


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