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It has been 25 years since Malik Nasir Awan, 51, arrived in the United States from his native Pakistan. As the owner of a construction company and the father of five American-born children, he feels settled here. But he still wants to pass on the Urdu language and culture of his home country to his children.

“When our religion and the government of America even says don’t forget your culture and language, then we shouldn’t ever forget it,” he said.

Five-year-olds perform a patriotic Urdu song translated as “Long Live Pakistan” at the graduation ceremony of their Urdu Startalk program in Brooklyn. (Aisha Asif)

The U.S. government gave Awan that chance last August when it funded a three-week Urdu program in the public school near his home in the southeast Brooklyn neighborhood known as Little Pakistan. His 12-year-old daughter Fatima was one of 85 neighborhood youngsters who signed up.

The Urdu classes were part of Startalk, a federal foreign language learning initiative paid for and overseen by the National Security Agency (NSA). Since its start seven years ago, 35,000 students in kindergarten through college have taken Startalk’s two- to eight week summer classes in languages considered important to the national interest: Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu. Startalk’s mission is to increase the number of Americans learning, speaking and teaching these languages, and it falls under former President George W. Bush’s larger 2006 National Security Language Initiative.

Now some language-teaching experts are questioning whether Startalk is an effective use of government funds because the classes are so short and there’s no follow-up instruction.

“If you want to develop competent speakers of any language strategic or otherwise, you need more training than a couple of weeks,” said Naomi Baron, an executive director at American University’s Department Language and Foreign Studies. Even with more extensive training, Baron said, you need guaranteed resources for students who want to learn more.

Others question whether Startalk can achieve its stated goal when most of the programs are in Chinese, a language that many schools throughout the country are increasingly offering anyway, sometimes with support from the Chinese government. Last year, there were 64 Chinese Startalk programs in 2013, compared to only 19 in Arabic (programs in the other languages measure in the single digits).

Even if no one knows for sure how many of the 35,000 Startalk students have become proficient in Chinese or Arabic or are interested enough to learn these languages on their own, one thing that seems not to have affected the program is the NSA’s secret surveillance of Americans.

Mark Wolkow, the NSA’s director of academic outreach, concedes Startalk “is a drop in the bucket” compared to the need. Language instruction in American schools has been declining for years, said Martha Abbott, executive director of American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages, an independent member organization of language teachers. “Right now for K-12, the U.S. Department of Education is not really spending much at all,” she said. Against that background, she said, the $60 million for Startalk could be significant.

Assessing the overall effectiveness of Startalk is difficult because there are considerable variations between programs around the country.

Brigham Young University hosts an Arabic Startalk program in Utah that has attracted high school students from all over the nation along with American students living abroad in countries like Japan and Belgium. It’s an intense three-week residential program attended by students “serious” about learning the language, said Kirk Belnap, director of the program and professor of Arabic at the university. Though no prior experience is required to join the program, many students who come have already had a couple semesters worth of Arabic, he said.

Because it is an immersion program, students are encouraged to speak Arabic from the moment they wake to when they go to bed at night, while engaging in various group learning activities such as playing soccer with native Arabic speakers or visiting mosques and community centers to get a sense of the culture of Arabic-speaking countries.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised that a lot of these kids would come out doing A-level work,” said Belnap. “They can cover about a semester of college Arabic in the three weeks.” Since 2007, about 150 students have attended the Arabic program.

American University’s Baron acknowledges that while intensive summer immersion courses like the one at BYU are good, they are not good enough on their own to make students proficient let alone fluent. Proficiency requires a lot more work and the chance for continuous study. Belnap says that his program has a high-rate of return students who come back the next year to study at a higher level. He did not have an exact number of how many students who went through his program actually continued their study of Arabic.

The students at Brigham Young pay about $1,100 in tuition to cover their room and board because it is a residential program and that means it attracts more affluent students.

The students at Rice University’s Chinese month-long Startalk program, who range from elementary to high school, are mostly African-American and Hispanic youngsters from Rice’s Houston neighborhood who come for three to four hours a day for a month to learn Mandarin. Rebecca Sanchez, the head of the program, says 600 students have attended since it started in 2012.

Even in this small amount of time, Sanchez says students learn a lot. They can have simple conversations with each other, present family histories and are exposed to cultural units on tea ceremonies and martial arts like Shaolin Kung Fu.

“The goal of the program is to spark their interest in learning Chinese so that they will continue their studies at their local school, if that school offers Chinese classes,” Sanchez said. But Startalk does not guarantee resources for further learning once a summer program ends and because the National Foreign Language Center, which administers the program with the NSA, will not be providing funds until July, a month after Rice normally starts its program, the university will not be offering its Startalk program this coming summer.

Abbott, of the language teachers association, said that opportunities for further study in languages like Turkish and Urdu were even more scarce. Students might have to rely on online resources.

The University of Maryland’s National Foreign Language Center, which administers Startalk, says that the goal is merely to “generate an interest” in learning critical languages. Startalk  directors Catherine Ingold and Betsy Hart said although the program had no way of tracking students to make sure exactly how many did go on to learn the languages in the program, the foreign language center does conduct a survey before the end of each program. They have found that 75 percent to 78 percent of students report wanting to continue learning their Startalk language. The hope is that kids will be enthused enough after going through the program to petition their schools to offer the language during the school year. Wolkow of the NSA said that so far 55 university-based programs and 43 after-school and/or community programs have started this way.

“Giving students a taste of foreign language experience, whetting their appetite, is okay for starters,” said Baron. “However, if the NSA is looking to generate language users whose skills are of value for national defense, they need to set a much higher bar.”

The National Council of State Supervisors of Foreign Language has started a pilot program to incorporate Startalk into the school year. The group is working with 10 schools, most of which have never had summer Startalk programs, to start teaching these languages throughout the year. All but one these schools chose to teach Chinese. Aimy Steele, assistant principal at Cox Mill High School in Concord, N.C., said Startalk administrators from the council were helpful in coming up with strategies and action plans to improve her school’s Chinese instruction.  In turn, the school has worked with the superintendent to make learning Chinese a district-wide goal.

Mark Wolkow, the NSA’s director of academic outreach, concedes Startalk “is a drop in the bucket” compared to the need.

Even if no one knows for sure how many of the 35,000 Startalk students have become proficient in Chinese or Arabic or are interested enough to learn these languages on their own, one thing that seems not to have affected the program is the NSA’s secret surveillance of Americans.

Abbott of the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages, which offers its own Startalk programs in Chinese and Russian, said she hasn’t heard parents express any concerns about privacy issues. Gabriela Ilieva, the director of the Startalk teaching program at NYU, said that Startalk has actually unintentionally bridged divides. The Urdu Startalk students of Brooklyn performed Urdu songs at the borough’s Unity Day for the first time this year.

“It’s a huge achievement because the community there is a profiled one,” she said, mentioning the NYPD’s controversial monitoring of Muslim groups in the city, including Little Pakistan.

The Brooklyn program also helps community residents pass on their heritage. Shahid Hameed Khan, the director, gets emotional when he talks about the neighborhood kids’ inability to speak proper Urdu. At the 2013 Startalk’s annual convention in Portland, Ore., he argued during a presentation against advertising the NSA’s involvement in order to make sure lots of youngsters applied.

“If StartTalk is leading to good in the community and more awareness of Urdu, which people didn’t even know about, then these things like the NSA’s involvement [in other activities]  – which have nothing to do with this program – shouldn’t be highlighted,” he said in an interview.

Ultimately, the Brooklyn program attracted more than 100 students although Khan was originally afraid he would not even meet the 25-student minimum requirement. Abbott says Startalk might be more beneficial for these students because they are more familiar with the language and can continue practicing with their parents even after the program ends.

Khan says there is some unease in the community about the NSA’s involvement in Startalk with some people asking him who he really works for in promoting the program. But, for the most part parents are delighted he’s taught their children patriotic Urdu songs, he says.

“I’m looking out for my own interest in developing my community,” Khan said.  “I’m doing my own work. Startalk can do whatever it wants. NSA can do whatever it wants.”

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Aisha Asif writes for The Hechinger Report. A recent graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, she also holds a degree in biology teaching from Brooklyn College and completed her...

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  1. Teaching children via video or software only will not accomplish the above goals. We need elementary world language teachers. I agree, it is imperative that our nation’s children learn a second or even additional languages as part of their education. But we continue to make the same old mistakes. Without mandates or legislation, foreign/world language education is treated as an afterthought, something nice that is subject
    to budget cuts and the whims of insular xenophobes.
    We wait until children are in middle school or high school to start foreign language classes. This is too late based on the time needed to develop fluency and the age of the students. The ideal time to start is as young as possible, during the primary or early elementary grade levels when the students’ brains are at an optimal age for language acquisition.
    We treat elementary world/foreign language
    classes as a special instead of a core subject. Because foreign
    languages at the elementary level are not required or monitored, school districts trim budgets by reducing language staff, holding classes infrequently, or relying on inadequate replacement programs.
    We allow children to be instructed by video or software only, thus losing the benefits of interpersonal communication and the flexible nuances of true communication between real people. In some cases, the software or video is used infrequently by a teacher who does not know the language. This is not a criticism of the software programs, but the reality that they are only successful when used as a tool by a qualified language teacher.
    We continue to fall for misconceptions like the false belief that we can get by in international business, international affairs, and national security using English only. Yet the last few decades have seen the loss of American jobs and business to foreign competitors, the dependence on foreign workers to take the place of Americans lacking language skills, and strategic national security blunders based on foreign language incompetence.
    States should require their elementary schools to have world
    language teachers who teach students regularly from an early age. This should be part of any type of “Race to the Top” or similar incentive. Perhaps states not requiring elementary world language should not receive federal funds. Any possible federal mandate should also be put into place. Colleges should have appropriate training programs for those who will become elementary level foreign language teachers. Until we take these steps, our nation will continue to flounder with the same foreign language deficit.

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