Model Kent State Language Academy Continues with 12th Year of Federal Funding

While the daily news is full of tumultuous conversations about Russia and China, Kent State is helping some area high school students learn to converse in Russian and Chinese to facilitate greater global understanding and a less contentious tomorrow.

Kent State’s Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies (MCLS) has received federal funding for the 12th consecutive year to host the fully-immersive STARTALK Summer Foreign Language Academy, where 20 students from Northeast Ohio will learn Russian or Chinese language and culture —10 in each course — hopefully on their way to becoming translational scholars.

The $90,000 grant comes from the U.S. National Security Administration (NSA) and is administered by the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland. Kent State has received more than $2 million in STARTALK funds since 2007 and is considered a model institution. The academy is in its 13th year, but the first year was supported entirely by an Ohio Board of Regents grant.

Program Director Dr. Brian Baer, Professor of Russian Translation in MCLS in the College of Arts and Sciences, said the 4-week residential curriculum prepares students to enter college as language majors.

“With languages, it used to be you had to spend 3-4 years before you could do anything with it,” he said. “They’re not only learning the language, though; they learn a lot about the culture. We bring native speakers into the classroom, and the students Skype with people in the countries.”

Students are immersed immediately and entirely in the language. They then participate in a mandatory full academic year follow-up process. Dr. Baer said students who complete the program usually are placed into intermediate college courses.

“We also introduce them to career paths using foreign languages,” he said. “Most students can only think of being a high school language teacher, but this field is on par with nursing as one of the fastest growing sectors of the US economy. Our program focuses on professional skills and careers, and that’s one of the reasons we were chosen as an infrastructure program.”Kent State Professor of Russian Language, Dr. Brian Baer

Last year’s STARTALK grant provided Kent State with infrastructure building funds to develop videos and lesson plans that will be made available for other programs through the STARTALK website.

Betsy Hart, Interim Executive Director of the NFLC and STARTALK Program Director, said that while Kent State’s model and materials aren’t mandatory for other institutions, they would be wise to consider implementing a similar model and adapting their materials to their programs.

“I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Kent State program several years ago, and there are several factors that contribute to Kent State’s success,” she said. “We’re pretty prescriptive about the way we plan and the instructional strategies that need to be included, and Brian and his team take it very seriously and are very diligent about incorporating those strategies into their classrooms, so it’s been an exemplary program.”

Dr. Baer said the STARTALK program began in the wake of 9/11, when the U.S. Intelligence Community saw mounds of untranslated intelligence and a dearth of translators. STARTALK provides programming to teach 11 languages, many of them germane to the Middle East. But he and Ms. Hart both see the importance of the languages in Kent’s program.

“We can be short-sighted sometimes. When Communism fell, they took Russian off that list, but I think both countries will remain strategically important for a long time,” he said.

“We have political concerns and trading concerns,” Hart said. “There will be a demand for speakers of these languages in any career they may want to pursue.”

Hart said students who get early starts in learning a second language will have an advantage should they pursue government careers. She noted reports of the high costs for the government to train one individual in a language.

“The intelligence community would love for new hires to be able to walk in the door and go to work,” she said.

Beyond that, however, Dr. Baer said teaching students other languages is just a great way to develop more worldly citizens — the primary objective of Kent State’s Global Understanding Research Initiative, which includes Baer and other faculty from MCLS.

“There’s a great quote from Nelson Mandela,” Dr. Baer said. “‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’”

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