Federal Grant Funds STARTALK Chinese Teacher Academy at U.Va.

March 26, 2012

March 26, 2012 — A University of Virginia expert in second language acquisition has been awarded a $100,000 federal grant to continue a training program for middle- and high-school Chinese language teachers.

The STARTALK Chinese Teacher Academy is coordinated by Miao-fen Tseng, a lecturer in the East Asian Languages and Cultures department in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences, and has been based at the University since 2010.

The three-week program recruits 15 teachers of Mandarin Chinese from around the country for intensive language instruction training. The teachers can earn up to five hours of graduate credit, and are able to immediately apply what they learn in the classroom by teaching 24 area high school students who participate in the program.

"Teachers learn how to apply theories and best practices and implement them in real classroom teaching," said Tseng, who is also president of the Chinese Language Teachers Association of Virginia. "It's quite a process for them to go through. To understand theory is one thing; to apply theories in classroom teaching is something else. And we try to put the two together."

The federal STARTALK program funds similar training opportunities across the country to boost acquisition of languages deemed critical to the national interest. Mandarin Chinese has been on that list since 2006 and the first Chinese STARTALK programs began in 2007.

The Chinese Teacher Academy began at Virginia Commonwealth University and moved to U.Va. in 2010. During the program, which runs from June 25 through July 13, participating teachers stay in a nearby hotel and take classes on Grounds. Volunteer high school students from the greater Central Virginia area attend during the day.

The first week of the training covers best practices and theory, while the second and third weeks are more of a practicum in which teachers practice their new instruction techniques with the students, Tseng said.

Rachel Stauffer, outreach director for the Asia Institute in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the area students who participate in are exposed to high-level Chinese language instruction free of charge. Participating students, who must apply, receive a small stipend to cover travel and meal expenses. No experience with Chinese is required.

"The students are privy to the expertise of very highly talented and knowledge teachers," Stauffer said. "It's a very good teacher-to-student ratio, with 24 students and 15 teachers."

It's a common misperception that Chinese is an especially difficult language for Westerners, but it's actually more unique than difficult, Tseng said. It isn't an alphabetical language, meaning there isn't a close correlation between the way it's written and the way it's spoken.

"When Westerners start learning Mandarin Chinese, they probably need to spend more time to get to the same level of proficiency than the learner of an alphabetical language would achieve," Tseng said. "However, that doesn't mean it's impossible to achieve a certain level of proficiency. It's a matter of whether learning techniques and instructional approaches are effective and whether instructors are well-trained."

The STARTALK program is especially helpful to teachers of Chinese seeking national certification, she said.

"There are a number of teachers in the nation who want to become certified, but without human resources or effective channels, they don't know how to get started," Tseng said. "STARTALK programs recruit teachers and help them reach their individual goals."

– by Rob Seal