Hailing a Rickshaw: Penn Summer Program Offers High School Students Lessons in World Languages and Cultures

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Media Contact:Jacquie Posey | jposey@upenn.edu | 215-898-6460August 1, 2012

A few years of French or Spanish may fulfill a foreign-language requirement to graduate from high school.  But in today’s global environment, some career-minded young people want to learn critical international languages that aren’t widely taught in high school.

Enter the STARTALK program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Established as part of the National Security Language Initiative announced by President George Bush in 2006, STARTALK seeks to expand and improve how American high school students learn strategically important world languages.

Since Penn’s first STARTALK program began six summers ago, high school students have come to campus to learn how to speak Hindi, Urdu or Chinese.

Penn’s South Asia Center and Center for East Asian Studies are wrapping up a summer series of language courses for students entering grades 9-12 this fall. 

The STARTALK Hindi Academy had an enrollment of 16 students, the Urdu Academy 10 and the Chinese Academy, currently underway, 28.  Some students are getting college credit.

Penn’s Hindi program  immerses participants in the fourth most commonly spoken language in the world and a critical language of the international business and entertainment arenas. With a background in Hindi, students have an advantage in the IT and engineering international job markets.

Students learn the language through conversations centered on everyday tasks typically faced in India.  They participate in daily morning yoga sessions and active role play such as hailing a rickshaw, bargaining at a market, guiding someone through a city, preparing food, describing an Indian festival and recounting one’s daily activities.

Field trips are a major part of the STARTALK curriculum.  

At the Penn High School Chinese Academy, students learn Mandarin, the official language of China and visit Philadelphia’s Chinatown for immersion lessons in Chinese culture. Guest speakers in class enrich their education in Chinese philosophy and the myths, dances, martial arts and films of China.

A third Penn STARTALK summer institute teaches Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. It is one of the languages most critical to an enhanced understanding of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  Fluency in Urdu is a highly desirable skill for students interested in pursuing certain government careers in the military or politics or in an array of positions from United Nations translator to work at global IT or nonprofit companies.

“An added advantage of learning Urdu is that since it shares its script with Arabic and Persian, a person who can read and write Urdu is able to read and write in Arabic, Persian and Pashtu and Punjabi, too,” Romeena Kureishy director of Penn’s STARTALK Urdu program, says.

View more STARTALK Academy photos on Flickr.