NSA grant funds Korean language program for local high school students

This summer, as many as 20 students from across Dane County will be exploring Korean language and culture through the UW-Madison STARTALK Korean Language and Culture Academy. The STARTALK program, an initiative of the National Security Agency and National Foreign Language Center, seeks to increase the number of critical-need foreign language speakers through creative and engaging experiences.

Byung-jin Lim
Byung-jin Lim

Students selected for STARTALK will spend five weeks on campus, during which they will be immersed in Korean language and culture. Participants will engage in language learning activities, explore traditional and pop culture, and take part in martial arts, cooking, drumming and dance workshops.

Byung-jin Lim, STARTALK program director and associate professor of Korean in the Department of Asian Language and Cultures, has already seen Wisconsin high school students show a high level of interest in Korean during events such as World Languages Day, which draws more than 600 Wisconsin students to UW-Madison.

“American students are showing enthusiasm for learning Korean because they are already experiencing and connecting to Korean drama, film, music, and other aspects of the culture,” Lim said. “Though we say ‘Korean culture and language,’ the program will also be looking at how Korean culture is taking shape outside of Korea.”

STARTALK students will also hone their Korean language skills and intercultural communicative competence by teleconferencing with South Korean students. Teleconferencing will allow Wisconsin students to practice Korean with native speakers, ask questions about culture and everyday life, and grow their perspectives on not only Korean culture, but American culture as well.

“We want to build linguistic competence as well as intercultural competence,” Lim said. “By sharing their culture, students can see themselves through others.”

Emphasizing “less commonly taught languages”

Wendy Johnson
Wendy Johnson

Wendy Johnson, assistant director of UW-Madison’s Language Institute and coordinator of the STARTALK Korean program, said that learning Korean is a unique opportunity for Wisconsin students as it is a “less commonly taught language” and few universities in the U.S. offer the language. Foreign languages taught in Wisconsin high schools are often limited to French, German, and Spanish, with Japanese and Chinese also offered in rare cases.

“In elementary and secondary education institutions in Wisconsin we see an increasingly limited number of foreign language offerings,” Johnson said. “The U.S. government in the past few years has been funding more grants that have been funding the study of foreign languages–all kinds of languages–not just the ones we see most commonly taught.”

“I think the U.S. government also understands that to raise the next generation of world leaders they need to understand others through language and cultural learning,” Lim added.

Korean is one of 11 languages offered through the STARTALK program. Other languages offered include, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Dari, Hindi, Persian, Portuguese, Swahili, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. The School of Education and Pushkin Project have also organized STARTALK programs.

‘Inspiring long-term studies’

The UW-Madison STARTALK Korean Language and Culture Academy will be free to participants as it is funded by a $54,000 grant from the NSA. Participants will also receive Madison Metro bus passes to help them travel to campus each day. By the end of the program Lim and Johnson anticipate that students participating will have a novice-mid to novice-high level of proficiency in Korean.

Even though the first cohort of the UW-Madison STARTALK Korean Language and Culture Academy is not yet underway, Lim and Johnson are already looking forward to 2018. Johnson noted that an advanced track could be added to the next iteration of the program, giving the 2017 participants an opportunity to build on what they will be learning this summer.

“It is our hope with this program that we inspire not just one summer of Korean studies, but long-term studies,” Johnson said.

Lim also hopes the program will inspire interests in Korean history, culture, and language that will go far beyond the summer.

“At the conclusion of the program, I want to see students inspired to learn more about the language and culture and pursue it on the college level,” Lim said. “I hope they take it beyond the boundary of basic learning and turn it into a lifelong interest.”