Penn’s STARTALK Programs 2010
By Sugra Bibi


The University of Pennsylvania is home to the first South Asia Area Studies Department in the United States. In parallel with being the longest established department, the university has an extensive South Asian library collection dating back 200 years. Over the years, this has supported undergraduate and postgraduate research and study.

In the 1950s, the South Asia Center was established as a National Resource Center with a Title VI grant. The Center’s mission is to promote and advance the study of South Asia by graduate and undergraduate students, and to encourage the study and knowledge of South Asia in schools, colleges, and among the public. Outreach includes building links with local schools to support the development of an international curriculum in schools. The Center develops teachers training networks and engages students to raise their awareness of the South Asian subcontinent, the languages and the cultures.

More recently we have seen some national developments. The Federal Government through the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland began funding the summer STARTALK programs from 2007 for several less commonly taught languages nationwide. The objective of the program is to improve US citizens’ capability to communicate in languages other than English. The STARTALK initiative provides opportunities for promoting foreign language education to Americans from kindergarten through post-secondary education.

These programs emphasize performance-based and lifelong learning in order to compete in today’s global world. The pilot program could see significant policy developments in the future, including Hindi and Urdu languages being taught through public school curricula.

This summer, Penn ran several STARTALK programs including a teacher training Institute for Hindi and Urdu, and two High School Students summer languages programs for Hindi and Urdu. The teacher-training program comprised 20 participants from six States, and the student programs comprised 34 students from several States and from a diverse range of schools and backgrounds, and a mixture of heritage and non-heritage students.

The Penn STARTALK Teacher Training Institute for Hindi and Urdu is one of two university-based programs nationwide to deliver this specialized training specifically for Hindi and Urdu.  The instructors drew on leading research on second language acquisition and trained the participants on pedagogical theory and “best practices” of foreign language instruction. Participants learned how to develop standards-based curriculum, thematic units, detailed lesson plans, and to conduct evidence-based performance assessments. The goal is to improve the quality of instruction in foreign and heritage language programs of Hindi and Urdu in public and community schools, and in colleges.

The Penn STARTALK Intensive Urdu and Hindi Student programs introduced students to the cultures of South Asia and the Hindi and Urdu languages. The key objectives and outcomes of the programs were the development of student’s language capabilities, and interest in continued and life long language acquisition by providing information, resources and advice about scholarships. This supports a continuation of learning through adult life. The program curriculum had several goals, which are grouped around developing communication, cultures, connections, comparison and communications, and each of these is underpinned by specific standards. The program has clear methods of assessment and end of performance tasks.

The program also included a range of activities, including visits to South Asia related collections at local museums and art galleries, places of worship and shrines, and bazaars. Sporting activity included cricket and kite flying.  The program  allowed students to connect with South Asia, and skype with counterparts in the Indo-Pak subcontinent.

The High School students had initially participated in the program for various reasons. These included a limited access to the languages through schools, heritage and cultural connections, and recognition of the significance of language skills in a global job market. At the conclusion of the programs students surveys and consultation showed an increasing appetite and deepened interest in the region, culture and people.

Penn's Urdu Startalk program focuses not only on providing students with the communicative skills to read, speak, listen, and write in Urdu, it also immerses them in the cultural milieu of Urdu speakers across Pakistan and India. The curriculum covers topics, which allow students to talk about themselves and their families and where they are from, whether that was Delhi, Lucknow, or Rome a few generations ago. Once students are curious about their own origins, they are introduced to how South Asians find the question “Where are you from?” (Aap kahan se hain?) so interesting and important to answer before conversation can go further. Students learn about regions and cities in India and Pakistan where Urdu developed as a language and/or where it continues to thrive. The history, poetry, cuisine, etiquette, gender norms, religious life, and urban landscape of cities like Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad, and Lucknow are introduced to students so that by the end of the program they find sitting down to eat lunch at a Dastarkhan just as comfortable and familiar as sitting down to eat dinner at their family dinning table.

Several field trips are also important part of the curriculum and recreate the experience of visiting these cities for the students. Students visit a local Sufi shrine, where they get to see and listen to how Sufism is completely intertwined with Islam as it is practiced in South Asia. They also get to interact with diaspora artists at a modern South Asian art gallery and go to a local chaat house to experience true street food from Pakistan and India. All of these form important learning experiences for the students who are then prompted in many cases to continue to study Urdu in the future and also visit Pakistan and India. It is one step closer to having our younger generation here in the US, and in the sub-continent understand each other better in the future.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.