A Different Kind of Summer School

BYU professors Steven Riep, Kirk Belnap, Robert Erickson, and Adam McBride discuss the enormous benefits students and the United States experience through summer language learning programs for high school students. 

One of the most influential learning activities a student of any age can do is study another language. The process of becoming a good learner starts long before a student begins their university studies. Part of BYU’s mission is to provide experiential learning opportunities to its students. This mission, however, extends beyond college students, including high schoolers in the effort to create enriching educational experiences. BYU is known worldwide for its language learning programs, not only at the university but also at the high school level. The university offers a variety of summer language learning programs: Arabic StarTalk, Mandarin Chinese StarTalk, and French Camp. These three programs take different approaches, but each program offers important language and cultural learning activities.

The Arabic and Chinese StarTalk programs both began with a federal grant in 2007. Both Arabic and Chinese were named “critical languages” by the National Security Education Program (NSEP), indicating that the languages are essential for U.S. foreign business and diplomatic affairs. The NSEP offers funding for institutions who teach critical language classes to high school students, including the StarTalk programs at BYU.

As foreign language funds are cut from the budgets of many public schools, programs like StarTalk become even more necessary to offer language learning opportunities for students across the United States. “We’ve actually had a few students who attended StarTalk in high school, completed the Chinese Flagship program at BYU, and went on to work for the government,” said Steven Riep, associate professor of Chinese at BYU. “StarTalk teaches students the vocabulary and language skills they need in context; they even speak it while playing volleyball. The most important part of language learning is reinforcement. StarTalk gives them the opportunity to apply Chinese to their daily activities.”

Kirk Belnap, BYU professor of Arabic and former director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center, shared the experience of one high school student, who, after studying Arabic at StarTalk in the summer and online during the school year, spent his freshman Fall semester in Jordan with BYU’s Arabic study abroad program. StarTalk makes Arabic learning more accessible so students can study Arabic during high school and continue in college at a higher level than most incoming freshmen. “They come to love the language and the culture,” commented Belnap, “and students are able to reach levels of proficiency in Arabic in their freshman year that used to be reserved for graduate students in the 1980s.”

This past year the Arabic StarTalk program organized a field trip for students to connect with refugee high schoolers in Salt Lake City. “It was an amazing experience for both groups. The StarTalk kids got an understanding of why what they are doing is so valuable, and the refugee kids were astonished to see that there were Americans who were trying to learn their language. It helped them realize they had valuable skills.” Belnap continued, “A lot of these refugee kids are not really thinking about going to college, but when they saw that they have useful skills, they could see the possibility.”

In hosting French Camp, the BYU French Department makes an extra effort to provide an experience that students will remember for the rest of their lives. “French Camp is self-funded, meaning the students pay for their own experience… Many professors support the camp in various ways as part of their faculty service or teaching requirements,” explained Robert Erickson, BYU professor of French. “Some of the professors really go all out; we had

Chris Flood dress up as a monk, and Bob Hudson comes dressed up as King Francis I. Chantal Thompson teaches about language and culture in France and French-speaking Africa. There’s a lot of hidden work that goes into making French Camp a success,” Erickson said.

Adam McBride, who will direct the program in 2018, said he is extremely excited for next year. “No two French Camps are the same. The class subjects depend on the different faculty and student instructors we have involved: we’ve had cooking classes, fencing, literature, and a class where we will watch and discuss French movies and music videos,” said McBride. “I love to see the progress that students make and their enthusiasm to use their language to make friends and connect with their peers.”

More than anything, students who come to immersion camps gain confidence in their language learning ability. “These kids start their next school year as the kinds of students high school teachers dream of. They participate, they ask questions, and they aren’t afraid to speak. They become essential assets to the classroom,” said Riep.

Belnap expressed similar sentiments, saying, “If parents understood all of the ‘hidden’ benefits of language camps, they would be clamoring to sign their kids up. So many of these kids gain great self-confidence and curiosity, which extends to all parts of their learning.” Through these  language programs at BYU, high school students can fulfill the university’s mantra, “enter to learn, go forth to serve” long before they enter college.

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Center for Language Studies for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art. 

Images: Chinese StarTalk student watching calligraphy demonstration by instructor (top), French Camp students learning a dance from French-speaking Africa (bottom). Provided by the Chinese and French Departments