By Heidi Chun

The United States government recognizes Mandarin Chinese as a “critical language” for the 21st century. However, many people are left wondering how the U.S. government’s interest in U.S.-China relations translates into scholarships and intensive language study options for American students. Highlighted below are Mandarin language and culture immersion options made possible by the U.S. government’s National Security Language Initiative (NSLI), the Language Flagship program, and the Chinese and Taiwanese governments.


For K-12 students looking to explore Mandarin Chinese over the summer, the U.S. government’s STARTALK Initiative funds numerous summer study opportunities across the United States. Non-residential Chinese language and culture institutes are emerging nationwide. These programs experiment with innovative methods of teaching Mandarin, and they provide low-cost or free short-term instruction for K-12 participants. Residential programs, such as Concordia Language Villages’ Chinese camp in Minnesota and Beloit’s College’s Summer Language Schools in Wisconsin, offer generous STARTALK scholarships to encourage high school students to study Mandarin. For students wishing to try out Mandarin Chinese or build upon their current skills, the STARTALK programs offer an excellent opportunity to do so.

web_7a_chun_1_startalkIndiana University’s STARTALK teachers and students at the conclusion of their Chinese Performance Night. The national STARTALK initiative funds summer programs for students to study Mandarin Chinese and K-12 Mandarin instructors to further their professional development.

In addition to providing language and culture instruction for students, many STARTALK programs offer grant-supported summer teacher development programs for K-12 instructors. While programs cater to different groups of language educators, including bilingual teachers, elementary teachers, and secondary teachers, they all emphasize pedagogical research, performance-based learning, and classroom immersion. Some programs such as Indiana University’s Chinese Pedagogy Institute and DePaul’s University’s Chinese Language Academy have teachers try out their innovative teaching ideas with students enrolled in concurrent summer language courses. This interaction results in lively classrooms, plenty of student-teacher interaction, and active learning on both sides. The STARTALK 2010 program list will be available online in April or May 2010.

The NSLI also funds two other notable short-term opportunities for Mandarin study. The National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) awards merit-based scholarships to high school students for a summer, semester, or academic year abroad studying intensive Mandarin in China or Taiwan. Students live with homestay families and receive extensive linguistic and cultural training. Upon returning to the United States, they are advised on how to continue their language and culture studies through university coursework and other NSLI programs.

U.S. undergraduate students may apply to for grant-funded summer language study through the NSLI Critical Languages Scholarship program. These scholarships are awarded on a competitive basis, but recipients win a summer of all-expenses paid study in China. In 2008, the program hosted participants in Harbin and Suzhou.

The Language Flagship, another movement supported by federal funding, takes a different approach to providing intensive Mandarin study to American students. The Language Flagship aims to help students develop a professional fluency in the Chinese language and a deep understanding of Chinese culture. The movement first focused on creating 2-year graduate programs for advanced language study, but it later expanded to incorporate K-12 language study and undergraduate programs.

Through the support of the Language Flagship initiative, public school systems in both Oregon and Ohio are currently experimenting with long-term language curriculums that link elementary, middle, and high school language study. School districts are working directly with the University of Oregon and Ohio State University to implement strong and innovative language programs in their K-12 schools. The ultimate goal of these programs is to help cultivate cohorts of high school graduates with strong Mandarin Chinese proficiency and deep understanding of Chinese culture that may bring their studies to a superior level in college.

The majority of the Language Flagship programs are implemented at American universities. These programs help ensure that students gain superior levels of proficiency in Mandarin Chinese during their undergraduate years. Flagship program students take intensive language classes alongside their other coursework. Over summer breaks, they study in Qingdao to accelerate their language study. When they are ready for their capstone experience, students directly enroll for a semester or year at Nanjing University. Finally, students complete an internship in China relevant to their professional interests. Universities with Language Flagship programs may be excellent choices for highly motivated students who wish to go into a career where superior proficiency in Chinese is desired. A complete list of these undergraduate programs is available on the Language Flagship Web site.

Finally the Language Flagship also sponsored the development of two-year graduate programs in Mandarin Chinese at Ohio State University and Brigham Young University. These programs help college graduates achieve professional levels of fluency in Mandarin Chinese before entering their chosen careers. Their graduate studies include one year of upper-level language studies in America, a semester of studies at a Chinese university, and a semester-long internship overseas. For college graduates aiming to work in international relations, business, or other realms where a superior proficiency in Chinese language and culture is ideal, these two graduate programs are excellent options.

The Chinese and Taiwanese governments also offer scholarships for Americans to study Mandarin overseas. These scholarships are available to U.S. citizens who hold at least a high-school degree. The China Scholarship Council grants beginning-level Mandarin Chinese students the Chinese Government Scholarship for one to two years of in-country language study. The Taiwan Ministry of Education awards non-native speakers of Mandarin at all levels of fluency the Ministry of Education Huayu Enrichment Scholarship for three to twelve months of language study at intensive language study centers in Taiwan. Both governments also provide grants to U.S. citizens to obtain degrees and conduct research at local universities.

Mandarin studies are more than just the latest fad–they represent a permanent change in the United States education system. The relations between Asia and the United States are becoming more and more crucial to the development of international relations and the world economy. Moreover, the intriguing nature of the Chinese language and unique perspectives offered by Chinese culture ensure that student interest will remain strong well into the future. Consider taking advantage of the emerging study and travel opportunities and get a taste of why Mandarin is attracting so much attention in the United States and worldwide.

Web sites:
STARTALK Language Initiative:

Language Flagship Program

National Language Security Initiative for Youth (NLSI-Y)

Critical Language Scholarships

China Scholarship Council

Taiwan Scholarship Program

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