New Grant Combines Language with Cultural Learning for Students of Korean, Chinese

UConn faculty are launching a program that will use online and in-person learning to improve students' Chinese and Korean language skills

Roofs on buildings in a Chinese town (Pixabay)

A group of UConn faculty are leading a grant from the National Security Agency (NSA) to prepare a cohort of 40 intermediate-level students to hone their Chinese or Korean language skills so they attain an intermediate-high or advanced level of language and culture competency in a single year.

The project leaders hope some may consider using their enhanced skills for a wide range of careers in the federal workforce or to continue their language studies at the college or professional level.  The program is designed for rising junior and senior high school students and undergraduate college students anywhere in the U.S., but many STARTALK participants tend to participate in more local programs.

Jennifer Terni, associate professor in and head of the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages is leading the year-long project, titled “STARTALK Chinese and Korean Culture and Language Immersion Through Gaming and Storytelling.” She is supported in this project by professor Chunsehng Yang, associate professor of Chinese and Eun-Ju Shin, visiting instructor of Korean, who are co-PIs and instructional leads.

This $357,000 grant is funded by the STARTALK Program sponsored by the NSA. The STARTALK program is designed to increase the number of highly effective critical-language teachers in the U.S.; to multiply the number of highly effective materials and curricula available to teachers and students; and, ultimately, to increase the number of students engaged in the serious study of critical languages. Terni and her team are hoping to fulfill all three goals with the design of their original curriculum.

The programs will use themes of storytelling and gaming to engage students in an interactive learning experience. Students will strengthen their language skill while they complete exciting creative projects, including developing their own game design template.

The program will focus especially on areas that students typically struggle to master, for instance, pronunciation and tone, grammatical constructions, basic rhetorical tools (including the proper markers of formality), and common writing problems.

It will also concentrate on the different needs of heritage speakers, who learned the language informally at home, and those learning the language for the first time through individual coaching and small-group enrichment.

By the end of this program students will develop a solid base as they transition to more advanced content-oriented classes in literature, culture, and media (typically the equivalent of minor- and major-level courses) or other advanced language acquisition opportunities, including study abroad.

The program is divided into three modules, two virtual modules that bracket a two-week in-person intensive summer residential immersion program.

The first virtual module will take place during UConn’s Spring 2022 semester. This module is about identity and community will include units on parents and their hometowns; Chinese and Korean cultural heroes; and identity and social media in the U.S. and in other cultures.

The second module, the two-week residential summer program, will invite students to live and learn on UConn’s Storrs campus.

During the summer program students will create a game design template, develop their own story-worlds, and avatars, as they explore the styles and roles of gaming and storytelling in Chinese or Korean culture.

Students will meet with game designers and learn about storytelling, both in the context of genres and major cultural traditions, and learn about how these narrative elements are reconfigured to meet different goals in game worlds.

Students will also participate in an array of culture-specific leisure activities, including field trips, playing games important to Korean and Chinese cultures, learning culinary techniques, movie and karaoke nights, and visiting unusual parts of the Storrs campus with the aim of sparking ideas about the conditions for different game environments.

The last module, again, virtual, will take place during UConn’s Fall 2022 semester. Students will learn and practice the techniques of digital storytelling as they create their own documentary, podcast series, extension of the gaming project, or works of short fiction.

Terni’s program will take advantage of the existing structures at UConn, such as the Pre-College Summer Program and Early College Experience (ECE) Program. Both programs are designed to prepare students for the rigor of UConn’s university-level courses while they are still in high school. The overall impact of this project will provide students with improved language skills and greater intercultural competence.

Students must commit to doing all three modules, including a summer residential program on Storrs campus from July 24 to Aug. 6, 2022 to be considered for the program. For qualified students, the entire sequence may count as the equivalent of three college credits. Except for registration fees, the entire program, including the residential summer program, is free.

For more information visit the project website. Applications are due Dec.31, 2021. 


STARTALK is a federal grant program funded by the NSA. The goal of STARTALK grants is to increase the number of U.S. citizens learning and teaching languages that are of interest for future national security concerns.

Terni holds a Ph.D. from Duke University in romance studies. Her areas of expertise are 19th century French literature and history, social theory, urban and visual culture, and popular forms of commercial culture.

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