In NSA-funded (taxpayer) initiative, Palo Alto students sharpen their Mandarin skills

Chris Kenrick:

As Americans debate revelations about sweeping data collection by the National Security Agency, the secretive federal department has funded a seemingly more benign agenda at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto.

In a summer program known as STARTALK, 20 fifth- and sixth-graders are honing their Mandarin speaking, listening, reading and writing skills through in-depth study of the centuries-old Chinese folk tale “The Magic Paintbrush.”

Students have read the text in Mandarin, sung its stories, incorporated its lessons into their own 21st-century versions of the folk tale and created iMovies of the rewritten versions. On Thursday, July 3, they were to perform the original story in colorful, hand-made costumes for their parents.

The Ohlone program is one of more than 100 similar summer initiatives across the country aimed at boosting Americans’ abilities in Chinese languages and other “less commonly taught languages,” said Duarte Silva, the Stanford University-based executive director of the California World Language Project.

Those “strategic languages” include Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Farsi, with Korean soon to be added to the list.

Since the federal program began in 2006 Silva has been securing summer STARTALK grants, $90,000 of which this year is funding the four-week Ohlone program as well as a program for Sunnyvale middle school students that began this week. Later in the summer Silva and Stanford colleague Helene Chan will present their research about language training in a workshop for language teachers from across the nation.