ASU lecturer reaches 10-year milestone with Startalk Program

By

Olivia Knecht

Xia Zhang, Arizona State University principal lecturer of Chinese, brings her multicultural and linguistic knowledge into the classrooms of colleges and high schools, molding a new generation of foreign language students.

Having received her Bachelor of Arts in English language and literature from Sichuan University in China and her master's degree and PhD in linguistics from the University of Victoria and the University of Alberta, respectively, in Canada, Zhang says she knows the importance of experiencing new cultures and learning new languages.

“Foreign language is not just about learning the language itself, but it is also about learning the culture and about people who speak that language,” said Zhang. “Language is integrated with culture, and they are inseparable.”

Since joining the Sun Devil family 16 years ago, Zhang has taught Chinese language for the School of International Letters and Cultures, and she said that although learning a new language can be challenging, it is an important skill that exposes students to new cultures and ways of life.

Zhang’s dedication to teaching Chinese language and culture is not directed solely to university students, but to students at the high school level as well. For 10 years, she has worked as the principal investigator and program director of the ASU STARTALK Chinese Language Summer Camp: From STARTALK to Flagship; Zhang recently received her 10th award for funding from the National Security Agency.

The mission of STARTALK is to increase the number of students, teachers, materials and curriculum of critical-need foreign language studies in the United States.   

An intensive residential program intended for Arizona high school students from eighth through 12th grade, the ASU Startalk Program is a Chinese immersion experience, allowing students the opportunity to learn and explore Chinese language and culture through hands-on activities and structured curriculum.

The program takes place on the ASU Tempe campus for two weeks during the summer, allowing students to experience college life and see what it would be like to live as a Sun Devil.

“During the program, the parents give the students to my care for two weeks. Their lives are in my hands, and I must be responsible for them,” said Zhang. “It is very intense for me, as I need to oversee every aspect of the program from instruction and student learning to students' room and board. It is an unbelievable amount of work, but the kids and the parents keep me doing it year after year.”

After the conclusion of the program, there is a closing ceremony where parents come to see the work the students have accomplished during their stay. Zhang says the students achieve so much in the short amount of time together, and that the positive responses from parents and students are what keeps her involved with the program every year.

“Almost all of the students say the program has made a huge difference in their lives in terms of choosing career paths and motivating them to continue studying Chinese in college,” said Zhang. “Some now want to work as government diplomats, do business in China, and a lot of students have expressed they want to take AP Chinese in high school and continue to get a Chinese major or minor when they go to college.”

Zhang says learning a new language is a very useful skill everyone should try. She says that understanding new languages and cultures is beneficial in the workplace, to personal development and is something the world needs now more than ever.

“It is not just good for your work, but for you as a person, as well,” said Zhang. “Especially in the world now, it is more important for people to have an open mind about other cultures.”