Hindi students fly high on a trip to India

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2021 YHS STARTALK online program virtual class in session. (Photos courtesy of YHS STARTALK)

EDISON, NJ

“I will fly Emirates to Delhi and then I will buy an airline ticket for Jaipur. I will return from Jaipur to Delhi by train”, says Nalin in Hindi.

Nalin is one of the students of 2021 Yuva Hindi Sansthan STARTALK online Hindi Program who completed a task assigned by his teacher during a virtual session on day 2 of the program, that he shared with his classmates. Sanjyot Tatke, their teacher, asked her students to prepare a travel plan for their virtual trip to India. The class was working on the theme of the program, ‘My Virtual Trip to India’. More than 30 Elementary, Middle and High school students from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and other parts of the USA enrolled in the program that teaches speaking, reading and writing Hindi at its 18 day online program.

“For the first time in a decade we are conducting an online STARTALK program, a federally funded community based program to promote teaching an ethnic language other than English,” says Ashok Ojha, Director of the program and president of the non-profit outfit ‘Yuva Hindi Sansthan’, that has been conducting STARTALK programs during the yearly summer vacations since 2010.

Due to COVID -19, the program couldn’t be held in 2020 and was deferred to this year for a virtual event. Ojha added, “We conduct this program on behalf of the U. S. without charging any tuition to students. The idea is to teach the next generation of American kids one more language other than English. It was a blessing in disguise for the Indian-American community, for whom Hindi is not a foreign language.” According to him, students were grouped in four different Zoom classes based on their age, grades and language proficiency. Each class is run by two instructors and a volunteer. All instructors received teachers’ training in the past under STARTALK guidelines.

This year’s program was launched on June 21st with a formal introduction of students. On the very second day students learned to identify major touristic destinations in the four directions on a map of India . “Elementary students were very enthusiastic about creating their passport and input it with Hindi content that they shared with their teachers,” says Anju Rai, who is teaching first and second graders, the most curious group. “We were very apprehensive in the beginning about asking kids to be online for more than five hours a day, of course with breaks after each class session of 45 minutes duration. However, I am amazed to see their interest level and enthusiasm. The young angels are not showing any signs of zoom fatigue and are never short of questions.”

“Our goal is to teach Hindi in cultural context,” says Sanjyot Tatke, lead instructor of the program. “We keep in mind their current level of language proficiency while assigning new tasks. We provide a lot of speaking opportunities for all students. Our day begins with a short Yoga session in the morning followed by topic based interpretive activities that students perform before moving on to a number of interpersonal tasks, such as, asking and answering topic related questions in Hindi about India. We communicate with them in Hindi most of the time and the kids are not complaining. We are teaching Geography
and culture of Rajasthan, the hottest desert of India and allow students to compare it with the coldest desert, Ladakh.”

A student of 2021 YHS STARTALK online program presenting a travel plan for a virtual trip to India. The program started June 21st.

A number of students enrolled attended the face-to-face programs conducted in past years by Yuva Hindi Sansthan in collaboration with Franklin School District in New Jersey and North Penn School District in Pennsylvania. These kids have returned to learn Hindi at 2021 YHS STARTALK program as soon as their school year ended.

“STARTALK program is focused on teaching language that involves rich cultural input from the native land where the language originated,” said Sandhya Bhagat, a veteran teacher of language and theatre. She lives in Atlanta, GA, where she runs her own theatrical unit called, ‘Dhoop Chhaon’. “I believe that we can teach a great deal of language by integrating cultural activities and content in our learning plan. YHS programs is very rich as it involves varieties of cultural activities, including folk dances, dramatic skits, painting and more. Our programs are equally interesting for both heritage and non-heritage learners due to its cultural content,” she said.

“I am learning Hindi because I want to go into a diplomatic career when I grow up,” says Emilia, a non-heritage student from Tennessee, whose mother worked in the US Army. “Emilia is a fast learner as she focuses on the right pronunciation, such as, ‘Hawaii Jahaaz,’” continues Bhagat, describing a lot of reative ideas about how to improve pronunciation abilities for key Hindi words.

The program also integrates a number of internet based tools, such as, ‘Ideaboardz’ and ‘Book Creator’. “These tools help students express themselves better. They also motivate learners to be more innovative while presenting their reading and writing skills,” says Seema Vashishth, who teaches kids of 3rd to 5th graders in her virtual class aptly named after the city of Jaiselmer. “We know that school kids use a lot of technology in their classroom, so why not allow them to continue using technological skills which they are comfortable with while learning Hindi?”

Over the years Yuva Hindi Sansthan has grown into a formal educational platform for teaching Hindi in the United States. The organization was set up in 2009, since then it has been winning federal contracts every year for teaching Hindi. It’s touched the lives of thousands of parents and students who participated in its programs in the past decade.

Sadly, the federal assistance for conducting STARTALK programs is ending from 2022 and that is the biggest worry for Ojha, who needs to find alternate sources for funding in the future.

“It is time for the Indian-American community to think unitedly how to support programs like STARTALK so we could continue offering such program in the absence of federal funding,” stated Ojha.

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