Slater Stanley is only 14 but already has big plans. He intends to have mastered Chinese by the time he finishes high school, then wants to head to Beijing for college.
"I don't know why I'm interested in Chinese culture," said Slater, of Newport Beach. "I think I was just born with it."
As a student at the Irvine Chinese School, he has certainly come to the right place. A national security effort is underway to create more Chinese and Arabic speakers, and the Irvine school is a focus of that effort.
Irvine has become a growing center of Chinese culture in Southern California. There are about 30,000 residents of Chinese descent here, city officials say. There are Chinese supermarkets, plays, operas, Buddhist temples and a cultural center that is one of the largest in the U.S. More Chinese Americans live in Irvine than any other city in the county.
The school, at the newly opened, $12-million, 44,000-square-foot South Coast Chinese Cultural Center, is the country's largest site for the Startalk program. Funded by the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Startalk aims to lure students into learning languages deemed critical to national security and the economy.
About 250 students are enrolled in Chinese immersion classes in Irvine. Representatives of the Startalk program visited the site Thursday to check on its progress.
"In the U.S., foreign languages have always taken a back seat to other disciplines, and we want to change that," said Betsy Hart, associate director of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland and head of Startalk. "This is a pilot year, and we are testing to see which models will be most effective."
In one room, beginning students were learning basic characters, in another more advanced children were typing in Chinese. A few weeks ago, one class debated abortion in Chinese.
The difference between immersion classes and regular courses is the intensity. Some classes are held entirely in Chinese.
The students, who are mostly in high school, have various reasons for studying the language.
"I took Chinese because we adopted a Chinese girl and I wanted to help her keep her language," said Timothy Johnson, 15, of Mission Viejo. "I learned a lot more here compared to high school because in high school my teacher barely spoke Chinese."
Cynthia Wang's Chinese teacher wouldn't let her speak English, which she said has improved her conversational skills.
"The teacher doesn't talk to us like we are little kids," she said.
The Irvine site was chosen after David Wu, who heads the Southern California Council of Chinese Schools, and representatives from the Chinese cultural center heard about the program and applied for a federal grant. They were awarded $193,000 and set about devising a one-month, intensive curriculum.
"This is the first time we have seen a federal grant program come along to teach Chinese," said Tim Cheng, manager of the cultural center and vice chairman of the Irvine Community Services Commission. "We used to have to beg our kids to learn Chinese, and now it has become very popular."
Shuhan Wang, executive director of Chinese Language Initiatives for the Asia Society, accompanied Hart and said that unlike Arabic, there is a large infrastructure of Chinese language schools in the U.S. and far more Chinese speakers.
"We want to dispel the notion that these languages are difficult to learn," she said. "They are different but learnable, and when students do learn the alphabet or characters, they feel very smart."
Startalk, which ends in Irvine on July 26, could continue next year if it gets another grant. Hart's reaction indicated it seems quite possible.
"I was blown away by the advanced level of what was going on in the classrooms, even in the beginning classes," she said. "We ask, 'Are the students happy? Are they learning?' And from what we see, it seems to be very successful."