Angela Gauthier, left, and José Luis Carneiro seal the deal between Toronto’s Catholic school board and the Portuguese government with a hand shake. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Toronto's school languages program celebrates students’ heritage

  • November 4, 2016

Listening to a group of Toronto Catholic elementary students recite a poem in his native Portuguese, José Luís Carneiro couldn’t help but smile.

“It is wonderful to see these students speaking Portuguese,” said Carneiro, Portugal’s secretary of state for Portuguese communities abroad. “It is a special feeling in my heart and my spirit seeing these children.”

That special feeling also translates into additional language learning resources and a $36,000 boost from the Portuguese government to support the Toronto Catholic school board’s International Languages Program.

“I want to thank you for your work that you are doing to maintain this language for all of the Portuguese people that are here in Toronto and this country,” said Carneiro as he and Angela Gauthier, Toronto Catholic’s director of education, officially sealed the deal on Oct. 28 at St. Anthony Catholic School.

“This is a partnership that has been built on a joint commitment for student success and achievement,” said Gauthier. “We know that students benefit from learning a second language, a third and a fourth language.”

She added that along with broadening future job markets, learning another language helps many students who are first- and second-generation Canadians connect with their past.

“(They’re) better able to understand where they came from and what their identity is,” she said. “There is a saying that you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you’ve been. Language is a big part of that.”

While the additional learning materials from Portugal will be used primarily at St. Anthony, a school which has a mandatory integrated Portuguese language program, the money will support the board’s International Languages Program.

“The donation of funds and learning resources will help sustain the program, keep it current and keep it alive,” she said.

The school board first began offering alternative languages in 1973 through the Heritage Language Program, which sought to teach the dialect that best reflected the community.

“Heritage language was meant to celebrate the culture of the new Canadians arriving in our Catholic schools,” said Gauthier, an immigrant herself who only spoke Italian when she arrived with her family in 1958. “(It) validated the language spoken at home.”

As the city grew in diversity, the Heritage Language Program’s model became too challenging for the board, which led to the creation of the International Languages Program in the 1990s.

Today the board has both integrated extended day programs, offered in six different languages at 49 schools, or the board’s after-hours programs, offered in 26 different languages at 53 locations.

“It just wasn’t feasible to keep changing the languages offered at a school based on the community compositions,” said Carla Marchetti, co-ordinator of the International Languages Program.

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