This is part of a series on how the diverse and growing city of Brampton, Ont., provides lessons for Canada's future.
Katie Szeto's tiny body is dwarfed by the high-school-sized desk she's sitting at. At nine, she's one of the youngest in her class, but also the one who most consistently raises her hand with the right answer when teacher Sharon Wang flips through a Mandarin picture book, asking the students to translate words into English.
Katie can speak the language better than her mother. She's already prepping to study chemistry at Harvard (Class of 2026) and believes having another language under her belt will get her there.
Each Saturday, Katie and hundreds of fellow students gather at Chinguacousy Secondary School in Brampton to do worksheets in Arabic, look at picture books in Mandarin and, if they're lucky, learn a giggle-inducing word or two in Sinhalese.
The Peel District School Board, which operates schools in Brampton and Mississauga, offers the biggest publicly funded international languages program in the country, outside of multicultural Toronto. Each Saturday, 23 schools offer instruction to 10,000 students in 23 languages.
Teaching elementary-aged students international languages in public schools is picking up speed in other immigrant-magnet cities, too.
This fall, Edmonton Public Schools will offer Arabic bilingual programming to the fourth school in the city (the board offers bilingual programming in seven languages). In Surrey, B.C., the school board offers Punjabi classes – a response to the surge of South Asian immigration in recent decades.
But there's a dual challenge at play: A demographic change is driving the need for such programs, but it's happening at a time of austerity – school boards across the country need to find money for these offerings within tighter budgets.
In most other Canadian cities, after-hours elementary-level language classes that go beyond French are the domain of private programs and often organized by cultural groups. But it's a funding priority in Peel. While it's the second-largest international languages program in the country in terms of enrolment, Peel's program is very grassroots: New classes have been added over the years in response to groups of parents submitting a request for one. That's how Nepali was added last fall.
"The majority of the students in the program are of that particular culture or home language. The parents, rightly so, value their children learning that language," says Gayle Ackerman, the vice-president of continuing education with the school board and administrator of the program.
Spending on the program grew 75 per cent from 2003 to 2012, in keeping with the influx of immigration and increase in interest. Last year, it cost the school board $2.3-million to run the program.
This kind of program serves a key function in a place like Brampton, a city where one in 10 families is multigenerational. Learning their mother tongue can be the gateway for children to converse with live-in grandparents and stay in touch with their cultural roots. And as the job market becomes more globalized, multiple languages may no longer be just an asset, but a necessity.
Katie, of course, already understands this. "Some day I might have a job transfer to China and instead of having to spend two years before the job transfer [learning Mandarin], I already have that knowledge so I don't have to spend two years of my life being wasted," she says.
But there is another benefit. her mother sees. In her school, Katie is a visible minority – but in a non-traditional context. Most of the kids in Katie's day school are South Asian. Besides the weekend classes, she has little exposure to the Chinese language or culture, her mother Anne says.
"Even if you don't retain a lot of the information … you get to mix with a lot of other kids that you wouldn't Monday to Friday," Ms. Szeto says. "So you realize that, 'Oh, we're not that strange.'"
Down the maze of hallways from Katie's Mandarin class is the sound of two dozen students singing a well-rehearsed Sinhalese lullaby complete with elaborate gesticulation and a range of facial expressions most commonly on display in boyband music videos. It's the end of the school year in Geetha Illangasinghe's Sinhalese class, which means end-of-year revision of both nuts-and-bolts grammar but also the range of Sri Lankan folk songs the group learned over the school year. Nuradi Dahanaggamaarachchi, 12, is the most emotive singer of the bunch and perhaps the most enthusiastic student in class. The classes have made Skype chats with her grandparents, who still live in Sri Lanka, more meaningful, she says.
Like many second-generation immigrants, Nuradi grew up speaking her parents' language but the fluency only lasted a few short years.
"She was speaking our language but when you start going to school and you come back after a year or so, that changes," her father, Subash, says.
Years of Saturday morning lessons have given Nuradi strong enough conversational skills that she can fool her extended family during trips to her parents' home country. "When we meet relatives, they're like, 'Where were you born in Sri Lanka?' and then you say, 'Well, actually, I was born in Canada,' and they're just amazed."