Dr. Themistoklis Aravossitas on the Hellenic Studies Initiative’s innovative online portal greeklanguage.ca
Tell us about Greeklanguage.ca. What is it and who is it for? Where did the idea come from and how did it come into reality? What kind of response have you had to the portal?
Greeklanguage.ca is a portal for Hellenic education in Canada. It is designed to meet the needs of Greek language teachers, students, and parents. It is also a Greek community hub promoting cultural groups with their events and activities across Canada. The University of Toronto was the birthplace of Greeklanguage.ca. During my graduate studies in Curriculum Teaching and Learning at OISE and KMDI, I realized that education for non-official languages in Canada deserves more research and support – if we care to maintain the wealth of our linguistic and cultural resources. The portal is designed and administered by the Hellenic Studies Initiative at the CERES. It is a community-based project, funded by the Hellenic Heritage Foundation and maintained by volunteers, who are mostly undergraduate students in our Program. Since its launch in March 2020, the portal has generated great interest with thousands of pageviews within Canada, as well as the in the USA and other countries around the world – wherever the Greek language is spoken and taught!
What do you hope to achieve with the portal? What does it do better or differently than other websites?
Our main goal is to promote pluriculturalism and plurilingualism in Canada by encouraging communities to embrace their culture, to learn their heritage language, and to support their own educational endeavours. While there is a plethora of online Greek language resources, this portal is unique in curating those useful to learners and teachers in Canada. We offer special services to Canadians of Greek descent by listing and profiling Canadian-based institutions and schools that teach the next generation of language learners and organize cultural and educational events. The portal is also innovative in its approach to UofT ’s Greek language students. We are happy to see many of them enrolled in our courses each year. However, since language learning is – or should be – a life-long process, we want to keep connecting with our students and supporting them in achieving their Greek language learning goals even after their graduation. We want them to see their university experience as the starting point, and not the end, of their language learning process.
I understand that some of your students are heritage speakers. What can students who already speak a language learn in the classroom?
Usually, heritage language speakers come to our classes with fragmented knowledge of their community language, which is normal because outside their home they are rarely exposed to authentic language learning opportunities. Some of them take classes in community centres and they continue learning the “family” language, taught to them initially by parents and grandparents in the pre-school years. Enrollment in such programs is often discontinued when day school becomes more demanding and other life activities and hobbies leave no time for “after hours” heritage language schooling. Thus, in our classes, most heritage speakers get the chance to enrich their home-based vocabulary and learn the foundations for effective communication in every setting, including professional and academic environments.
What is it like teaching language at CERES? How does it compare to other places you have taught? And how has the pandemic changed your experience?
Teaching at CERES is a superb experience. I have personally taught in every possible setting and context but never in such a supportive and positive environment for learners and instructors. I enjoy every minute of interaction with our diverse students, faculty, and staff, and since 2014, I have been receiving phenomenal encouragement, guidance, and all resources needed for effective teaching and community engagement. I have been involved with various projects and events and received professional development opportunities that helped me improve and enjoy my work daily.
In my view, the pandemic has made us stronger and has motivated us to try different practices in our teaching and learning paths. We all feel more comfortable now using technologies and tools that we had not used before, and we have become more sensitive to issues such as mental health or dealing with stress and pressure. These factors were affecting education and society long before the pandemic. Of course, there have been challenges for both students and faculty since nothing, in my view, can replace face-to face communication, especially when language learning is involved. We are doing our best with the tools that we have and try to offer as many opportunities as possible to students for communication and collaboration even in virtual modes.
What are your thoughts about learning languages (foreign or not)? Why do you think learning more than one is important?
There are only benefits for multilinguals: personal, academic, professional, and social. As an academic, I hope that all our students can complete their university studies with knowledge of at least two languages, in addition to English and French. That would be great for their CVs. It would open doors to prospects which monolinguals could never access. It means getting the ability to connect with more people and different cultures, to understand other perspectives, to travel, and to become cosmopolitan citizens of the world. Above all, learning many languages simply means to be better educated. For instance, students who take our Greek language courses at UofT learn more than Greek grammar, reading, and writing. They learn a language which has transported so many ideas and terms, which has enriched so many other languages, including English. In many ways learning Greek means also improving academic English, French, etc. Ofelia Garcia, a specialist in bilingualism, has coined the great metaphor of a “language garden” to refer to the colourful and rich diversity of our world’s languages. A garden without colour diversity is like the world without different languages.
Tell me about your own experiences with language learning. Did you have any experiences as a student that led you to become a language instructor (not to mention an expert on language acquisition)? Any favourite language teachers? Any special memories associated with them or with language learning in general?
For some reason, school has always felt like a playground to me, perhaps because I grew up in a city environment without many parks and accessible play spaces. Thus, it was the schoolyard where I could play and make friends. So, working as a teacher has always felt less like working and more like having fun. Teaching the Greek language allows me to teach culture and to tell stories. My favourite teachers were the ones who used to tell us the best stories. Inevitably, I like doing the same in my classes. Frequently, explaining a Greek word in class often leads to talking about Greek values, Greek food or the Greek islands and their myths...
What are your hopes for the future of Greeklanguage.ca? What further plans, if any, do you have to expand the portal – or to use it as a springboard for other ventures?
The portal will be constantly updated to serve the community. Furthermore, similar research projects will be launched soon to address ongoing educational challenges that heritage language learners face, particularly during and after the pandemic. The University of Toronto’s Hellenic Studies Initiative and its community partners, such as the Hellenic Heritage Foundation (HHF), hope that projects like the portal Greeklanguage.ca will become an inspiration on how to use new media and technologies in strengthening collaboration within and between community language groups across Canada.