There are 7,000 world languages recorded today, more than any curriculum could account for. But for one week, every year, Wilton educators and students celebrate as many as they can. Last week, Middlebrook Middle School held its annual World Language Week, and Thursday, April 6 was the last day of “The Festival,” in its 39th year saluting the arts and world cultures at Wilton High School.

At the high school, the celebrations included 28 events in four days. The events were either world-language- or arts-themed and involved community members, students, and families. It also included the annual student talent show and WHS concert, where teachers perform too.

Middlebrook Middle School celebrated World Language Week March 27-31, 2023. Credit: Joanna Cloherty / Middlebrook Middle School

At the middle school last week, the halls were decked with flags and decorations throughout the building.

Joanna Cloherty, the instructional leader of Middlebrook’s World Language Department, said the week is a wonderful way to showcase and celebrate diversity.

“It’s really just a great way for us to showcase not just learning … another language, [but] acknowledging how many other cultures are out there and similarities and differences that we have can bring us all together,” Cloherty said.

Each teacher had their own take on the week, Cloherty said. In 8 Green, where she teaches Spanish, they did a trivia challenge, and other teams invited families to come in and talk about where they were from.

The salute extended to morning announcements over the loudspeaker every morning too.

“We had about 15-20 students in the office come to speak in their native language at home that they use and say ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’,” Cloherty said. “It was really great to see how many students, even more than the 20 that were in the office, that speak another language.”

On Tuesday, March 28, each grade saw the assembly showcasing the Chinese Cultural Center in New York City with a performance of “Dance China-Lion Dance Plus,” an interactive event showing students ancient Chinese folk art like lion dances and kung fu. It marked the first time the world language celebration’s assembly was held in-person since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cloherty credited the PTA as essential in funding both the assembly and the decor around the school.

This year Middlebrook also held its first poetry contest as part of World Language Week, where students could submit works about cultural diversity or what culture means to them. The winners received Scoops Ice Cream gift certificates as prizes.

The middle school students were filled with excitement and curiosity all week. Cloherty said it helped spark conversation and and strengthened the sense of community, as well as an understanding that the world is so much bigger than Wilton.

“The flags were just reminders of how big the world is outside of us,” she said. “It was just a great conversation starter for teachers and for students of all different grade levels.”

Wilton High School’s “The Festival”

At the high school, World Language Week is a bit different. Nine students and two faculty advisers — Simon Bulenzi and Lauren Kantor — make up the Festival Committee, which meets weekly from November to April to plan the program. Teachers sign up to bring their classes to events, on a first come, first served basis.

“Señora Kantor makes the form available at 3 p.m. on a certain day, so everybody knows it’s 3 p.m., and everybody jumps on it,” Bulenzi said.

Bulenzi said one new event this year was the Dharma presentation, which highlighted Hindu festivals and celebrations. A few students from India presented, and they invited teachers to light candles, a tradition from one Hindu holiday.

“During a faculty meeting a few months ago, they came to talk about the Hindu rituals and culture and traditions, and I loved it. I said this is something we should definitely add to the Festival,” Bulenzi said.

Another was a talk from Isaac Bayoh, a United Nations Youth Advisor from Sierra Leone, who spoke to students about their agency as individuals to create positive change. It was co-sponsored by the WHS PTSA.

“He did a great presentation that was more like a motivational speech to encourage kids to never give up,” Bulenzi said, “to stay strong, to go through hurdles with hope and confidence.”

Students don’t just watch the presentations; they’re a part of them. During the International Club presentation Thursday, students from different countries spoke about their countries and their languages.

“What I love about it, and it’s something that we did at Middlebrook, is to show people here we have people that speak other languages. They might look exactly like you, they might seem to be American like you and a lot of them are American, but they also have another culture when they go home,” Bulenzi said. “It was a nice way to bring home to the school, and to bring that diversity, their differences and their different perspectives to the school.”

Bulenzi calls the week a “festive way of presenting different disciplines that we have here at the high school.” Other student groups are invited to be a part of the festivities beyond world languages included the improv group Freeplay!, the debate club, Operation Smile and Model Congress.

Bulenzi said the students love this week “because it’s different.” The week is interactive and inclusive of a variety of cultures and disciplines. It is also a great way for students to shed their assumptions.

“Sometimes when you don’t know the culture you just have preconceived notions and ideas, and meeting a person from that culture really helps to get a different perspective, and a better understanding” Bulenzi said.

He added that for Wilton, it is also important to bring visibility to the diversity within it.

“Sometimes it’s seen as a bubble, but the bubble has pockets of diversity that people need to explore and understand and be exposed to,” Bulenzi said.

On Wednesday, May 10, students will have the opportunity to take part in an International Food Competition. While it was not held during the Festival week
to respect students who celebrate Ramadan and Passover — both of which include adherence to specific food prohibitions and practices — the competition will be a new addition to the annual event that showcases chefs and helpers from a variety of communities and cultures.

Kantor, who is the advisor to the International Club, said The Festival is a great way to engage students, and have them learn from each other.

“What I think is maybe best about how we do The Festival at the high school is that it’s primarily driven by students,” Kantor said. “That’s what’s great, is the kids doing things for each other.”

At the high school level, six languages are offered, and students have the opportunity to earn a seal of biliteracy to go on their diplomas. Cloherty said this week is a great reminder of the district’s commitment to world languages overall.

“It’s important that the community realizes how appreciative we are of this fact that students in our district begin learning and have the opportunity to learn another language at the elementary level, and sees it as something that’s essential — and vital,” she said.