By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer
Hudson – A town historically proud of its heritage directed its zeal for cultural preservation not to its regionally renowned Portuguese Club last month, but to its middle school, where a crew of teachers were fighting a proverbial “Pac-Man” through the third annual STARTALK camp.
English, said STARTALK director Ana Pimentel, is the Pac-Man of all the languages. And, in Hudson, like the video game character does to the dots in his maze, English is eating up the bilingualism of local children of Portuguese descent.
The three week STARTALK camp was funded entirely by a $90,000 grant from the National Security Agency and taught 45 students Portuguese at three different levels. The first classroom focused on the basics of Portuguese. The second catered to students with foundational knowledge of the language, while the third focused on enhancing and preserving fluency in children whose direct family members already speak Portuguese at home.
Regardless of the level they were in, however, students, camp organizers said, overwhelmingly had at least some Portuguese heritage.
“There [are] so many kids here who have people in their background who speak Portuguese but they never got the chance to learn it,” said Laysse Besserra, a recent Hudson High School graduate working as an assistant at the program. “It is important for the community to keep the tradition alive and this [camp] is doing that.”
While the community and its teachers may be enthusiastic about passing Portuguese onto its children, those very children often present a challenge to STARTALK staff.
“Sometimes we’re trying to give our kids something that they’re not sure is important,” Pimentel said. “When you come here as an immigrant, you just want to learn English and you don’t understand the importance of keeping your native language.”
Indeed, staff fought societal pressures on their students to assimilate into American society every day. Students in the heritage classroom, who face some of the strongest of those pressures, saw their teachers’ efforts manifest in the form of daily guest speakers.
“These students are able to see people who thrive in their careers because they kept their native language,” Pimentel said. “Or [they see] how people just kept connections with their family because they’ve kept that language. It’s not even just about the career.”
But while students themselves weren’t feeling a focus on careers within the STARTALK program, staff definitely thought about them.
As English is pushing Portuguese out of the minds of Hudson’s young people, Pimentel said there is also a severe shortage of capable teachers willing to help those children retain, learn or re-learn the language.
“We cannot find teachers to teach it,” Pimentel, who also serves as the foreign language curriculum director for the Hudson middle and high schools, said.
On top of all that, in the past, even when she and her staff beat the odds and found candidates for open positions, they often struggled to evaluate them. STARTALK has changed that, giving Pimentel a program to hire candidates into as assistants to effectively test them in a classroom setting.
“We have them for three weeks and we just don’t have other opportunities like that,” she said. “[In the past] when we were trying to hire teachers, we would have them come in and do a model lesson. It was just not the same.”
All and all, Hudson adores its history, and particularly, its Portuguese roots. It’s kept those roots through decades upon decades, using a variety of celebrations and educational events. Now, in a new generation, and as the nation’s most popular language continually chomps away at fluency in Hudson’s second most spoken language, the town is hoping STARTALK can continue to keep those Portuguese roots safe and strong.
“This is a community where Portuguese is alive and the community clearly wants it to stay alive,” Pimentel said. “They do that by having the kids learn it.”