Winnipeg high school's hallways — and choir room — buzz with languages from a 5th of the world's countries

In a walk down the halls of Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Insitute, a person can rub shoulders with students from 42 different countries, speaking more than 35 different languages.

Be it Swahili or Somali, Tagalog or Arabic, Daniel Mac hallways host a 'chorus' of languages

Piolo Turdanes, Shoki Onosson, Patricia Castanaga, Ervin Muleka and Benithe Mukunda all sing in the Daniel McIntyre choir. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Piolo Turdanes says hearing a chorus of languages at his Winnipeg high school is inspiring him to master his own mother tongue — Tagalog.

In one walk down the halls of Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Insitute, Turdanes rubs shoulders with students from 42 different countries, speaking more than 35 different languages — representing more than one-fifth of the countries in the world.

"You want to sort of be on the same level as them and have that enrichment of what you know," said Turdanes.

The Grade 12 student did not learn English until he moved to Canada when he was six. He's one of 411 students at Daniel McIntyre who immigrated from the Philippines.

Students at Daniel McIntyre come from 42 different countries and speak more than 35 languages and dialects. (CBC)

After English, the top languages spoken are Tagalog by 415 students, Arabic by 40, Vietnamese by 36 and Somali by 31.

Daniel McIntyre, which has a student body of 1,022 kids, is the only school in the Winnipeg School Division with an English as an additional language program that covers all subject areas.

While there are 160 full-time EAL students, English is the second language for more than half of the student body.

Piolo Turdanes says singing in new languages is inspiring him to improve his Tagalog, which was his first language. (Warren Kay/CBC)

On top of his goal to fluently speak Tagalog, Turdanes is learning to sing in other languages.

This year, his choir will learn songs in a dozen different languages, including Swahili, French, English, Hebrew and a Spanish dialect from Colombia.

"It's really sort of gratifying because you feel like you are sort of expanding your knowledge of the world," he said.

"As someone who sort of doesn't know my language as well as I should, it feels like I am sort of redeeming myself."

Benithe Mukunda is a language leader in choir, teaching her classmates to sing in Swahili. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Benithe Mukunda says all of her stresses as a new Canadian melt away when she's in the choir room.

"I feel weird because I don't have anybody to speak with [in] my language," she said.

Mukunda, an EAL student, was born in Congo and grew up in Uganda. She speaks English, Swahili, Lingala and Luganda.

Her family came to Winnipeg for a better life and freedom, she said.

"In our countries, there is war and there is no school. School is not for free," she said.

"The school is not even good and they beat kids.… Like, you get sticks for whatever you do, come late — it's challenging there."

Here, there are other challenges.

"The English we learn in our countries is not the English that is spoken here," she said.

In choir, she's the expert, a language leader when it comes to singing in Swahili. 

She teaches her classmates how to properly pronounce the words she's always spoken.

"Some people feel like they just want to give up on things, just like how I do," she said.

"I think there is definitely an aspect of frustration," Shoki Onosson said about learning Swahili. "I really like how many more different sounds you can make.… There is only a limited number of sounds we can make in English." 

Shoki Onosson's mother is from St. Vincent and her father is of Ukrainian and German descent. (Warren Kay/CBC)

The Grade 12 student said she puts herself in new-Canadian classmates' shoes when she's feeling frustrated. 

She can relate because her mom immigrated from St. Vincent, an island in the Caribbean, and speaks the St. Vincent patois.

"I know from what she told me growing up as an immigrant … having to deal with people judging her for things like having an accent, eating other food, listening to other music … I don't know personally what it's like, but I can see … it's awful."

Choir director Cynthia Peyson Wahl said singing in unfamiliar languages is a lesson in empathy for many of her students.

"They're noticing a lot of things we wouldn't give them credit for," she said. "They think about things like, 'Wow, this is a real struggle for me to wrap my mouth around these sounds … and yet I am sitting beside someone who is doing that all day every day.'"

It gives her new-Canadian students a sense of belonging, she said.

"It's important for them to feel they didn't abandon everything they were before arriving in Canada," Peyson Wahl said, "and feel that what they bring with them also has value and it's valued by other Canadians."

Mukunda said she likes singing and she feels more comfortable in the choir room.

"I feel good. I feel like they are just Swahili people, like me."

Daniel Mcintyre Collegiate is one of the most diverse schools in the city with students hailing from 24 different countries. The student body speaks more than 35 languages and dialects. And the schools choir makes sure those languages are reflected in their songs. 3:57

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