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Many Johnson High students speak Spanish and English. So one teacher offers this ‘interesting’ language
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Johnson High Portuguese teacher Stephany Zuniga leads her Portuguese launguage class through the day's lesson. Johnson High is the only high school in Hall County to offer the language. - photo by Kelsey Podo

To the untrained ear, the voices coming out of Stephany Zuniga’s class at Johnson High School might sound French, Italian or Spanish. 

This is because Zuniga teaches Portuguese. 

“I’d like to say that Portuguese is a mixture of French, Italian and Spanish,” Zuniga said. “You get each of those sounds. It can be easy for Spanish-speaking students to read, but challenging to understand.”

The only Hall County high school that offers Portuguese is Johnson High. Zuniga first started teaching Portuguese at World Language Academy Primary in 2015, then left to teach two classes at World Language Academy Middle and four at Johnson in 2016. 

Jonathan Edwards, Johnson’s assistant principal, said Portuguese was first introduced to the high school because of its similarities to Spanish and its connection to World Language Academy. 

Many of Zuniga’s high school students received lessons from her at World Language Academy and have progressed since then. She now teaches 143 students at Johnson.

“Our kids really enjoy exploring the culture,” Edwards said. “She (Zuniga) brings a first-hand perspective.”

Zuniga was born and raised in Brazil. She moved to the U.S. at 16. 

“I can definitely relate to my students, especially the ones that arrive in high school and don’t speak English,” Zuniga said. “I love when I get those students because I understand how it is to sit in a classroom and not understand anything.”

Many students at Johnson already know Spanish, so taking Spanish as a class doesn’t have much appeal to them. This is where Portuguese comes into play. 

“For them, it’s more interesting because they’ve been speaking Spanish their whole lives,” Zuniga said. “Being exposed to Portuguese, it’s challenging and interesting.”

Katherine Diaz and Keylly Granados are are both native Spanish speakers who take Portuguese from Zuniga. 

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Johnson High School Portuguese teacher Stephany Zuniga, center, goes over Portuguese homework with students Keylly Granados, left, and Katherine Diaze. - photo by Kelsey Podo

Diaz describes Portuguese as “a fancier version of Spanish.”

“I decided to take this class because I wanted to learn a different language that wasn’t basic like French,” Diaz said. 

Although Portuguese is close in some ways to Spanish, Granados said the similarities can be many students’ downfall. 

“The most challenging thing for me is not mixing up Spanish and Portuguese,” she said. 

Zuniga teaches her class grammar for Portuguese spoken in Brazil and Portugal. 

Portuguese is the official language of 10 countries and is sixth when it comes to number of native speakers at 220 million, according to Zuniga and Babbel Magazine

She sees her class as more than a place to learn another language. She makes a point to try and immerse her students in the cultures of the language. 

One of her most recent lessons involved comparing how Brazil celebrates its independence versus the U.S. Her students are required to learn Brazil’s national anthem, which is commonly sung in the morning by students in Brazil like the Pledge of Allegiance is recited in American schools. 

“To learn a language, you can’t just show up to class, you have to love the language,” Zuniga said. “I  want them to know the culture, so I teach them to be more open to learning about other cultures.”

Hall County Schools’ Board of Education recently approved adding Portuguese 5 to Johnson’s list of classes in fall 2020. 

Zuniga said she hopes other schools in the district will consider taking on Portuguese. 

“I’m lucky that Johnson has given me the support I need to teach this language,” she said. “I would love for other schools to have Portuguese. Now UNG (University of North Georgia) has Portuguese 1. We’re growing little by little.”