Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month spotlight: Toni Garabete

For students to not only communicate in a language other than English and to expand their world is what Toni Garabete, a French teacher at J.L. Long Middle School, hopes will be the result of his teaching. 

“I would like to transmit a passion to the students towards French, towards getting to know the French-speaking world,” Garabete said. “If they are on vacation in France or another French-speaking country like Quebec, I want them to not only communicate but to appreciate things like the food and culture. Language expands your world.” 

Garabete, who has been a French teacher at Long Middle School for the last two years, is of Armenian descent but was born in Syria. He grew up in Syria and Lebanon, and his first languages are Arabic and French, having learned both languages in a bilingual school. In Syria, he studied French Literature at the University of Aleppo and then moved to France to pursue his postgraduate degree in the city of Lyon, France. 

With more than 25 French-speaking countries in existence, Garabete said his mission is to help his students imagine their possibilities for the future. 

Prior to moving to the United States, he lived in Venezuela, where his wife is from, and where his children were born. He  speaks Arabic, French, Spanish, and English. In Venezuela, he was a  professor at Simon Bolivar University in Caracas and after retiring from teaching at the university, Garabete focused on being a business owner.

Given his experience in teaching languages and world cultures, and with at least two decades experience in teaching French and Spanish, Garabate was offered a position with the district through the World Languages Department—a position he said he gladly accepted.

At Long Middle School, where he said 60% or more of the students are Hispanic, knowing Spanish first has helped his students learn French because of some of the similarities between the languages. When Garabate arrived at Long Middle School, the students had been without a French teacher, so he was determined to get the students to an adequate level and recover the time lost. 

I wanted to concentrate a lot on giving them tools so that when they finish the course, they can talk to a person in French,” Garabete said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”

He said his students have come to realize the value of communicating in a language that is not their native tongue. For example, a student of his recently tried to communicate in French with someone from Senegal, but it was challenging due to the lack of fluency. It was a turning point for the student and an opportunity for Garabate to share with his students that learning French and other foreign languages can open up another world for them. They have also shared with him moments when they’ve tried French cuisine or how they’ve shared French language and culture with their families. 

Although French is the main language he is teaching, Garabete doesn’t rule out teaching about Arab culture in the future, which he described as important with approximately 380 million people in the world speaking Arabic. 

“It’s a beautiful, fascinating language,” he said. “The poetry, literature, and rich culture is amazing. It’s considered the second most difficult language after Chinese.” 

“I love the hospitality of Arab culture, and people are very generous,” Garabate added. “You will see how they treat you with kindness, which is a contrast with images that have been presented in the media.”  

His advice to students in the district who are newcomers from other countries is to be proud of their culture and identity. But he also encourages them to adapt and integrate into the U.S. culture. He said that there may be instances of culture shock, but through understanding, tolerance and acceptance from all sides, there could be a positive outcome. 

“For any person coming from any culture, be it Hispanic, Arab, African, we can all be proud of  cultures but at the same time, work to adapt and integrate, as we cannot live on the margins,” Garabete said. “The idea is to preserve culture, be proud of it, and be willing to integrate and to share it as well.”



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