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Found in Translation

Swarthmore’s mission is true in any language

When I look back at Swarthmore, and my double majors in German and English literature, I see that it shaped my life in ways my 18-year-old self could never have foreseen. 

I applied to Swarthmore while in Germany as an exchange student my senior year of high school. Becoming bilingual in the language had been a goal since my adolescence. Although my oral fluency flourished during that year, I still had a lot to learn academically in terms of reading and writing German. 

The Swarthmore German program’s literature-based curriculum allowed me to truly engage with the language. Without formally studying it, I grasped complex German vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. Likewise, courses in the Swarthmore English department inspired my love of Geoffrey Chaucer and my awareness that words in any language, well-crafted, offer the writer power over their world.

Upon graduation, I left for Japan to explore its language and culture. I wanted to immerse myself in a language with little shared linguistic heritage. I returned four years later, humbled and happy. 

Knowing that I wanted to support language development, I set my sights on a master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages. For a few years, I taught English as a second language (ESL) in New York and then in Mexico. 

Fatefully, a German position at a local high school opened up and I jumped into it without requiring further training in the language, even though I had not used my German professionally for almost 10 years.

The rigor and high expectations at Swarthmore informed my teaching philosophy and fueled my passion. My students’ joy at discovering German language and culture—as I had so many years before—touched me deeply. When they met with success on the German Advanced Placement exam, I shared their elation.

In 2009, my school district offered me an opportunity to teach ESL. I reconnected with my Mexican experience by studying Spanish formally at various colleges and in Spain one summer. Completing the course sequence for Spanish certification felt easy. I realized my Swarthmore education had achieved its mission—I had truly learned how to learn.

Today, I use my knowledge of languages to reach my Spanish-speaking immigrant students. Many lack literacy skills and, subsequently, struggle. It is my mission to nurture their linguistic development, using Spanish and English, so that they may live their dreams.

I want them to realize what several studies support: Multilingualism provides many intellectual, cultural, and cognitive advantages. 

In fact, it’s given my life meaning and substance in countless ways. Although I don’t currently use my German or Japanese professionally, for example, my underlying proficiency still connects me to the greater world. 

It’s a perspective I wish more people could experience, especially when so many feel that language and cultural differences separate us. It reminds me of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, where God creates a variety of languages so that it is no longer possible for human beings to communicate in one tongue. Punishment is one way to read that story; opportunity is another. 

I’m glad that we speak different languages. For when you are able to understand one other than your own, you realize how much human beings have in common. Yes, it can be a challenge to learn another language, but the effort and accomplishment help you develop something even more precious: empathy.