Truly learning a language requires more than a knowledge of vocabulary and grammar—it’s learning how to use the language in real-world situations. That’s an essential part of Professor Robin Ragan’s Spanish 205 course, which last fall included a project translating audio testimonials from immigrants detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California.
Ashley Pineda ’22, one of the students who participated, said, “I chose Spanish 205 because as a first-generation immigrant child, I had a lot of experience translating for both my parents and grandparents. I also wanted to take this opportunity to get proper training in Spanish translation. When I enrolled in this course, I did not know what projects I would be participating in, but if I had known, I would have been that much more excited.”
The experience proved to be more challenging than she and other students imagined when they started the course. The sound quality often was poor on the recordings, and some individuals spoke faster than others. “The audios were extremely hard to listen to, and in order to properly transcribe them, it was necessary to listen to it multiple times," said Pineda.
Even more difficult, though, was the emotional aspect of listening to people’s traumatic and heartbreaking experiences. “The things I heard on there were things I believe no human being should be forced to experience,” said Pineda. The recordings reported on the lack of medical resources, crowded conditions, and the absence of COVID-19 precautions within the center. Individuals also recounted details about a hunger strike and retaliation. “I know that the individuals in those audios have families, and I can't begin to imagine how it must feel for them to actually have their loved ones in those situations.”
Ragan’s innovative approach to language learning is getting attention and acclaim from a wider audience. Late last year, she was selected for a Modern Languages Association Humanities Innovation Grant. In addition, the American Council for Teachers of Foreign Languages recently presented her with the Global Engagement Initiative Award, recognizing outstanding community-engaged learning experiences within the world languages curriculum. Ragan recently gave a virtual presentation to the Knox community about this type of work.
“This will definitely be an experience that I will never forget and will consider one of my highlights from Knox,” said Pineda. “This project gave us the chance to actually make a difference.”