Languages: Barriers or Bridges in Youth Leadership Adventures? 

Guest post by YLA instructor Talia Schmitt

I sat on a sunbaked rock after a long canoe day and watched our students ecstatically jump into the icy cold waters. Two students, Lili and Maya, stood knee deep in Ross Lake and appeared to be playing patty cake. I took a closer look and heard them counting “uno, dos, tres…” and “一 (jat1), 二 (ji6), 3: 三 (saam1).” They were teaching each other Spanish and Cantonese!

With three migrant students from Guatemala and Mexico and many other Spanish-speaking students, our trip quickly (and excitingly) became bilingual. Each night, as we reflected upon our day, we shared in both English and Spanish. We instructors watched proudly as students started to feel more comfortable trying out a new language throughout the trip. Two of those students were Maya and Lili. 

Despite sharing a common language, they would stay up late at night and pass their free time practicing their new words; they were each other’s teachers. One night to the group, Lili exclaimed proudly “Maya’s Spanish has improved so much!” 

Maya, who brought with her some high school Spanish and an eager attitude to learn, told me “I’m really grateful for this opportunity and want to make the most of it.” Meanwhile, Maya dutifully taught Lili English and Cantonese. 

The last night of the trip, students had an opportunity to dedicate the trip to someone. Maya and Lili each chose each other. Eres mi mejor mejor amiga, Maya told Lili, putting a friendship bracelet around her wrist. Lili did the same for Maya, and the mutual admiration in the air was palpable.

Without much of a common language, these two girls had formed a remarkable bond. With such different backgrounds, they were able to learn and grow together. Throughout the trip the connection between all the students grew with a love for language and culture as we sang Spanish nursery rhymes as we hiked, and danced cumbia while we waited for our water to boil.  It was inspiring to see the strength of a bond form due to open minds, curious spirits and warm smiles. 

A week after the trip, we received a photo. A group of our students had met up in their own communities once they got home. In the photo, the students have their arms wrapped around each other and are grinning a mile wide. I couldn’t help but feel so proud of our multilingual, multicultural family. 


See more photos from this trip in our Flickr album!


  1. herb Briggin

    Great work, Talia! The camaraderie and language sharing is inspiring.

    So proud of you.

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