Story Central

“The world needs more listeners.”

Maya Angela Smith ES’99 finds freedom and fearlessness in language studies.

Maya Angela Smith ES’99 has officially stepped foot on every continent except Antarctica and has visited or lived in 70 countries. From SYA Spain in 1999 to her current associate professorship in French at the University of Washington, Smith has pursued her love of languages around the globe.

Drawn by the human connection that language study requires, Smith sees the mastery of multiple languages as a unique way of engaging with the world. “I can communicate with so many more people than I could with just English,” she said. “Even those English-speakers in the world appreciate when someone can approach them in their native language. It’s a sign of respect and hospitality. Words contain specific connotations and feelings that are best expressed in certain languages.”

It all started in eighth grade during an opportune two-week trip to Argentina, which Smith says opened her eyes to a new world of possibilities.

“I was always interested in seeing the world and connecting with new people,” she said, “and while I wasn’t able to learn much Spanish in that short period of time, I was forever changed because I caught a glimpse of the magic you accumulate when you embed yourself in other people’s cultures, histories, and ways of seeing the world. When SYA Spain became an option for me, my desire to learn from and about others outweighed my fear of the language.”

Smith says that her biggest challenge in language classes from the beginning was memorization, making her first four months at SYA Spain miserable. “I didn’t understand anything my host family was saying even though I knew they were very nice,” she said. “I had never felt loneliness like this. Being trapped in your own head with nothing but your English thoughts while the people around you could not make sense of your thoughts was a daunting experience.”

Her defining moment came one day around Christmas as she was fumbling through another cryptic conversation with her host family. “All of a sudden, something clicked,” said Smith. “They said something to me, and I replied automatically. I then took a step back, sort of like an out-of-body experience, and I watched myself continuing the conversation.”

“I find myself more open-minded and empathetic than I would be if I had a very insular understanding of the world.”


She said this was the catalyst that gave her the belief that she could succeed. “It was the most incredible feeling of freedom I’ve ever experienced. Nothing has come close in the 20 years since. I somehow achieved what at times I thought was impossible. I learned to speak another language.”

Smith decided to focus on languages in college, majoring in Romance languages at NYU and studying abroad for almost two years of her undergraduate career. “SYA changed everything. I was not a bad language learner,” she said. “I just hadn’t been in a space where I could nurture that part of me.”

She returned to Spain, this time studying in Madrid, and then on to Paris and Dakar, Senegal for a year. “By this time, I was hooked and knew I wanted to make a career out of not only languages but travel.” Following grad school at UC Berkeley where she specialized in Romance Languages and Linguistics, Smith continued with French and Spanish, and added Portuguese and Italian to the mix. “During grad school I lived in Brazil, France, and Italy, and decided to focus on language attitudes and issues of belonging in the Senegalese diaspora. I was then hired to be a professor in the French and Italian Department and the University of Washington in Seattle where I rely on my personal experiences and research interests to teach the next generation about what it means to be human.”

Smith says her travels have made a tremendous impact on her worldview. “I find myself more open-minded and empathetic than I would be if I had a very insular understanding of the world.”

For those who may be considering the pursuit of language study, she has some words of wisdom. “We think of learning a language in terms of being able to speak it and it’s understandable why. Having a voice confers so much power. However, I beseech students to also think about how learning other languages gives them the power to listen: listen to the stories of others to better understand their perspectives. The world needs more listeners.”

Maya Angela Smith recently received tenure and is now an associate professor in French in the French and Italian Studies Department at the University of Washington in Seattle. You can read more about her work here.