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Bilingual Jobs: How Language Can Make Nonprofit Work Even More Meaningful

The executive director of a nonprofit organization tells us how learning 7 languages has enriched her career.
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Bilingual Jobs: How Language Can Make Nonprofit Work Even More Meaningful

Working for an international nonprofit organization or an NGO is not for the faint of heart. Depending on your specific role and the organization’s mission, you’ll likely need to travel to developing nations around the world, where you may witness extreme poverty. Despite the heartbreak, or perhaps because of it, the rewards of the work are immense, as it gives you the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of others.

The nature of nonprofit work makes the ability to speak other languages extremely valuable, and many times necessary. It’s much easier to forge meaningful connections with local leaders and residents in other countries when you speak the native tongue.

We spoke with Angelina Klouthis, executive director of the U.S. arm of the Vicente Ferrer Foundation. This foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to eliminate poverty in rural India. Klouthis has learned seven languages over the course of her career so far, and she has no plans to stop learning anytime soon.

Here’s How It Works

The organization that would become the Vicente Ferrer Foundation was established in in Spain in 1969 by a Spanish priest named, you guessed it, Vicente Ferrer. He left the church shortly after founding the organization and spent his life working with rural farmers and villagers in India to eradicate poverty. One of his dying wishes was for VFF to open a United States office, and Angelina Klouthis was selected to lead it.

“I think the deciding factor in hiring me was that I am pretty fluent in Spanish,” Klouthis says. “In my role, I’m the liaison between the U.S. office and the offices in India and Spain. I spend a lot of my day seeing how we can work together and how we can share campaigns that are not just translated or copy-pasted, but that actually make sense to the U.S. audience.”

Klouthis says she learned some Spanish in high school and college classes, but that speaking it in the real world was what really gave her a strong grasp of the language.

“I think the best learning I did was just by making terrible, awful mistakes and interacting with people as often as possible,” Klouthis recalls.

“When you work through an interpreter, you lose a lot,” Klouthis says. “You lose a piece of what it’s like to have a conversation with just one person, which is really rich, quality data that you can barely even write down or document. It’s just something that you feel.”

Prior to taking the helm at VFF USA, Klouthis worked with USAID, the U.S. State Department, the Colombian Ministry of Labor and dozens of grassroots organizations at home and abroad. She speaks Haitian Creole, French, Spanish, English, and the West African languages Hausa, Fulani and Zarma. With the exception of English, she learned all of these languages as an adult while working with various organizations. She stresses the significant impact speaking local languages has had on her work.

“When you work through an interpreter, you lose a lot,” Klouthis says. “You lose a piece of what it’s like to have a conversation with just one person, which is really rich, quality data that you can barely even write down or document. It’s just something that you feel.”

“When I go to a rural village or even an urban, Washington D.C. community with Latinos who are trying to solve a community problem, and I can have a real conversation with them and connect to them without using a third party, without thinking that Google Translate is going to solve my problems, and I can identify with them in their language, it makes my work not only more meaningful, but more effective.”

What’s The Most Challenging Part Of The Job?

Despite speaking many of the local languages she encounters, Klouthis says the hardest part of her job is still the language barrier. Even when she’s speaking Spanish with her counterparts overseas, misunderstandings occur.

She gives an example of discussing VFF’s board of directors with her Spanish colleague. In Spain, what constitutes a board is very different than in the United States. So Klouthis and her colleague were speaking the same language, but still weren’t aligning.

“We’re saying the exact same words and we both understand each other. We’re saying the right words, but the definition and what that entails is totally different,” Klouthis says. “It’s all these hidden things that go beyond the actual definition of the word, and how you interpret them.”

To remedy these misunderstandings, which could escalate into arguments or resentment, Klouthis recommends approaching the situation with an open mind and taking a step back to ask, “What is the misconnection here?”

And The Most Rewarding Part?

For Klouthis, the most rewarding part of her work is the ability to constantly learn and grow as she meets new people in new places and takes on new projects.

“Every day I learn something, whether it’s a new word in English because I’m looking for some cool translation from Spanish, or a new word in Spanish,” Klouthis says.

But her learning goes beyond language skills. Nonprofit work gives Klouthis the opportunity to see parts of the world that no one else sees, and to help shape the world in a positive way.

“My vocabulary grows. The experiences I have grow. My understanding of the world changes. I’m constantly inspired by new things, and it’s so rewarding to have those kinds of experiences.”

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