Multilingual? One Hesston student says yes, si, and ja

By Kristin Troyer – Co-Editor-in-Chief

“Ich will eine hamburguesa mit fries und eine malteada.”

Photo by Sarah Booth

A phrase like that may seem indecipherable to many is clear as day to sophomore Karen Penner. Though it surprises many, Penner is an international student who just so happens to fluently speak four languages: English, Spanish, German, and low German, a classically Mennonite language similar to Dutch or Afrikaans.

So when Penner is craving a hamburger with fries and a milkshake, she says so, but in a combination of Spanish, English, and German.

Penner grew up in a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico.

“My family speaks German most of the time, but I grew up speaking all four,” Penner said. “With my family, there will be moments on the daily where we mix all four languages in one sentence, and it still makes sense.”

German was Penner’s first language she thinks primarily in German, though it depends on the people she is with at the time. Her favorite German word is “Schmetterling,” the word for butterfly.

“It’s a fun word to say and it sounds very German,” she said laughing.

Penner explained that in school, which was a Mennonite private school, they took classes in German, Spanish, and English.

Though the community was Mennonite, that is only part of Penner’s identity.

“There’s Hispanic people and German people all together, so I definitely have learned all the Mexican traditions,” Penner said. “Even though I speak German and don’t look Mexican at all, I am Mexican because I was born there and lived there my whole life. My parents and the generations before them all have a Mexican nationality.”

Coming to Hesston, though it’s far from home, is a decision Penner wouldn’t change for anything. She says she is grateful for the opportunity to interact with other international students and learn about their cultures, while sharing her own.

After graduation, she plans on going home to Mexico and working at her family’s grocery store, and eventually going back to school to continue her degree in graphic design. 

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