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Thor Sawin
Middlebury Institute Assistant Professor Thor Sawin.

The term “perfect fit” is probably overused here at the Institute, but something about this school seems to draw in individuals with remarkably diverse backgrounds and interests and allow them to shine. Thor Sawin, a member of the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages/Teaching Foreign Language (TESOL/TFL) faculty, is an excellent example of this phenomenon. After going to college to study geography and map-making, he was lured into linguistics by a friend who wanted some company in a course he was dreading. That class would change the trajectory of Thor’s career, leading him to graduate with a dual degree in linguistics and geography. After being invited to continue his linguistics studies at the graduate level, he decided to add another degree in Teaching English as a Second Language.

Thor, who was named after the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, describes himself as “the guy who will be found talking passionately about vowels at a dinner party.” And although his academic passion centers on linguistics, you should not let that fool you. Like his namesake, Thor is an enthusiastic explorer of other cultures. He studied abroad in Ukraine, taught German at a university in Lithuania for three years, taught English in a Chinese city bordering North Korea, taught German again at a university in South Korea, and conducted his dissertation research in the Balkans and Sweden. Along the way, he has acquired an impressive set of languages; he is fluent in English and German, proficient in Russian, French, Spanish, and Lithuanian, and has enough Chinese and Serbo-Croatian to “get by.”

Language teaching for Thor is all about two words: hospitality and wonder. For him, learning another language has a lot to do with hospitality, because when you speak a language well, people feel welcome, even loved. “Learning a language is one of the deepest forms of respect you can extend to another culture,” he says. But language is also about wonder for Thor, who says that the beauty in languages is that “the way language systems work is amazing.”

His dissertation was about the language learning process for people working in development in Eastern Europe. Deciding between offers, he said it was an easy choice to come to MIIS. “There are very few jobs I could have gotten that tie together all of my lives and interests.” A large part of the draw for this self-described “East-coaster,” was the opportunity to “work with some extremely well-respected senior colleagues who have been incredibly helpful.” He says he could think of no better place to continue his path of growth and learning. When you add that to the many students benefitting from Thor’s great passion for teaching, “perfect fit,” no longer seems a cliché.

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Jason Warburg

Eva Gudbergsdottir