Northern Ireland Student Blogger

Exploring Languages Near and Far: Creating My Independent Study Project

Group of students from Northern Ireland in a class on Zoom.

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. AV Lee-A-Yong is HECUA’s student blogger for the Conflict, Peace, and Transition program in Northern Ireland this spring. Ze is a student at Swarthmore College, majoring in peace and conflict studies, minoring in psychology. Read on for hir last post!

When choosing the study abroad program I wanted to participate in, I paid particular attention to the language spoken in the area I would be studying. Unfortunately, English is my only language, though I had been taking classes to learn Modern Standard Arabic in my sophomore year. In choosing Northern Ireland, I was under the impression that English was the only language I would encounter, but this could not have been further from the truth. I was welcomed into Northern Ireland with a very warm “Fáilte!”, and off I went.

During the few weeks of my stay, my program director Nigel encouraged us to explore the city of Derry and find different photographs as well as our internship locations. It became clear after a few minutes of walking that there are quite a few languages spoken in Derry that I didn’t even know existed. As with most things in Northern Ireland, I came to realize that the usage of language (particularly Irish and Ulster Scots) is a highly political issue, and has been for hundreds of years. 

The language disparity in the region initially reminded me of my upbringing in South Florida, where Spanish and Haitian Creole are widely spoken in addition to English. I was used to seeing many different translations on product labels, on state forms, and in many other places around my home town. While the politics surrounding these languages in the context of South Florida is of course different, I couldn’t help but think of my own context while exploring a new one. 

During my time in Derry, I learned a great deal about the nature of language in Northern Ireland, not only through class, but by talking to residents of Derry who had opinions about the way language was handled in the North. I had taiko classes at Gaelscoil na Daróige, an Irish-medium school in Derry, and worked closely with people who spoke Irish. Before leaving, I had many great conversations about the role of language in people’s lives in Derry, and the role it played in politics as well.

For all these reasons and more, I decided to write my independent study project about language in Northern Ireland: its history, surrounding theory, and the ways it’s shifting in the region to include more cultures than the two that most people are familiar with. Originally, I had planned to incorporate information I got directly from Irish medium schools and other interpersonal interactions, but since the outbreak of COVID-19, I had to change the way I researched and wrote.

After an online meeting with Nigel, who I must credit for sending me some great sources, I got to work printing and reading everything I could get my hands on. 

Through my research, I was able to find many, many more languages than I had ever anticipated being spoken in Northern Ireland. Three different Sign Languages (British, Irish, and Northern Irish), migrant languages like Polish and Mandarin, as well as native languages like Cant (spoken by Northern Ireland’s Traveller community), have been spoken widely in Northern Ireland for some time now, with around 54,000 people with a first language other than English in 2011. I also learned how much the shift from the two traditions model to multi- and intercultural models of social cohesion (including language) have impacted the Northern Ireland context.

In the end, while I didn’t include everything I had initially set out to, I am still proud of the 3000-word end product that I was able to procure, and feel it is a worthy way to end the semester. 

Overall, the shift to digital learning has been rough on my ability to create once classes got going again, as I’m sure it has for most of my fellow HECUA students out there. As the semester comes to an end for us and we continue to create for class, I wish all of you a safe and happy end of semester, with new memories of the short time we spent away enough to last a lifetime.

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