Student Blogger Study Abroad

Lost in Translation: Becca in Northern Ireland

Students in Northern Ireland in front of a statue at the N. Ireland parliament.

A group shot of Northern Ireland Program participants inside Stormont, where Northern Ireland’s government (hypothetically) sits, although the government collapsed over a year ago.

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Becca Carcaterra will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Northern Ireland program this spring semester. Becca is a senior at St. Olaf College, majoring in English with a Race and Ethnic Studies concentration. Read on for Becca’s second post, on the surprising differences between U.S. and Northern Ireland English.

As an English major interning at a place called the Verbal Arts Centre (VAC), it makes sense I’ve been thinking a lot about language this semester. After all, as part of my duties I often sift through poems to be used in Reading Rooms, the VAC program that facilitates reading and storytelling amongst many different underserved groups across Northern Ireland. My internship strongly believes that language can and does affect lives, and I believe that too.

But since I’m a native English speaker studying abroad in an English-speaking place, many people would assume language would not be at the front my mind. And it’s true, I can read all the street signs and communicate with most people I meet on the street. That is to say, we are technically speaking the same language. But I find I still need a bit of translation.

For one, I’ve been introduced to a whole new slang vocabulary, and frankly I can’t wait until it slowly leaches into my own speech patterns.

“You all” or “you guys” is replaced with “youse,” which I’m seriously considering consciously stealing since American English has no acceptable way to form a plural you (except for y’all, which I can’t use without feeling extremely unnatural). And then of course there’s the ever-present “Aye,” which is a nice, solid syllable deployed constantly to replace “Sure,” “Yeah,” and “Mmhmm.” How can you not love a word that’s vaguely reminiscent of both pirates and court proceedings?

Everything even remotely small is “wee” – would you like a wee bag, should we take a wee break, did you use my wee hairbrush? Northern Ireland can often be a very serious and sober place, but I do find this turn of phrase makes everything slightly more adorable.

And I’m often thanked with “Ta” and “Cheers.” No matter how impersonal the circumstance, I get happy when someone offers me one of these instead of “No problem, dude.” Most of my knowledge of this part of the world’s English was derived from stories like Harry Potter and Roald Dahl books and Narnia, and the result is that I often feel like I’ve fallen into a storybook whenever I hear one of these phrases in my daily life.

Our campus, Ulster University – Magee, looking remarkably like Hogwarts.

There are also a wide variety of accents here, which are so specific that locals can not only tell the difference between a Derry accent and a Belfast accent, they often can tell the difference between two different neighborhoods of Belfast and whether that neighborhood is Protestant or Catholic. America is such a sprawling country that we can’t generally can’t distinguish an Oregon accent from Montana from Kansas, so I’m fascinated by this phenomenon.

But between the accents and the new slang, I do occasionally find that I just can’t quite understand someone on the first time, and I’m really bad at admitting that to people when it happens. Instead I just nod and make a noncommittal noise, which has probably been the complete wrong response in many situations. I also find that my own words are sometimes met with blank looks. It’s frustrating being unable to fully express myself. I know I’m hypersensitive about communication that because of the aforementioned English major, but it feels strange to have my native language suddenly be something I can’t understand. It’s an important and humbling feeling. Language is as complex as every other facet of identity and culture, and I’m enjoying the chance to see that in action. I may not be technically studying abroad in another language, but there’s still a lot to study when it comes to how language manifests in day to day life.

And that’s good craic. So until next time, fair fa’ ye. It’s been deadly.

For more information about HECUA’s program in Northern Ireland, click here

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