Name: Caitlin Hodges
Location of Study: Galway, Ireland
Program of Study: National University of Ireland, Galway: Irish Language Summer School for Non-Irish Nationals
Sponsors: Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures, Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies
A brief personal bio:
I am a sophomore American Studies major with a passion for studying how people experience places. I plan to study Urban Planning and Community Development at the graduate level when my time at Notre Dame comes to an end. I am currently involved in several research projects that center around urban design and planning, particularly in South Bend. I love the research process, and hope to expand my work both in the States and (hopefully) in Ireland as my studies continue.
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
Fluency in Irish may or may not play a direct role in my career goals – but its influence will not go unnoticed. As my knowledge of the language grows, so does my interest in the country and culture. This has inspired me to consider a comparative study of Irish and American urban planning issues for my senior thesis, and has also forced me to seriously consider completing my Master’s work abroad. More importantly, learning Irish stretches my brain and forces me to process the world around me in a completely new way. As one who aspires to work in the fields of urban planning and community development, fostering my ability to think creatively is critical. Studying a minority language in a country where its importance in highly contested by different groups could also translate to other language-related community development questions I will come across in the future. What do people here think of ‘outsiders’ coming in to learn the language? What is the role of this language in the educational system? Should bilingual education be required? These are questions that Americans who deal with urban issues often ask as well.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
I am enthralled by the idea of being a better Irish student. But, I am also excited by this particular institution’s focus on the Irish language as a tool for community development. The mission statement makes this ideology extremely clear. The idea of language as a source of ‘social, cultural, and economic’ strength is something that I admire greatly; I am excited about the possibility of learning more about this concept while gaining proficiency in a language that I already feel very connected to. Hopefully, I will be able to have conversations about community development in Irish as my proficiency increases.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will have obtained a more extensive vocabulary and understanding of language structures useful for sustained Irish dialog. I will be able to utilize these skills in conversation groups at the CSLC, in upper-level coursework, and on return trips to Ireland during potential research projects.
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to engage in meaningful conversations (in Irish) surrounding contemporary issues of community and urban development in Ireland.
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will have spoken to native Irish speakers about their relationship to the language and their opinions of non-Irish nationals who study it. I will have also asked my classmates, in Irish, what drew them to this language.
- At the end of my summer study abroad, I will have meaningfully reflected on Gaeltacht culture and my sense of place within them. I will have asked myself how increased Irish proficiency influenced my experience of spaces within the community.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
In order to prepare myself for the rigor of this program, I will be living and reviewing with a graduate of this same immersion course before my departure. The course builds on the basic grammar structures and vocabulary base that I should possess after two semesters of instruction, but in a much more intensely scheduled manner. I hope to place into a higher class level that focuses on speaking, so I will spend extra time making sure that the basic structures of the language are solidly in my head.
Reflective Journal Entry 1:
When I first saw the sign for An Cheathrú Rua emerge from the thick Irish mist, my heart was pounding. I had already gotten lost twice that same day – once in Dublin, once in Galway, and both times in the rain. As I tried to understand the thick Connemara Irish my bus driver was speaking, I was feeling lost for the third time that day.
The first lesson I will bring back from the Gaeltacht is that it is ok to be lost. As a Notre Dame student, I have dedicated a lot of time to making plans – 4 year plans, 10 year plans – and setting lifetime goals for myself. In the Gaeltacht, things are different. It is ok to set out without a destination or expectations (so long as you do not miss dinner!). Since my arrival, I have done this many times. My favorite moments have been the unplanned ones: I accidently stumbled upon the most beautiful coral beach, watched purple jellyfish rise and fall with the tides, and stood 10 feet away from a seal in the moonlight. I climbed a mountain so tall I was surrounded clouds. I’ve walked in bogs, seen dolphins, and traveled by ferry to islands I had only read about in poems. I’ve stood in fields so quiet that I could hear bees flying on the other side of the street. I’ve stargazed from ocean-side rocks as the tide rolled in, and smelled flowers I do not know the names of.
All of this happened in the few hours per week that I am not in class, which is a whole other adventure each day. Being so in touch with the landscape of Connemara makes me even more grateful that I am learning the Connemara dialect. I admired this dialect before, and hearing it spoken by natives in An Cheathrú Rua and Inis Oirr has been a tremendous blessing. I have heard so much local folklore, and the cultural context has helped me to better understand the language. My Irish is improving quickly here, and every day I am learning vocabulary exclusive to this part of the world. I feel blessed with the knowledge of these words and the environment that inspired their creation. I still feel lost here sometimes – in class and beyond – but I feel at home in this country, in this dialect, and in this language. I’m excited for the other unplanned adventures that the next two weeks will bring.
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
For three weeks now, I’ve attended intense language courses from 9 am to 4 pm. each day. My teacher Yvonne is excellent. She pushes me to speak less and less English, and graciously corrects me in class when needed. However, my accent and vocabulary are most often corrected by some unexpected teachers: the grandchildren of my host family.
My three little mentors, aged 2, 6, and 10, have been a part of my daily life since my arrival here. When I was first dropped off at my host house, the middle child ran up to me and asked – in Irish – if she could help carry my bags (even though they were easily larger than her). This was the first child I had ever heard speak Irish. I was smiling so hard that I almost couldn’t answer her.
Over the past few weeks I’ve developed a soft spot for all three girls, as I am one of three sisters myself. Each day when my roommate and I return from class, we speak to the girls in Irish about a wide array of subjects. When our Irish sounds funny, they are not afraid to tell us. I once asked the middle child what her favorite dessert was, and she still makes fun of me for using the wrong word. My roommate once said the wrong word for grandchild, and was told she needed to take a nap because her Irish might be better when she woke up.
When the young ones are not hilariously correcting my accent, they are teaching me about the culture of their country. They love traditional Irish dance and often demonstrate their routines for us. I have learned a lot about the modern life of this art form from them. The youngest girl is too little to know the complex steps her sisters perform, but she will hop around excitedly while this happens. She is adorable, usually sticky, and constantly asking “Who is that? Why? What is that?” in Irish.
After meeting these girls, I feel way more hopeful about the fate of this language. While I was in America, it seemed as though Irish were actually dying as I studied it. I quickly learned here that, though Irish is a minority language, the love and tradition of the language is strong and will live on in kids like these. The third lesson I will bring home from the Gaeltacht, then, is the importance of children as keepers of culture. These girls have parents and grandparents who have lovingly passed this language to them, and their passion for it has made me – an outsider – much more passionate as well.
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
When my flight landed in Dublin, my first order of business was to exchange my now useless American money for Euros. I remember turning one of the alien-looking coins over in my hand and studying the harp on the back. I thought the engraving was pretty, but I did not give the image much more thought until last week, when a world famous harpist walked me through each part of that little picture and all of the Irish history it represented.
Una Ni Fhlannagain changed the way I think about Irish harping. She also gave one of the most interesting lectures I have ever attended. She combined her love of the Irish language, music, and history to give a presentation that was half concert and half storytelling. Beginning with the earliest known form of the harp, Una explained how the instrument has evolved over the centuries. As she moved through history and explained the political, cultural, and linguistic shifts in Ireland, she would perform a different tune representative of that time period. I was able to hear Irish history changing with each melody. Una gave special attention the Gaelic Revival’s role in rejuvenating interest in Irish harping. This revival was a late 19th century cultural phenomenon and something I have learned a lot about during my time here, as the movement also increased interest in spoken Irish language.
The next lesson I’m bringing back from the Gaeltacht is this interplay of art and culture. While studying Irish in the States, I often thought about the language as just that – a language. I did not spend much time learning the history of Irish and its relation to the rest of Ireland’s cultural traditions. Una taught me that the fate of the spoken language here has often followed the trajectory of its music.
***Bonus lesson: Irish harping is so beautiful my eyes welled up with tears at least once during this presentation. I will be listening to more harp music from this point on, and you should as well.
Reflective Journal Entry 5:
This is my fifth and nearly final reflection on my time in the Gaeltacht. Though I learned so much throughout each part of the program, I think that the most educational experience was my very last night in Carraroe. On the night of August 6th, the every student, every teacher, our ever-punctual bus driver, and every host family came ‘le chéile’ – together – to celebrate what we had learned and experienced together.
Listening around the room, I was amazed at how much Irish was being spoken by students who had no knowledge just four weeks earlier. I was also amazed at how close this program brought all of us as people who share a love of a unique and beautiful thing: Gaeilge. I heard so many genuine exclamations of ‘thank you’ and ‘hope to see you next summer’. It was touching to see how the native Irish speakers in attendance responded to this group of international students, who were strangers just a month before. My teacher hugged me and kissed me on the cheek as I said goodbye. (This was exactly one day after claiming to ‘not be the hugging type’.)
The real highlight of the evening was dancing after all the emotional speeches were finished. Now, I am not a dancer. When I originally heard that dancing was a critical component of this send off, I was hesitant. It feels silly to write this now, though, because that night was so fun. The students performed traditional dances we had learned for our host families, and one by one our families joined in. My host mom was the first to volunteer, of course, because she is the best. I am no professional Irish dancer, and my overall coordination did not improve as much as my Irish, but this was the most connected I have felt to the Irish culture in my whole life.
Irish dancing taught me another important lesson that I will take home from the Gaeltacht: When it comes to being an intentional member of a community, you do not need to be a professional – but you do need to participate.
Reflective Journal Entry 6:
My sixth reflection on my time in Carraroe will be harder to write then any that came before. Endings are always sad, and the ending of this program that challenged me and helped me to grow was no exception. I felt the emotions creep in as I trekked the flower-dotted road to my host accommodation for the last time. On returning home, I packed – slowly – and carefully stored all the extra notes that my teacher had sent with me because “learning never stops”.
The next morning, I woke up to the familiar sound of the garpháistí – the grandchildren of my host mom. Saying goodbye to my friends from class was tough, but I had the most difficult time saying farewell to these three little teachers who pushed me to learn more and try harder each day.
As I watched the middle child try to carry my suitcase, just as she did when I first arrived in town, the waves of gratitude all hit me at once. I am so grateful that this program enabled me to really know and love a family from the culture I am studying. Loving these kids, their mom, and their grandparents changed the way I see the language and will influence the way I learn from this point out. Irish has become a much more personal journey for me as a result of this bond.
This experience taught me about the universality of family, and how the love of family – even a non-biological one – can be the greatest motivator. I will be back to Ireland, Lord willing, and I will be visiting my new family first thing.
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
Since returning to my Irish classes at Notre Dame, I have noticed a dramatic improvement in my ability to understand my professors. While translating texts, I reach for the dictionary less often. My vocabulary is much more extensive, allowing me to communicate more meaningful ideas in Irish. I’ve slowly started reading my first ever Irish Language novel, whereas I could not read Irish children’s books this time last year. Learning the Irish through Irish instead of English has prepared me well for class this semester, in which we use a textbook written in Irish. Studying in Carraroe has given me a much more personal stake in the language. I have a lot left to learn, and I find myself more excited than ever to do just that.
My language gains are measurable, but I think my most important personal gains are the intercultural ones. There are the obvious cultural gains including my new love for Irish breakfast, a budding passion for traditional Irish language singing and dancing, and my respect for the terrain of western Ireland. Carraroe taught me many lessons – some of which can be found in this blog, and many that are revealing themselves as I readjust to life at Notre Dame.
This program allowed me to leave the United States for the first time. This was a gift in itself, but living in Carraroe turned out to be just what I needed at this stage of my life. This program was my first encounter with a minority language in its natural environment. I was often put on the spot about why I would study such a language, what I thought about its future, and if learning Irish would have any real impact on my life. I had to learn how to engage with these questions in a way that is respectful – especially in the larger cities I visited, where my decision to learn Irish was often seen as useless. I encountered some people who were actually quite hostile towards the language. Learning how to be a meaningful participant in these conversations as an outsider has taught me a great deal about communicating with differing viewpoints, which will be a skill I carry with me always.
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
The easiest way to explain my overall summer language experience is to say I fell in love with Ireland. Learning Irish came as a natural part of that process, and for this reason I found the classes themselves to be even more meaningful. I absorbed so much about folklore, art, and the landscape. I learned vocabulary unique to Connemara, and had so many quality conversations in Irish and English. I learned how to adapt, how to defend my beliefs, and witnessed the importance of listening to local voices – the teachers of a place.
Reflecting on my experiences now, the first emotions I feel are joy and a sort of wistfulness. I miss waking up to loud sheep, eating fresh-caught fish with my host family, and drinking too many cups of tea. These experiences helped me feel like part of that Gaeltacht – even if it was for such a short time. This sense of belonging has impacted me tremendously. I am of mixed European descent, so I have never truly identified with another culture besides my own “American-ness”. Participating in Connemara’s cultural practices through the native language has given me an unprecedented stake in the culture of another place and made me more curious about the lived culture of other communities in Ireland and beyond.
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
My immediate goal for Irish Language is to dive deeply into my Intermediate level course this semester. My exact long term goals for the language are still to be determined, but I am sincerely hoping to find a way to return to Ireland for further language and cultural studies.
I felt a very strong connection to Carraroe and western Ireland – and in particular to the nearby island of Inis Oirr. I loved the culture and landscape of this place when I visited, and there is so much more I want to learn about the island.. Inis Oirr has won awards for cultural, language, and environmental preservation. As I have strong interests in the fields of community development and sustainability (and Irish!), I am looking into the possibility of doing independent research there. Irish is an essential part of daily life on the Aran Islands, so being able to engage with locals in this tongue would be amazing.
Regardless of whether or not I am able to complete additional research, the lessons I learned while in Carraroe will continue impacting my life. My interest in community development through arts and culture is stronger than ever. I now know how to travel and engage in foreign communities independently. I am considering graduate programs in Ireland or even other countries; that is something I never considered seriously before studying abroad. All in all, I think I left Ireland as a person who is better able to adapt to change and engage critically in the surrounding culture. I am so grateful.