By Dr Dirk Schubotz

09 May 2016 - 07:58

'Northern Ireland is no stranger to emigration.' ©VisitBritain/ Tony Pleavin
'Northern Ireland is no stranger to emigration.' ©

VisitBritain/ Tony Pleavin.

We asked Northern Ireland's 16-year-olds about their ambitions to go abroad for study, travel and work. Dr Dirk Schubotz, who directed the research, explains their answers.

Northern Ireland is no stranger to emigration. Due to the Northern Ireland conflict – the so-called ‘Troubles’ – people from both sides of the divide sought a more peaceful future elsewhere. In fact, many cross-community projects, such as the Ulster Project, took young people away. The change of scenery often helped to create a distance from the conflict, giving space for reflection and possibly contributing to mutual understanding.

With the peace process, many Northern Irish people have returned home. Today, Northern Ireland has become an attractive place for migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and elsewhere, who are themselves trying to escape war or poverty and seek a more prosperous future.

But how do young Northern Irish people feel about internationalisation today? Have attitudes changed with the peace process? And what about languages? Traditionally, Irish migrants tended to travel to other English-speaking regions. Is there a desire to learn other languages now? We asked Northern Ireland's 16-year-olds, and about 1,200 of them completed our Young Life and Times (YLT) survey. Nearly 50 took part in follow-up focus groups.

In numbers

At regular intervals, YLT had previously asked young people whether they intended to leave Northern Ireland and whether or not they thought they would move back to Northern Ireland. In 2014, 55 per cent of respondents said they planned to leave. The three main reasons were to seek a better future in general (41 per cent); to study (35 per cent) and to work (30 per cent). However, 41 per cent of those who said they would leave thought they would eventually move back to Northern Ireland.

For our most recent survey at the end of 2015, over 60 per cent of 16-year-olds who completed it said they would consider working abroad; and 57 per cent said they considered going abroad for an apprenticeship or internship. This suggests that there is a strong desire among young people to travel overseas.

Girls were much more likely than boys to say that they would consider studying or doing an apprenticeship/internship abroad. However, there was no gender difference in relation to working abroad.

There is a difference between rural and urban kids

Those who said they lived on a farm or in the countryside were less likely to say that they considered leaving the UK in general than those from urban backgrounds. They were less likely to have the ambition to leave the UK for study or work, although one in two still did. They also felt the least need to learn another language.

A plausible explanation for this difference is that young people involved in farming probably anticipated the need to remain on their parental farms, and also came from families that had less experience of travel because of year-round farming commitments.

Religion and sexual orientation

There was no difference between Catholics’ and Protestants’ ambitions to leave, but those who were same-sex-attracted were most likely to say they would go. Perhaps this is a reflection of where Northern Irish society is - more tolerant now, but still strongly shaped by sometimes very conservative religious views.

What we found out during the focus groups

Through the survey, we found out that most 16-year-olds thought additional languages were beneficial. Almost two thirds said that leisure and travel were reasons for learning one. A bit more than half felt that another language would be useful for working abroad, whilst one third of respondents thought it would be useful for studying.

In the focus groups, we questioned young people on their knowledge of the benefits of speaking an additional language. The majority of participants had been on trips outside the UK, mostly as part of a family holiday, and primarily to European destinations or on school trips. Students felt that opportunities to speak or engage with native speakers while on holiday with family were limited. Students also felt that resort-centred holidays further reduced the likelihood of engaging in the local culture, as most people spoke English.

Most 16-year olds knew that additional language skills not only boost people’s brain power and memory, but also their employability and self-confidence. It's no wonder that many were frustrated about the lack of opportunity to learn languages – especially languages spoken in regions that are experiencing strong economic growth and therefore offer a range of job opportunities. Some cited poor language teaching in school as a reason to drop out of language-learning. Those who went on to study for their A-levels bemoaned the narrow subject choice. For example, if you are hoping to study a science subject, it is often not possible to continue studying a language, which is one of the effects of the highly specialised A-level system. Pupils who had left school and were in colleges of further and higher education reported a lack of focus on language skills in the subjects they were studying. Compare this with many European countries, where pupils are expected to study a foreign language to A-level standard, regardless of what career path they intend to take.

What institutions can do for Northern Ireland's 16-year-olds

When asked what the government, or indeed organisations such as the British Council, could offer to support young people in their aspirations to go abroad and study a language, the students offered a number of suggestions, ranging from better information about the opportunities available, to placing a greater emphasis on languages in school and college.

Often, it is a short school trip or low-key exchange programme that whets young people’s appetite for further travel and study. We shouldn't miss the opportunity to build upon that. In Germany, there is a saying: 'Weltanschauung' kommt von 'Welt anschauen'. Freely translated, this means: '"world view" comes from "viewing the world"'. Similarly popular is the much shorter: Reisen bildet, meaning 'travelling is educating'. When I was younger, I distinctly remember that this phrase was often used as a response to my questioning silence as friends or acquaintances had returned from their third or fourth significant and expensive trip abroad in a year. Travel was always seen as an investment in their education.

Travelling, even short trips, contributes to mutual understanding and reflection. As the Northern Irish experience shows, in times of conflict and crisis, we need to learn more about others if we are to understand differences and bring about peace.

The survey was commissioned by British Council Northern Ireland and conducted by ARK, a social science research institute established by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.

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