Alumna Irene Yi has explored her own passions and those of others through linguistics


Irene Yi

A picture of Irene Yi, a Forest Hills Central alumna, who once wrote for The Central Trend as well.

When 2018 graduate Irene Yi wrote her first books on sociolinguistics as just a high schooler at FHC, she never envisioned how far this passion would take her.

Trading in the snowy winters and treacherous ice in Michigan for the Golden Gate Bridge and bustling boulevards of California, Irene has allowed her passion for linguistics to guide her across the country and into her new life which isn’t quite what she expected it to be—at least, not what she expected when she first began this journey.

“I knew I wanted to study linguistics towards the end of high school,” Irene said. “When I was applying to colleges, I thought that I was [initially] going to study linguistics and psychology.”

Completely contradicting Irene’s introductory plan, she subsequently had a change of mind after she was enrolled in her first few classes at Berkeley.

“I’ve always been really fascinated with languages,” Irene said, “and I think that when I got to college and took these classes about what linguistics actually is, I realized I loved it so much. So, I decided to just do one major: linguistics.”

And Irene has no regrets. 

With focusing on linguistics, she has truly realized how beautifully complex linguistics is, and the supportive linguistics department at UC Berkeley is the cherry on top. In her eyes, this niche department is small yet mighty in its impact.

“In terms of classes, the linguistics department here is just incredible—like oh my goodness,” Irene said. “The linguistics department is small compared to the other departments, and so I think that the experience in the linguistics department isn’t exactly the same experience you would get in a big department like computer science or economics.”

The professors—one of the many factors that make the department so great—hold the responsibility of maintaining her love for this department of Berkeley. 

“In the linguistics department, the professors are really supportive of their students,” Irene said. “They give you all these resources, they want you to succeed, and they genuinely are so helpful and nice and understanding. I feel really lucky to be in the linguistics department—I could not have asked for a better department.”

At its scientific level, linguistics is defined as “the study of languages,” but within this department that feels like home for Irene, linguistics has become much more.

For her, linguistics holds a much more complex, deeper definition than just a surface-level definition. It’s humanity—it influences everyone.

“[Linguistics is] basically [how] the way that you speak [and how that] influences the way that others perceive you,” Irene explained. “The way that others speak is the way you perceive them, how you choose to speak to present yourself in certain social situations or around certain people.”

Every intricate piece and perfect part of the complexities of linguistics, such as subtle changes in introductions to the study of a foreign language’s structure amuses her; she adores all of the different cultural and personal aspects it can bring to the table. She turns this science into a way to translate humanity from the way someone speaks—the way a language is passed down.

I’ve learned a lot about different cultures and people’s opinions and histories through just talking to people and living here. It really expanded my view of the world.”

— Irene Yi

“I love all of the different ways of studying [linguistics because of] the structure of language, the styles of language, the meaningful units in language, the way that languages change over time, and the way that language interacts with society,” Irene said.

And although Irene finds interest in every facet of her major, her main areas of focus fall under the sociolinguistics category.

This category is what brings humanity into her study. Sociolinguistics focuses on the way that society interacts with language, and for her, she is especially interested in identity construction through language—sociophonetics in specific—as the intersection of human identity and the language we use is ever-changing. 

“You literally look at sound waves and stuff like that to see what this vowel looks like on the waveform,” Irene said. “So with sociophonetics, it’s really analyzing concepts—the way that you speak when you’re in this situation or with this person or how you construct your identity.” 

Respecting the languages, the people, and the cultures Irene has had the privilege to study is an integral priority of her work. As a large part of linguistics is working with indigenous communities on language finalization, language reformation, and community contacts, she feels responsible to always keep the people behind the language in mind.

Because linguists work with languages, many linguists work with indigenous communities to document their native languages, and Irene emphasizes human community in her life in academia. 

“I think it’s really important that you also give back to those indigenous communities so you’re not exploiting a community just for their language,” Irene said, “and [so that] you’re not stripping their language of the human culture and history behind it.”

Combining the history of the language along with the culture and analytical aspect allows Irene to do this as, after all, it is what intrigues her most: the history. This is known as how languages have changed over time and how different languages could be related in the same language family. To tackle such a complex topic and trace the roots of a language, Irene likes to interpret it in an analogical way. 

“[It’s] similar to biology,” Irene said. “You have the animals or species that evolved and common ancestors; in languages, there can be common ancestor languages, and they can split off over time. They’ll split into different diolates and languages, and to me, that’s really interesting.”

Beyond her experience in academia, the California weather, supportive people, and the overall friendliness of the area have all rounded out her time at Berkeley well in a starkly sunny manner when compared to the overcast skies of Grand Rapids. 

Yet the diversity she finally found in California impacted her the most.

“Because there [are] a lot more people [in California],” Irene said, “you get to meet people from all different backgrounds and all different walks of life. It’s a lot more diverse; there are just a lot of cultures represented in California—especially in the bay area.”

The transition from the Great Lakes State to one of the most populated states in the country allowed Irene to experience a city full of culture, impassioned people, and opportunity.  

“I remember my first semester here,” Irene said. “Everyone I met [was] doing something completely different, and it’s all so cool. They’re doing things that I’ve never even thought of or imagined something you could do with your life or school—it’s really inspiring to see.”

Emboldened by these inspiring people and her past experience as a Model UN student in high school, Irene was determined to expand her horizons. 

In doing so, Irene joined a gender-inclusive, professional fraternity during her first semester at Berkeley. But instead of linguistics, it focused on international relations and foreign service to keep her learning and evolving as a person. 

“I’m still really interested in international relations and politics,” Irene said, “so I knew I wouldn’t be taking classes on political science classes specifically; I thought it would be a good community to just talk [to] and give myself exposure to what’s going on in the world.”

Although Model UN may resemble Irene’s former fraternity, that is only a small portion of similarities compared to the huge depth of differences between FHC and Berkeley.

“In terms of FHC versus Berkeley,” Irene said, “Berkeley is a huge school, so it’s super helpful to find a community to make a big school smaller. At FHC, you know everyone, and even in Grand Rapids, everyone knows everyone; you’ll walk out in the street or [go] to Meijer and see like twenty people [you know].”

Returning once more to snowy winters and overcast skies, Irene is sadly leaving her Berkeley community for yet another chance to learn: Yale. 

I think it’s really important that you also give back to those indigenous communities so you’re not exploiting a community just for their language, and [so that] you’re not stripping their language of the human culture and history behind it.”

— Irene Yi

Next year, Irene will move to New Haven, Connecticut to attend a position within the linguistics department at Yale. This position is extendable from one year to another year; therefore, Irene plans to begin applying to grad school programs to further her understanding of linguistics. 

“I’m not actually sure where I will be applying—I think it’ll be in a lot of different places,” Irene said. “It would be really nice to go back to California for grad school mainly because a lot of the Californian schools match up with the research that I want to do, so it’s a good academic [and] research fit.”

And when she graduates from whichever grad school she attends, she hopes to find herself back in the place that has always pushed her in linguistics and in her personal life: academia. 

“The jobs in academia are pretty competitive,” Irene said, “but as long as I have something that will allow me to do linguistics or use linguistics to some capacity, that’d be great. It doesn’t really matter where I live, honestly. California is great, but anywhere that would allow me to do that would be amazing.”

With her education, her supportive linguistics department, and the diversity in dreams, people, and passions, Irene has been able to see more of the world, of America, and of herself.

She credits her opportunities at Berkeley for her growth—for her chance to see and understand more. 

“I’ve learned a lot about different cultures and people’s opinions and histories through just talking to people and living here,” Irene said. “It really expanded my view of the world.”

And while her time at FHC was the blueprint, Berkeley has been the mold for shaping Irene into the dynamic and impassioned person she has become—and she wouldn’t trade it for the world. 

“I love my experience at Berkeley so much,” Irene gushed. “I think that coming [here] was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life; I cannot imagine what my life would be like or who I would be today without Berkeley.”