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Language Learning and Identity
by Ian Akbar
According to Edwards (2004:30), the degree to which speakers feel they belong to a given language community is crucial in determining whether or not they attain communicative competence in an L2. Belonging is seen as an integral part of identity formation. Consequently, within the specific learning context of the United States and in reference to language learning autobiographies, this paper will examine the factors (e.g., the school setting, various environmental factors, societal pressure, parental influences, as well as the teaching profession) that contribute to L2 (i.e., English) acquisition. As mentioned, particular attention will be paid to the concept of belonging. The reader will, perhaps, not be surprised to learn that the need to (or pressure to), belong or “fit in” provides both an intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in language learning. This need also leads, in most cases, to the L1 attrition of native language speakers in the U.S. In order to facilitate this discussion a brief glimpse will be offered into the past focus of SLA (i.e., second language acquisition) and bilingualism, which represents the impetus for this examination. Also, throughout this examination relevant theoretical perspectives will be introduced which will aid in the illumination of the situations described.
In brief, SLA and bilingualism research has mostly focused on the formal classroom. Most researchers have not taken into consideration the environmental/societal context into account in explaining the process of acquisition or the factors leading to greater or lesser success in language learning. Many conclusions are based on the results of standardized tests. In other words, evaluation tends to lead to quantitative results, with not enough attention being paid to qualitative data collection (e.g., the role of television, interaction with classmates, older siblings, etc.) (Valdes and Figueroa 1994, 23). Language learning autobiographies as a source of qualitative data provides more complex qualitative data on language acquisition than the results of standardized tests. In addition, this source of qualitative data is relatively free of external political influences (e.g., the political agendas of researchers and groups) (Lotherington 2004, 712/713).
One of the most important factors in learning any language is that of motivation. One must have a strong instrumental motivation (i.e., need to make a living, etc.) or integrative motivation (i.e., need to fit into a language community) that lies beyond mere personal interest (i.e., L2 was the language of one’s parents, etc). In relation to the American context, we find that most language learners are circumstantial bilinguals. By definition, these learners must learn an L2 for survival/success purposes (Valdes and Figueroa 1994, 13). As Benjamin Baez states, he had to learn English. He was going to stay in the States. He had no choice (Baez 2002, 124). Carlos, another learner, also viewed English as a necessity, not simply a fun advantage. He says, ‘I've got to speak it [English] because you've got to speak it for your future and I've got to learn it’ (Pierce and Brisk 2002, 586). As both learners pointed out, as circumstantial bilinguals, L2 acquisition was a necessity. L2 acquisition was also the most effective way they could become a part of their new environment.
Socially, in order to “make it” in American society Baez grudgling agrees with Richard Rodriguez’s position that one has to lose one’s private identity and get a public one.
Conditional to this loss of identity is the ability to speak English. Baez states that he is an American because he speaks fluent English (Baez 2002, 125, 130). This opinion is seconded by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (an American writer from Ghana), when she comments, ‘becoming American is about language’ (Pavlenko 2001, 325). According to Snow and Hakuta (1992:394), because bilingualism is viewed negatively (i.e., an association with immigrants and the lower class) in the U.S., the ideology of the ‘melting pot’ is defined as monolingual, not multilingual. Therefore, socially, American cultural ideology stresses that in order to belong one must be able to speak English.
Naturally, the process of “fitting in” is most difficult and important for children. As Snow and Hakuta (1992:389) accurately stress, young children, as much as older ones, feel the cost of social discomfort and isolation and lowered self-esteem of speaking the language of their interactants poorly. As the following examples will illustrate, how young individuals are treated in the onset of language learning seriously influences their subsequent attitudes to L2 acquisition (Hoffman 1991, 18). The most frequent experience reported by the students in their linguistic autobiographies is that they knew little or no English when they started school in the United States. Many experienced “language shock” and subsequent identity loss by being put into an unfamiliar environment.
Natasha Lvovich’s student, Serdar, in a personal interview remarked, ‘I was scare[d] of everything and also of myself.’ As a result, Serdar went back to Turkey. But, returned to the U.S. Serdar continues and states, ‘Step by step I learned many thing[s]. I found some friends. I talk with them in English’ (Lvovich 2003, 179). Baez also commented that he felt alienated on entering school in the 2nd grade, he was terrified and the other children laughed at him (Baez 2002, 124). When in the fourth grade, other children laughed at him because he mispronounced 'chicken' when asked to read aloud. As a result, Baez associates a feeling of bitterness with the teacher (white male) who forced him to read aloud and therefore caused his ridicule by the other students. However, rather than being discouraged this negative experience further spurred Baez on to greater language learning. Though, he does mention that his negative experiences helped him to “forget” his L1 (Baez 2002, 126). Therefore, in order to “properly” belong to the cultural milieu of the U.S., Baez saw that monolingualism was the desired norm and actively pursued it through language learning.
Somewhat in contrast to Baez’ experience, Marisol Arceo of Coral Way Elementary School, Grade 4, Miami Florida, a bilingual education student, mentions that her family speaks Spanish at home and that she was afraid when she first went to an American school because she didn’t speak English. But, her first teacher spoke to her in her L1, and she recalls pleasant memories of language learning (National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education 2000, 1).
As you can see, Marisol felt that she belonged in the classroom because the teacher was considerate enough to use her L1 with her. However, it is important to mention that the bilingual classroom in the U.S. is largely believed to foster monolingualism (Snow and Hakuta 1992, 390). Therefore, evidence of bilingualism in language learners is merely considered a transition from home monolingualism to the monolingualism of the majority society.
Environmentally, the acquisition of English by new immigrants depends both on the nature of the community in which they settle and the amount of exposure they have to English in their everyday lives (Valdes and Figueroa 1994, 15). Integral to this process is the availability of friends/classmates, television and siblings. Classmates/friends may play the biggest role of all in helping children learn English. Many students reported consciously cultivating friends who did not speak their language in order to learn English more effectively. One student mentioned, ‘I avoided speaking Korean as much as I could. I started hanging out with people to whom I could speak English.’ Another student stated, ‘gradually I began to learn English from my classmates’ (Hinton 1999, 1). Also, classmates/friends subject children to strong assimilative pressures as the situations involving ridicule mentioned above denote.
Regarding television, one student wrote, ‘Until the age of about four, I spoke entirely in Korean with my parents. Shortly thereafter, I rapidly began to learn English. Television shows like “Sesame Street” and “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” greatly contributed to my learning process’ (Hinton 1999, 1). As mentioned above, the influence of television and classmates/friends has traditionally been ignored in L2 acquisition, but, as one can see, is quite influential in the L2 acquisition of children.
Older siblings can also play an active role in language acquisition. One student wrote, ‘I have two older sisters who started school before me, and my oldest sister still has memories of first starting school and not knowing the language. By the time I started school, it is possible that I had already learned to speak English from my sisters who had learned it in school, because I can’t remember being teased for not speaking English when I started preschool. Therefore, I am certain I picked up English before I started formal schooling thanks to the precedent of my two older sisters’ (Hinton 1999, 1). Shin (2002:108) in her research of Korean siblings and birth order also supports this contention, she states that first born and later born children may learn English in order to reduce conflict in school situations. Also, Shin mentions that since older siblings tend to be more critical of their younger siblings language skills in their native L1, more focus is put on L2 acquisition by younger siblings. Therefore, in order to “fit in” and not suffer teasing and ridicule, children naturally attained the L2 with the help (whether intentional or not) of older siblings.
In relation to parental influences, on one hand, parents are concerned that their children will not be able to speak their L1 and, therefore, not be able to take part in their culture and religion. On the other, parents are also concerned that speaking only the L1 of their parents, children will be unable to take advantage of opportunities in a society that speaks the majority L2. Or, that their children will be stigmatized for not being able to speak ‘proper English’ (Lotherington 2004, 697, 699, 700). Thus, belonging again is central to the reason why parents both want their children to retain their L1 and to attain the L2.
Accordingly, for many students, parental insistence on retaining the language and values of their native land became the source of intergenerational conflict. One student states, ‘between my parents and siblings and myself, there has been constant tension— a pressure that is always existent, though perhaps not visible or audible—for my younger sister, younger brother and me to use Korean among ourselves and with our parents at least when we are in the house. Yet, we neglect it and use the more comfortable English—until we hear another lecture’ (Hinton 1999, 1). This occurrence is also supported by the work of Saunders (1982: 56), who studied bilinguals in Australia and found that the language of choice between siblings was usually the majority L2 (i.e., English). One can argue that this is only natural as the environment is English dominant and most people a person would interact with would be English speakers.
Alternatively, Baez remarks on how his mother helped him and his brothers to “forget” their L1 by only tolerating the speaking of English in the home. Baez states that his mother did what was necessary for them to succeed in America. He recalls an incident when his mother asked him to speak to her only in Spanish during a Thanksgiving when he was in graduate school. He refused. He mentions that the reason he did not was that he had lost his confidence in Spanish. He realizes that his mother allowed his language loss to happen and she did it out of love (Baez 2002, 127/128).
In terms of language attrition, Besmeres recognizes that a loss of self occurs in what a person has been and this happens to many L2 learners. One loss involves emigrating to a place where one’s language is not spoken. The other involves living in an L2 environment, which over time reduces one’s ability to utilize one’s L1 (Besmeres 2002, 9/10). In diglossic communities (i.e., L1 is not the language used for higher social functions of politics, government, law, etc.) individuals have little access to a full range of styles and levels of language. Because the L1 tends to be a language of intimacy and informality, speakers’ competence in this language is soon outdistanced by their competence in English (Valdes and Figueroa 1994, 17). Therefore, the desire to belong to the L2 environment coupled with decreased opportunities to utilize the L1 in a wide variety of situations, naturally leads to L1 attrition. Referring back to the ideology of the melting pot , this attrition is socially and politically sanctioned by American society.
Due to the U.S. preference for monolingualism, first language attrition is discussed in almost everyone’s autobiographies. This situation entails a profound social and cultural loss to L1 speakers, many of whom who have become proficient in English, admit to regretting the loss of their L1. Baez claims he can still read, write and speak Spanish. But, he claims he lost all the intimacy associated with Spanish by which he means the closeness to his family. He identifies himself as Puerto Rican, but not the same one that existed before he learned to speak English. He claims that many Latin Americans experience similar language loss (Baez 2002, 123). Thus, in order to benefit from economic gain many Americans have thrown away their cultural heritage and accepted a cultural non-identity (Almirall-Padamsee 1998, 4). In order to “fit in” or belong many Latin Americans have, knowingly or not, accepted the opportunity cost of L1 attrition.
“Heritage language attrition can create many problems for children who find themselves frustrated, unable to communicate effectively with relatives, alienated from peers in the country where the L1 is spoken, and humiliated in front of visitors to the home. One of the biggest difficulties that comes with L1 attrition is its impact on communication in the family. The parents may not know English well enough (or at all) to communicate on an intimate level with the child, and the child may not have a good enough grasp of the heritage language to bridge this communication gap. According to one student, ‘even with the Chinese I speak, I am limited to the normal yet shallow “everyday” conversations I have with my parents and do not have enough of a vocabulary to have meaningful talks with them. Such was the case just the other night when they asked me what my major at Berkeley was but I did not know the phrase for “Biology,” much less, “Molecular and Cellular Biology.” The best I could manage was “science” in Chinese and explained the rest in English; I could not communicate to them why I selected this major, what I was going to do with it, and so forth—we ended the discussion by changing the subject” (Hinton 1999, 1). L1 attrition, thus excludes an individual from their cultural heritage and sometimes even their families. They no longer “belong” to the culture of their L1, but to the L2 majority culture.
Some learners even feel a sense of guilt in losing their L1. As Richard Rodriguez (1982) in Pavlenko states, ‘... I felt that I had somehow committed a sin of betrayal by learning English. But betrayal against whom? ... I felt that I had betrayed my immediate family. I knew that my parents had encouraged me to learn English. I knew that I had turned to English only with angry reluctance. But once I spoke English with ease, I came to feel guilty. (This guilt defied logic.) I felt that I had shattered the intimate bond that had once held the family close’ (Pavlenko 2001, 339).
In relation to teachers, Baez highlights the role of the teaching profession in language attrition. He mentions that his second grade teacher (who he greatly appreciates) aided in his acculturation and acclimatization. And, therefore, his language loss. He states, ‘but, she was only doing her job, what she was supposed to do?’ Learning English allowed Baez to feel normal and to belong in the States. Therefore, L2 acquisition allowed for inclusion to American society for Baez (Baez 2002, 125) (Phillipson and Skutnabb- Kangas 1996, 429, 436). However, the very same L2 acquisition contributed to his subsequent L1 attrition.
In conclusion, it was Charles Taylor who pointed out that the self is constituted, in part, by language (Besmeres 2002, 34). Language is an integral part of the identity of all individuals. Central to identity formation is the concept of belonging. This notion contributes both intrinsically and extrinsically to language learning motivation. In the U.S., such factors as the school setting, various environmental factors, societal pressure, parental influences, as well as, the teaching profession have contributed to both L2 acquisition and subsequent L1 attrition. This situation was accurately represented in the language learning biographies examined. Simply put, some individuals and groups must give up their language and culture in order to “fit” into the American cultural milieu, which leads to L1 attrition for those individuals and groups.
For teachers, this examination has demonstrated that an awareness of the complexity that surrounds the issue of belonging is paramount. In order to promote language learning and avoid language attrition, instructors should rethink traditional teaching approaches, methods, curricula, and interactions with students that support monolingualism only, in order to offer their students more options for the present and the future. Teachers may also wish to carefully choose assignments, essay topics, and materials that might help language learners and offer options for classroom communication and management, allowing for individualization. Thus, the adjustment to academic life in a new country would become less daunting and stressful to the learner and the language learning experience would become a win-win situation, rather than a zero-sum game. And, identities would not be damaged or lost through the desire to belong, but grow stronger as each new language and experience adds to its’ totality.
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