How does learning a language effect the Identity students have about themselves, and how their image of self effects learning a language?

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The context of this essay is a university in Shanghai, where the all Chinese students are enrolled in a program with an Australian University, after two years of successful study in China the students can go to Australia and complete two more years of study there and be awarded an Australian degree in Business Administration. The students are required to obtain a score of 6.5 in the IELTS examination. The following is a reflection of students and the interaction between language, and language learning and identities that the students have, and create through learning English in this program.

An important aspect of one’s identity is one’s name, the students almost all have taken on an English name and these names were chosen by the students themselves, Lemke states how identities can also be constructed by ourselves and that we ask others to maintain these identities (2002 pg72). The choosing of an English name is in a way an attempt by the students to create an English language identity for themselves. Interestingly some students kept their original Chinese names and this no doubt in an example of a desire to identify themselves as Chinese, and to keep more of their old first language identity in their second language, these students maintained the usage of their Chinese names even with subtle pressure from some foreign teachers for the students to use an English name. One student, who maintains his Chinese name, talks often about how he hopes to stay on to teach Chinese to Australians once he has graduated.

The students’ choice of names can also show an ability or inability to understand some of the cultural background of English, and the choice of acceptable or unacceptable English names. Tabouret-Keller mentions how names can be an indicator to others on the social background of an individual (1997 pg317). For example some students have chosen “normal” names such as “Peter” but others names like “Stone”. Thus names can make students take on a perceived identity of “Chinese”, ‘competent’ or ‘incompetent’ users of a language and members of a group identity. The danger here for the students is that without sufficient social understanding of the implications of their chosen name, the students could be setting themselves up for ridicule, or exclusion through their choice of name once they arrive in an English speaking community.

A student’s first language and cultural background can be seen to influence the student’s second language acquisition. Examples that can be seen in relation to beliefs on language learning, in China learning English is considered a valuable skill and is not considered to be threatening to the dominant identity of Chinese people in general. Thus there is general motivation to learn the language, at the same time the students’ background in rote learning comes through as a preferred way to learn the current language. Some students have even continued to use such a method of study, even when their teachers suggested against it. These students first language and cultural experiences are thus heavily influencing how the students go about obtaining their second language skills, indeed for Chinese language, where there are so many characters to remember, perhaps rote learning is the best way to learn such a large number of characters.

Grammatical and vocabulary errors can also be seen as related directly to the first language of students(Mitchell & Myles 1998 pg13), for example mistakes such as, “Eat the medicine” instead of “Take the medicine” are directly based on the Chinese usage of the word ‘eat’, for ‘take’ in relation to medicine. Another example could be through students calling teachers “teacher” instead of by their first name, as the teachers preferred to be called, this second “error” was quickly changed among the majority of students however, whereas the grammatical mistakes from the first example still linger longer. Perhaps this shows some deeper level of ingraining that speech patterns have, compared with culturally related phrases?

The identity of a person in their second language will be different from than their identity in their own language for a number of reasons. One of the most simple of reasons, especially for students of language, will be based on the student’s lack of ability to communicate at the same level as in their first language. Such a situation will effect how the students view themselves as a speaker of the other language, and in the classroom this could even lead to the students avoiding using the second language due to a willingness to save face. In China this could especially be so, as Asian cultures are seen to be “high face” (Mangubhai 1997pg33) cultures, indeed in some of the classes at this university some of the weaker students have a tendency to sit at the back of the class and try to avoid taking part in activities, when asked to participate the students will often simply state that they do not know. The reasons for a unwillingness to participate however could also be due to inability to do so, but also due to the saving of face by not trying, and thus avoiding a chance to fail.

Others students however also have a positive view of themselves based on their ability to use the second language proficiently, this gives the students an ability to communicate freely in the classroom, gaining the teachers praise, it also allows the students’ views and opinions to be expressed clearly, and due to the ability and wiliness to communicate, the student provides for her or himself more opportunity to learn and practice the language, continuing the process of language improvement. From the above example then the students language ability and that will also create for the student an identity of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ speaker of English. This formation of identity could then lead the student to reinforce this perceived identity as actual reality through behaviour that will either lead to the students’ English improving or weakening. However if a student who perceived themselves as “bad” was to be encouraged to change their own view of themselves then it should be possible for the student to start improve. Barrnet mentions how “imagined communities” can help students to invest more in the learning (2006 pg4).

Lemke talks about how a speaker of a second language will undertake a new identity as a member of that community of language speakers (2002 pg78). The ability to do so however is of course based on the students’ knowledge and understanding of what that community is. Thus an ill-informed student will be hindered in their ability to correctly take on the ‘correct’ identity in this community and this could lead to serious disadvantage for the student. With the students in the program mentioned above, these students are expected to study in Australia later with an identity of an international student, thus, it is unlikely that these students will be expected to speak and write English at the level of local students, however these students will still be expected to use the English language in a way that is accepted among the Academic community. Indeed essays will often have marking criteria where a percentage of the marks are based solely on language ability.

Thus the misunderstanding of expectation of students in an Academic situation could lead to the students lose of marks. In awareness of this the program places strong focus on academic English, with many of the program’s assessment pieces being forms of academic writing. Thus by creating this assessment criteria, requiring the students to become familiar with the correct style of Academic English the program is both helping the students to learn this necessary style of writing, and to create the correct ‘identity’ as a student in the English language, however at the same time the program is also acting as a gatekeeper, ensuring and enforcing this form of language as the necessary language that the students must know to be successful and allowed into the community of International students in Australia.

The program has been very careful to point out the culture of academic writing as well, aware that the students lack the awareness of a need to reference ideas and words that are not their own in academic writing, and that their essays must be written in a style that provides clear logical progression of ideas and opinions, with such ideas and opinions being supported by stated facts within the writing piece. If the student’s don’t learn this requirement of the language and culture that are part of the identity that is an “English-language University Student” then the students will still fail to be successful in the university, even if they were to use perfect English grammar and had excellent choice of academic formal vocabulary in their essays. Thus as Gee mentions, there is more to being a successful user of a language than just successfully using the words and grammar of the language like that of a native speaker( 2004 pg24), the cultural context must also be understood.

Though understanding all the above teachers can be better prepared to help students on their path to successfully learning a language, and the related cultural baggage, as well as to allow them to be better informed about events and behaviour that may take place within the ESL classroom. It will also provide insight into how to go about teaching students a language so as to take into account who the students are now, and who they may become as they continue along the path of learning the second language further.

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Lemke, J.L. (2002). Language development and identity: multiple timescales in the social ecology of learning. In C.Kramsch (Ed), Language acquisition and language socialization. London: Continuum.

Tabouret-Keller, A. (1997). Language and identity. In F.Coulmas (Ed), The handbook of sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mangubhai,F. (1997). Primary socialization and cultural factors in second language learning: wending our way through semi-charted territory. Australian review of applied linguistics.

Gee, J.P. (2004). Learning language as a matter of learning social languages within discourses. In M.R. Hawkins (Eds), Language learning and teacher education, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Barnett, J. (2006). Learner identity and professional standards for ESL specialists. In TESOL in context- Special edition (in press). Melbourne Australia Council of TESOL Associations. 

Mitchell, R. & Myles,F. (1998), Second language learning theories. London: Edward Arnold.


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