ERIC Identifier: ED413795
Publication Date: 1997-10-00
Author: Ullman, Char
Source: Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC., National Clearinghouse for ESL
Literacy Education Washington DC.
Social Identity and the Adult ESL Classroom. ERIC Digest.
Social identity can be seen as the various ways in which people understand
themselves in relation to others, and how they view their past and their future
(Peirce, 1995). The act of immigrating to a new country can profoundly affect a
person's social identity. In fact, some people experience this change more as an
act of re-creation than as a temporary process of readjustment. For example, it
might necessitate re-creating one's parental role because one's child can more
quickly acquire the new language and perform tasks such as talking with a
landlord or paying bills (Weinstein-Shr, 1995). It might mean a shift in one's
collective identity, so that being from the coastal village of Bucay in Ecuador
is overshadowed by becoming or being seen as Latin American (Rouse, 1995). These
transformations are complex and continual, redefining all aspects of self along
the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, religious affiliation, ability or
disability, and so on. Although many teachers working with adults learning
English as a second language (ESL) will find that issues of social identity are
familiar strands of classroom conversation, most educators do not address this
issue overtly in the classroom.
This digest will explore how theories of social identity and language
learning have developed and discuss ways in which teachers might support
students in the process of self-recreation, with the ultimate goal of making
language learning more effective.
EVOLUTION OF SECOND-LANGUAGE ACQUISITION THEORY
the 1960s and 1970s, theorists of second language acquisition (SLA) and
practitioners of ESL tended to see language learning in terms of the formal
qualities of language (Corder, 1974). Theoretical discussions about the meanings
of particular errors, the order in which learners acquire certain grammatical
forms, and the phenomena of interlanguage translated into a focus on grammar and
pronunciation in the classroom.
By the 1980s and 1990s, discussions shifted from language itself to learning
processes and learning styles (Cohen and Aphek, 1981; Oxford, 1990). Taxonomies
of learning strategies were developed (Oxford, 1990) that helped teachers to
individualize instruction, but that also held the danger of reducing learners to
the style profile commonly associated with their ethnic group (McCarty, 1991).
However, this research laid a foundation for the next development in the field:
an emphasis on the social context of language learning.
SOCIAL IDENTITY AND LANGUAGE LEARNING
(McKay & Wong, 1996; Peirce, 1995) have questioned the way in which SLA
theorists have understood the language learner's relationship to the social
world. Peirce (1995) asks why learners communicate successfully in some
situations, while in others they falter or remain silent. Rejecting the idea
that this can be sufficiently explained by personality traits such as
introversion and extroversion or by a lack of motivation, Peirce argues that a
learner's ability to speak is also affected by relations of power between
speakers. Structural inequalities such as racism, sexism, and classism can limit
learners' exposure to English as well as their opportunities to practice it
Peirce (1995) also questions the concept of instrumental and integrative
motivation that have been especially influential (Gardner and Lambert, 1972) in
the field of second language acquisition, Peirce believes that instrumental
motivation (learning a language for a specific reason, such as seeking
employment) and integrative motivation (learning a language to become part of a
particular community) fall short in describing the language learner's situation
because they assume a static identity and a singular desire on the part of the
In order to better represent human complexity and account for the ambivalence
that learners sometimes feel in the process of language learning, she suggests
that the concept of "investment in the target language" may be a useful
complement to theories of language learner, investment describes the complex
dynamic relationship between the learner and the social world. In her study of
immigrant women learning English in Canada, Peirce (1995) found that the women
sometimes had ambivalent feelings about speaking English. This hesitation seemed
to come from their resistance to the identities others were creating for them,
not from a lack of motivation. For example, one woman avoided talking with
native speakers of English because she did not want to be identified as an
immigrant, an identity that she understood to have negative connotations.
Another learner, a middle-aged woman working with native-speaking teenagers in a
fast-food restaurant, chose to confront similar barriers to her use of English
by "claim[ing] her right to speak" (p.23). Because of her difficulties in
speaking English, her co-workers forced her to do more than her share of the
work. When they told her to clean up even though they had nothing to do, she
positioned herself as a parent and them as children. This allowed her to assume
more power in the conversation to get more equitable treatment.
Sandra Lee McKay and Sau-Ling Cynthia
Wong (1996) have built on Peirce's work with their study of Chinese-speaking
high school students in an ESL program in California. They observed school
students in an ESL program in California. They observed that not only were
learners establishing their changing identities within specific conversations,
but that there were multiple discourses, or larger conversations (in society as
a whole), that also affected their identities. These included images of Asians
as model minorities (industrious, uncomplaining, academically successful) in
contrast with views of other minority groups, such as Latin Americans, as
inferior and contrary (what McKay and Wong call the "colonialist/racialized
discourse" (p.583)). McKay and Wong emphasize the role of power in all
conversations involving immigrants, from personal interactions to national,
societal debates. When immigrant learners talk about their classmates'
responses, along with their own words, are important parts of their
self-recreation. If someone yells, "Illegals go home!" on the way to class, this
too becomes part of the conversation. And it is this complex, changing self that
learners bring to the ESL classroom.
"To study identity," writes Victoria
Munoz (1995), "means to explore the story of identity"--the narrative of
identity--the way we tell ourselves and others who we are, where we came from,
and where we are going" (p. 46). Teachers can try to support this complex
process in a variety of ways.
"Portfolio Writing": Eliciting learners' personal stories both orally through
the language experience approach (Taylor, 1992) and in writing is a good first
step. And because identities are multiple and dynamic, it may be helpful to
elicit these stories time and again, focusing on different aspects of identity
throughout a class, encouraging learners to build portfolios of their own
writings so that they can consider their shifts in identity over time (Peirce,
1995). The texts "Collaborations: English in Our Lives" (Huizenga &
Weinstein-Shr, 1996) and "Stories to tell Our Children" (Weinstein-Shr, 1992)
offer starting places for this kind of work.
"Dialogue Journal Writing": Dialogue journals (Peyton, 1995) can also help
learners explore issues of identity. In-class writing about a particular topic
(work issues, for example), can be shared with a classmate or the teacher.
Learners may find that different aspects of their identities emerge when they
are writing with a classmate as opposed to the teacher, or that they can explore
a certain topic better with one classmate than another.
"Large-Group Discussions": Another way to explore identity construction is to
talk about what it means to be a student or a teacher in one's native country
and in this particular classroom. This discussion can highlight the process of
re-creation. Returning to this theme throughout the course can help learners see
the ways in which these ideas are changing. Teachers can facilitate this process
by mentioning their own changes as teachers over time. These conversations about
classroom identities can be springboards to exploring other aspects of self.
"Making Meaning, Making Change" (Auerbach, 1992) is a good resource for this
kind of discussion.
"Small-Group Conversations": A photograph from one's native country or a
meaningful object can be the impetus for small group or pair discussions.
Teachers might participate in these groups from time to time, discussing their
own evolving identities as descendants of immigrants, or as immigrants
themselves. These discussions acknowledge the wealth and variety of learners'
past experience while providing a way to start talking about the future.
"Improvisational Dialogues": These exercises can begin with brainstorming a
list of language strategies for being heard, such as "Wait a minute" or
"Listen." Then, the teacher can elicit four or six lines of a dialogue based on
learners' experiences of conversations in which they felt they were not listened
to. Pairs of students can use the dialogue as a starting place, improvising the
rest of the conversation and finding ways to make themselves heard.
"Bringing Larger Discourses into the Classroom": What are some U.S.
perspectives about immigration? Listening to news reports and reading articles
about public attitudes toward immigrants, for example, can facilitate the
development of critical thinking skills and help learners to see some of the
ways the larger culture perceives this aspect of their identities. This can help
learners to better understand the outside pressures on their sense of self.
This rather subtle shifting of the classroom
spotlight onto identity can help leaners become more conscious of the process of
change that is preeminent in many of their lives. It can give them tools to find
ways to be heard and help them learn how to participate more fully both in the
classroom and in the world outside the classroom.
Auerbach, E.R.(1992). "Making meaning, making
change: Participatory curriculum development for adult ESL literacy." Washington, D.C. and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta
Systems. (Available from Delta Systems at 800-323-8270.)
Cohen,A.D., & Aphek, E. (1981). Easifying second-language learning.
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(ed.), "Error analysis: Perspectives on second language acquisition"
(pp.155-177). London: Longman.
Gardner, R.C.,& Lambert, W.C. (1972). "Attitudes and motivation in second
language learning." London:Edward Arnold.
Huizenga, J., & Weinstein-Shr, G. (1996). "Collaborations: English in our
lives: Beginning 1 student book." Boston: Heinle and Heinle.
McCarty, T.L. (1991). Classroom inquiry and Navajo learning styles: A call
for reassessment. "Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 22"(1), pp. 42-59.
McKay, S.L., & Wong, S.-L.C. (1996). Multiple discourses, multiple
identities: Investment and agency in second-language learning among Chinese
adolescent immigrant students. "Harvard Educational Review, 66"(3), pp. 577-608.
Munoz, V. (1995). "Where `something catches': Work, love, and identity in
your youth." Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Oxford, R. (1990). "Learning strategies." New York: Newbury House.
Peirce, B.N. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning.
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Peyton, J. (1995). "Dialogue journals: Interactive writing to develop
language and literacy. ERIC Digest." Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education.
Rouse, R. (1995). Questions of identity: Personhood and collectivity in
transnational migration to the United States. Critique of Anthropology, 15(4),
Spolsky, B. (1980). "Conditions for second language learning." Oxford: Oxford
Taylor, M. (1992). "The language experience approach and adult learners. ERIC
Digest." Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for ESL Literacy Education.
Weinstein-Shr, G. (1992). "Stories to tell our children." Boston: Heinle and
Weinstein-Shr, G. (1995). Learning from uprooted families. In "Immigrant
learners and their families." Weinstein-Shr., G. and Quintero, E., (eds.).
Washington, D.C. and McHenry, IL: Center for Applied Linguistics and Delta
Systems. (Available from Delta Systems at 800-323-8270.)