This blog post is a response to a discussion on Facebook in the Students of TESOL and Applied Linguistics Group.
In the video we listen to a Japanese person who speaks English but one who struggles with her identity as a speaker of English. As with many people who speak English as another language besides her first language(s) she attributes her identity crisis to her English language use and in particular her pronunciation and accent. Learners and teachers of English will be extremely familiar with this situation – and as a teacher of English I want to reflect on how we can better understand this issue and more importantly seek to find solutions.
The title of this blog post is of course deliberate and the focus of this brief piece of writing. What’s important is the front-loading of ‘Speaker’ in the title. Here the perspective is on the person and I ask this question of the person in the video - Who are you? This is in contrast to ’She speaks English’ where our interest is in the language, the way she speaks it and to what degree of accuracy and fluency. In the video the speaker’s focus is very much on the latter and she is ashamed of her perceived ‘mis-use’ of English and her confusion about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the different usage contexts.
‘Identity’ is complex because people are! Learners of English are not bacteria in test tubes, nor Skinner’s performing rats. How people understand themselves as speakers of English is important. I see identity as a narrative, a story, one that has both a past and a future. Identity is a story that is preceded by other stories and anticipates the next. Moreover, the plots, the storylines are in part socially constructed and we seek to meet the expectations, to align with the plot. These stories are shared culturally and through language and other means but the problem for the speaker in the videos is that her audience is not familiar with her stories, nor she theirs.
In communication with others we draw on all our shared language, experiences, knowledge and so on – we are somebody in those stories, we are the actors. But when people are not familiar with the plot or the story doesn’t go as we might expect, it all breaks down and our identity is at stake – I would argue that migrants often experience these tensions and seek to resolve through aligning with the norms of language and cultural expectations.
Three examples to illustrate my take on identity:
A Story : Young beautiful princess meets handsome prince, they fall in love, have lots of children, live happily ever after in their big castle – a fairytale – Yes, but a plot a story that many people live and understand themselves by. Identity is a story.
History - I was moved by a recent television documentary about a woman who was the daughter of a Nazi concentration camp commander. She was only a baby when her father was executed for his crimes - and now she spends her whole life coming to terms with this terrible legacy. She tries to resolve this by meeting a survivor of the camp. But again she becomes the target of the survivor’s anger and herself a victim. Identity has a history.
A Future - I’ve had the pleasure over the years of teaching young adult ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) learners aged 16 – 19, we talk in class about their aspirations, their plans for their careers in the UK, what they want to do and BE – Identity has a future.
The speaker in the video is following a story, she has a history (one that precedes her narrative) and she has a future. Her story is not necessarily going to plan and she blames herself for it. So what can teachers do about this?
Of course there is no magic solution nor methodology but more a case of being human and developing the classroom as a community and as place where we all want to be and feel good about ourselves. Now as I said I don’t have an answer but I want to draw on a personal classroom experience that will help.
I used to teach in a church that also operated as a hostel for homeless people and as a classroom space for a local college of adult education. This particular classroom space was used for learners who were really hanging in there on the edge of local ESOL provision. These learners in this class had not been to school as youngsters and struggled with the literacy demands of ESOL provision that is on the whole funded by ‘test’ results – you get the picture I’m sure. There was one lady in my class, she had never been to school, never been to ESOL classes but had been living in the UK for a few years. She had many children all of who could speak English and a husband who worked. She looked after her family. She was put in the ‘pre-entry’ ESOL class (who thinks of these horrific labels? So she’s less able than a beginner?). There is plenty of methodological debate about how to teach language and literacy to such learners but it is one I abandoned a long time ago.
Mariana (not real name) in my opinion was stripped of her identity the minute she walked into that classroom in the homeless hostel as a pre-entry learner. She became labelled by others, very much the way the ‘Japanese’ speaker of English labels herself (and by others) in the video. Mariana’s main identity was as a mother to her children of whom she was very proud. Of course this identity wasn’t at stake in the classroom but why not use it as a means on which to build langauge / literacy teaching? And that’s exactly what we did in class at every opportunity. I would ask questions of her children, their names, ages, what school they go to and so on. She would proudly reply and tell me all about them with a smile on her face. The ‘breakthrough’ in her literacy development came one day, through a very simple exercise. I said to her jokingly one day that she had so many children that I was struggling to remember who was who – so I asked her for ‘homework’ if she would write down a list of all of them for me and bring to class. She did so the following week. She read them all back to me from the list, she told me that her daughter had helped her write the list. I suggested that it was a good idea to let her children help her with her reading and writing. She was very pleased with this.
As a teacher my suggestion is to always try and find ways of enabling students to draw on who they are as people, to use their identities as a resource in the classroom. Let them tell you their stories and share yours with them. Chiaki in the video not only speaks English but she is a speaker of English (and not ‘just’ a Japanese one) – her identity is the most important thing – After all, it is who she is.