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UNDERSTANDING THE SOCIAL CONTEXTS OF LANGUAGE LEARNING

In the field of second language acquisition (SLA), examining the identity of second language learners has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Much emphasis has been placed on understanding second language learner errors, comparing them with native speaker norms. As such, the existing SLA research is skewed toward the acquisition of L2 grammar and morphology, and gives little recognition to the social contexts in which a second language is learned. The student is simply viewed as a language learner whose primary goal is to reach (near-)native proficiency in the target language.

One of the most widely recognized facts about second language learning is that some individuals are simply more successful in learning a second language than others despite equal instruction and materials (Gass & Selinker, 2008). Research has examined some of the factors that may be responsible for individual differences including age, aptitude, motivation, anxiety, and attitude. Krashen (1981), for example, has hypothesized that comprehensible input in the presence of a low affective filter facilitates SLA. In Krashen’s view, this affective filter comprises the learner’s motivation, self-confidence, and level of anxiety.

To lower student anxiety and increase self-confidence, language teachers have based their lessons on content that is likely to be familiar to the learner.

Teachers use a variety of student-centered teaching techniques to make the language classroom interesting and relevant to the students. One such technique is integrating students’ own experiences into the language lesson. In many adult ESL classrooms, students are asked to write about their experiences in their home countries and present them to the class as a way of practicing their speaking, writing, and listening skills in English. Teachers do this activity in order to recognize students’ different backgrounds and to promote a sense of community among the learners. But while some students appreciate the opportunity to share their stories with their teachers and peers, others find this to be of little benefit.

For example, Norton (1997: 412-413) presents the case of Mai, a young Vietnamese woman from her longitudinal study of five immigrant women in Canada. After completing a six-month ESL course offered to adult immigrants in Canada, Mai continued taking ESL courses at night in order to improve her English. Norton notes that Mai had to make great sacrifices to attend the evening classes after a long day at work and negotiating public transportation in an unsafe neighborhood. Given the sacrifices that Mai made to attend these evening courses, she expressed great frustration with one particular course she was taking. In an interview with Norton, Mai explained that the class was centered around students’ presentations on life in their home countries. She described how frustrating it was to sit through a whole lesson and listen to one student speak:

I was hoping that the course would help me the same as we learnt [in the six-month ESL course], but some night we only spend time on one man.

He came from Europe. He talked about his country: what’s happening and what was happening. And all the time we didn’t learn at all. And tomorrow the other Indian man speak something for there. Maybe all week I didn’t write any more on my book.

Norton reports that after struggling through this course for a number of weeks and coming to feel that she “didn’t learn at all,” Mai never returned to the class.

Norton (1997) argues that Mai’s teacher’s approach, though well- intentioned, did not do justice to the complexity of learner identities. She contends that whereas immigrant learners’ experiences in their native country may be a significant part of their identity, these experiences are constantly being mediated by their experiences in the new country. Since the teacher did not provide learners with the opportunity to critically examine their experiences in Canada but focused solely on students’ past experiences in their home countries, Mai had little investment in the presentations of her fellow classmates. Mai’s story shows that language learners are not passive recipients of linguistic knowledge doled out by teachers. On the contrary, students actively engage in their own learning by reacting fiercely to teaching methods that they perceive to be a waste of their time and energy. These strong reactions are influenced by the learners’ sense of who they are and what they imagine themselves to be in the future (Kanno & Norton, 2003).

Much of the research on identity and language learning advances the view that learning a second language is not simply an accumulation of skills through practice. Instead, scholars have highlighted the complex social interactions and power differentials that engage the identities of language learners. According to Kramsch (1993), sociocultural identities are not static, deterministic constructs that teachers and students bring to the classroom and then take away unchanged at the end of a lesson. Norton (1997) contends that every time language learners speak, they are not only exchanging information with their interlocutors; they are also constantly organizing and reorganizing a sense of who they are and how they relate to the social world. They are, in other words, engaged in identity construction and negotiation.

In a study of four Chinese-immigrant students in California, McKay & Wong (1996) found that second language learners are set up by relations of power and may set up their own counter-discourse that puts them in a more powerful position. For instance, one student in their study, Michael Lee, counteracted his powerless positioning as “ESL student” by not writing about suggested topics of family and school on the language assessment but by writing about his hobbies instead. Michael’s mother had previously asked Ms. Romero, his ESL teacher, to take him out of ESL at the end of eighth grade but her request was denied based on his poor performance in ESL. Michael was getting Cs and Ds in ESL, especially in writing, though he received As in other courses. Then Michael tried to convince the Regular Core teacher to advance him to that level. Failing in his attempt, he wrote an essay entitled, “The Unlucky Day,” concluding with the following paragraph:

My ESL teacher, Ms. Romero, say I can not go to Mrs. O’Connor’s class because of a lot of mistakes in my writing not even if I have pass ... test.

I don’t care if I have to work twice as hard as every one in regular class but Ms. Romero just too stubburn. What the unlucky day!

(McKay & Wong, 1996: 593)

McKay & Wong (1996) argue that Michael played the “good student” by adhering to the letter of the assignment while expressing a spirit of defiance. He seized agency in academic discourse to air his grievance about Ms. Romero and to counteract his powerless positioning as an “ESL student.”

Lam (2004b) presents a case study of two young Chinese immigrants who had turned to a bilingual Chinese/English chat room to improve their English. She examines the language practices of this virtual community and how it provides an additional context of language socialization for the two teenage girls. Whereas at school the two girls had difficulty interacting with their English-speaking peers, on the Internet they were able to use English to create social and ethnic identifications with other young people of Chinese origin in different parts of the world. In analyzing the exchanges in the bilingual chat room, Lam (2004b) argues that a mixed-code variety of English that includes writing in romanized Cantonese was developed among the girls and their chat room peers to construct their relationships as bilingual speakers of English and Cantonese. For example, in the following chat extract from Lam (2004b: 55), notice the underlined sentence-final particles “ar” and “la” in lines 1, 2, 3, 12, 13, and 15. “Sure” is the nickname of Yu Qing, one of the participants in Lam’s study, and “CHoCoLaTe” is a girl in the Netherlands:

1 sure choco ... >_< can’t send mail to u ar (PT: neutral softener

or downtoner).... Next time give my (sic: me) your add la (PT: indicates request)... can’t send at your web site

  • 2 CHoCoLaTe sure> how come ar (PT: indicates question)?
  • 3 sure i don’t know ar (PT: softener). .. when i click on it... a

juno web jump out

  • 4 CHoCoLaTe huuh?
  • 5 CHoCoLaTe very strange
  • 6 sure choco do u know y?
  • 7 sure and i can’t go your web site everytime ... sometimes can’t

find the site

  • 8 CHoCoLaTe very strange (emoticon of a sad face)
  • 9 sure too bad
  • 10 CHoCoLaTe haiya (“yes” or a sigh in Cantonese)
  • 11 sure uh?
  • 12 CHoCoLaTe u can mail me on the other emew accont ar (PT: softener)

лл

  • 13 sure but i don’t have ar (PT: softener)
  • 14 sure what about I give u my add. then u send a hello to me..

then I got your add or

  • 15 CHoCoLaTe sure> my other account ar (PT: seeks confirmation)?
  • 16 CHoCoLaTe oke л л

Lam (2004b) notes that the Cantonese particle “ar” is used as a softener or a down-toner, to signal a question, or to seek confirmation, while “la” indicates a suggestion or plea for a course of action. She argues that this mixed language variety served to create a collective ethnic identity for these young people and specifically allowed the two girls to assume a new identity through language, which follows neither the social categories of English-speaking Americans nor those of Cantonese-speaking Chinese. In Chapter 6, I will explore the social functions of bilingual code-switching in greater detail.

 
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