Digging Deeper into “English-only”: Identity and Second Language Acquisition

Identity is fashionable. Everyone wants to have one, many promise to provide one. Lifestyle magazines advertise identities, fashion stores purport to sell them, and pop psychology aspires to discover people’s ‘true’ identities. B. Simon Identity in Modern Society: A Social Psychological Perspective.

The next aspect that I would like to look at regarding English-only institutional policies is that of learner identity and the impact that can have on learning another language. The quote above, from German social psychologist Bernd Simon, shows how powerful a force identity, and by extension identity politics, is in modern, global society. Identity matters in language learning and acquisition as well. Put plainly, identity and identity-related concerns can have a real impact on learning and acquiring an additional language. For some, the wish to be identified in a certain way, or to take part in a particular community, can kick-start language acquisition processes. For example, the desire to take part in a perceived global LGBT community has led some Japanese men to want to pick up English. This desire to acquire English has no grounding in the wish for promotion, self-improvement, or education; it’s strictly tied to the desire to enact a gay, male identity in another language (A.R. Moore). There have also been cases were perceived threats to identity have led to negative educational outcomes. For example, S. Talmy showed that some English language learners in K-12 schools would actively resist being identified by their schools as ESL students because it would mark them as different from their friends and make them seem to be deficient or remedial to students. To resist this identification, they would skip their ESL classes, lie to their peers about being in ESL classes, or begin associating with “outcast” social groups at the school—creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, how do identity-related issues tie into my stance against strong English-only institutional policies?

First, there’s the possible problem that it can create around how students are identified and then labeled by the institution. In the English-only environment, there’s a strong push to produce, and to do so very quickly and spontaneously, relatively fluent English output. For lower-proficiency students, this can create a certain mental (cognitive) strain that may increase the likelihood of either falling back on canned sayings—like the dialogues discusses in many language textbooks. What this means is that students’ creativity is effectively hamstrung. It also reinforces the identification that they are a low-proficiency language learner when they’re communicating with people outside of the school. One reason this can happen is that if you look at the dialogue in most beginner and low-intermediate textbooks, they teach students to sound foreign.

Jim: Hi, Jane. How are you?

Jane: Hi, Jim. I’m doing great. How are you?

Jim: I’m fine, thanks.

Jane: Wonderful!

::Jim and Jane keep talking about the weather and classes::

The problem with this exchange is that American doesn’t speak like this. The phrase “Hi, how are you?” isn’t a genuine question anymore. It’s more of a long form of hello. However, with this dialogue, it seems to be an inquiry about one’s current state. In actual conversation, however, to respond in the way this sample dialogue suggests violates the social script that many Americans are working from. And, this violation can instantly mark a speaker as non-proficient. If it were going to be more authentic, it should look like this

 Jim ::walking towards Jane, slowing down slightly::: Hi, Jane. How are you?

Jane ::continues walking towards Jim, also slowing down slightly::: Hi, Jim. I’m fine and you?”

::Jim and Jane both continue on their merry way.::

Beyond the cognitive strain, for students of all proficiencies strict English-only policies can lead to increased emotional (affective) stress. If they have classmates who they think can speak better than they can—more fluently, more accurately, more eloquently—they may feel that their contributions to class discussions will not be valued in the same way. This can lead to an effective silencing that can be disastrous for language learning and acquisition. Because, learning a new language is not just about good input—hearing and reading good language—it’s also about receiving meaningful feedback on output—speaking and writing.

So, the possible cognitive and affective stresses related to identity issues in the classroom are just one more reason strict English-only policies bother me. Also, if the teacher shares the same L1 as the student, it can inhibit novel teaching approaches. There have been times in my classes where students haven’t understood me when I’ve left comments that they need to use bold-faced fonts in English. But, when I tell them in Chinese, 《你应该用粗体字。》There was a better understanding of what needed to be done. Now, with these identity-related issues also comes up issues of motivation, which I’ll dig into a little more in tomorrow’s blog post.

Source Articles

Moore, A.R. (2016). Inclusion and exclusion: A case study of and English Class for LGBT learners. TESOL Journal, 50(1), 86-108.

Simon, B. (2003). Identity in modern society: A social psychological perspective. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

Talmy, S. (2008). The cultural productions of the ESL students at Tradewinds High: Contingency, multidirectionality, and Identity in L2 socialization. Applied Linguistics, 29(4), 591-644.


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