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Given that I grew up in a small town in western Iowa and then went on to do something as unfathomable as a Ph.D. in French, it may come as little surprise that people ask me with obvious sincerity and interest to tell them my story. Alternatively, what would not have surprised many of them (had it been true) would be if I had a degree in say, large animal husbandry, or maybe a degree in journalism specializing in agricultural reporting in order to return to the family newspaper, or perhaps a degree in civil engineering at Iowa State to work for the Iowa Department of Transportation or the Army Corps of Engineers. Any of that would be a plausible itinerary for someone with my background.  

Or, another way I could settle their indefinite cognitive dissonance might be to fabricate a story about being from a suburban or urban part of the country and that I come from a long line of middle or upper middle class “success stories” and/or have generational connections to those who hold important political or corporate positions. Perhaps my parents or close relatives were somehow involved with the arts, education, or entertainment industries or were even patrons of the arts themselves. That might be a better fit for the image one makes of someone doing a Ph.D. in French.

Let’s reconsider Martina’s story about being taken for granted by her colleagues in the Toronto fast food restaurant where she was employed. One important aspect of identity theory is the way socio-economic stratification impacts those who learn languages (if at all, and which languages they choose to learn would be another avenue of exploration).  More importantly, how educators, either consciously or inadvertently, might steer the bearers of certain historically determined identity traits away from “elaborated code” learning is an underlying question in Norton and Toohey’s work. 

(For more on elaborated code, check out Basil Bernstein’s work at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basil_Bernstein.)

Let’s break this down into something akin to an ad hoc hypothesis (because at this point we are at the blog level of hypothesis formation).  How might socio-economic stratification work in the U.S. in terms of learning French? And to be clear, for the sake of reducing this argument as simply as possible, this schema neglects the two other key sociological variables of race and gender.

Socio-economic levelExpectations about educational result
Working class childrenreturnslittle to no French learning (novice to perhaps low intermediate level)
Middle class childrenreturnsLow intermediate to advanced level of French learning
Upper middle class childrenreturnsIntermediate mid level to advanced or higher level French proficiency
Aristocracyreturnsfill in the blank (anecdotally, my colleague at an East Coast university of high repute once had a student of French who happened to be a European princess, and I once had a student who was the granddaughter of a well-known billionaire)
Table one: Ad hoc hypothesis on socio-economic determinants in language learning

Obviously this particular hypothesis could be characterized as being obvious to the point of crudeness, and should only be seen as a provocative starting point in our discussion, even if an eventual sociological survey might reveal some truth to this sweeping landscape.

Now, the title of this blog post is “Fake it until you make it.” That was the watchword in the 1980s and 1990s when I was in grad school. At the time, what that meant was that learners, having naturally less proficiency in a language than a native speaker, needed to learn to use certain native-sounding conversational gambits so they could appear to be more fluent than they were in reality. This allowed them to maintain their interlocutor’s interest. This afforded them the chance to have more input in the language. This put them into the desirable felicitous learning cycle of success breeding success. Voilà, the rich get richer.

In Martina’s case, there was no need to fake it. She already had the identity as a mother, so a pivot into that identity was no doubt fairly unproblematic for her. But what of younger learners whose panoply of identities, real or imagined, is fairly limited? How do educators instill in them this ability to fake it until they make it?

Might there be other ways of looking at this question? More about that in the next post!

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