Okay, let’s get into my own language learning story with the hopes that it can shed some light on the identity factor in second language acquisition. In 1973 when I was in the ninth grade (at that time, my school had a junior high and not a middle school, so I was not in high school yet), my junior high principal, Mr. Burgess, made the rounds to various classrooms to exhort kids to sign up for next year’s beginning-level high school French class taught in the conventional style of that era, and that included a big dose of repeated, choral drills. I didn’t find out about that Audio Lingual Method style of teaching until the fall of 1974 because, despite Mr. Burgess’s encouragement, I wasn’t persuaded and held off for two years before signing up.
Remember that term “context” in my previous posts? Let me provide some socio-economic context. My high school and the small town where I grew up in western Iowa could be described as bourgeois-meets-working-class-and-sort-of-gets-married. The high school was almost brand new and had many of the latest gadgets a high school might be expected to have back then – it was neat and clean and provided for most of our educational needs. However, given its being a part of a working class, farm-based economy, a funny thing happened during my high school years. Many of my male classmates started to disappear in big numbers. There was not a truancy issue in my high school so much as there was a “class issue” where the male farm kids and the male working class kids, many of whom were great friends, were taking wood shop classes, ag classes, and auto shop classes. Whether it was consciously conceived that way or not, all vocational ed classes were located in the school basement. I put scare quotes around the term “class issue” because it is less-than-perfect given its lack of explanatory power about the real discriminatory dynamic involved. And, by the way, my male working class and farm-family friends could just as easily say that I disappeared, too, even though I did take a year of wood shop class and a half year of electronics class in the basement.
And so now let’s rewind to Mr. Burgess’s visit to our 9th grade classrooms and his encouragement to sign up for 10th grade French (the high school’s only language offering, by the way). I’m going to confidently go out on a limb here and say that none of those working class or farm-family males who ended up in the high school’s basement were part of the list Mr. Burgess referred to when he was making his rounds. Because he did have a list, and only a certain select number of kids were on that list. And by the time I did decide to sign up for beginning French two years later, I had been habituated into the idea that none of my male working-class and farm-family friends would find his way to my French class.
I confess that I can be slow at discerning bad policies such as that of separating language learners by class. It didn’t dawn on me about how insidious and prevalent this elitist practice was until Sandra Savignon pointed it out to me in grad school, and I now will also go out on another limb to say that whether or not today’s schools follow anything remotely similar in language program recruitment, the practice has left a seriously damaging legacy on US efforts to move the needle on the bilingual meter. I realize that I have not gone full circle yet to bring this back to the identity question. I will talk more about that in my next blog post, where I also hope we can consider the expression, “Fake it until you make it.” I also promise this will all help explain some key concepts behind the FrenchRev Mission and Vision and our attempts to forge a new path in our style of teaching French.