What identity(ies) one brings to the task of language learning has bearing on the way the language is learned. In the last two postings, I brought up a review of the literature by Bonnie Norton and Kelleen Toohey on such an idea in the field of Second Language Acquisition.
An emblematic case study from that literature review was that of an ESL learner named Martina. Let me quote Norton’s and Toohey’s first two sentences that introduce us to Martina:
“Martina was an English language learner from eastern Europe who had immigrated to Canada for a better life for her three children. Partly because she was not a proficient speaker of English, she struggled to find work in her profession as a quantity surveyor, and was employed in a fast food restaurant in the greater Toronto area” (Norton and Toohey 2011:412-413).
As it turns out, even though life in the fast food restaurant revolved around the use of English, the experience was not always the most empowering for Martina and her practice of English was not necessarily blossoming. Even the restaurant owners’s children, who frequented the restaurant, treated Martina in a way that made her feel like a broom (i.e., a functional tool whose sole purpose was to accomplish mundane tasks in service of the success of the restaurant). She learned to resist those marginalizing practices by reframing or repositioning her identity by understanding her role with the people at the restaurant as familial terms rather than professional. She looked at herself as a mother and not as a tool that simply followed orders.
Martina’s repositioning and empowerment may have come by dint of being a mature individual with a fruitful imagination and a suite of professional and familial successes to her credit. Other people, such as K-12 learners (but not limited to K-12 learners) whose families may suffer from financial and material stress, might not on their own be able to find the wherewithal to reposition their own identities that will lay the foundations for healthy interactions using the L2. Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of its publication in English, we can talk about pertinent inspirations emanating from Pedagogy of the Oppressed and point out the importance of including a socio-political element in the construction of the modern language classroom. It is difficult to include the full implications of this in a short blog post, but here are two thoughts that I hope might be helpful in this regard. First, we need think about talking with our learners (i.e., interact) versus talking to them, and second, we need to allow our learners to try out various identity positions. Something that impresses me about Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Stories is that in its most elaborate manifestations, a wide variety of active learner roles can be experimented with, not the least of which is the encouragement to let one’s imagination run a little wild. Something that impresses me with the general category of communicative language learning is the emphasis on digging deep into the understanding of what is language, of thinking systematically about the makeup of the human mind rather than to assume that learners’ heads are a tabula rasa. Very often what I have seen is people resorting a reductionist vision of their own prior language learning experiences and extrapolating on that – this is a natural tendency but one that we need to be careful about so as to not be mislead by it.
I’m not really sure what our current national administration is referring to when it decries things such as Critical Race Theory, but I suspect that if I did know extensively what CRT was, I’d be all for it. Whichever tool can help learners develop cognitive flexibility – and key concepts from Norton and Toohey’s identity formation literature is all part of that – can serve in the promotion of important learning forces in the language classroom.
Norton, Bonny, and Toohey, Kelleen. Identity, language learning, and social change. Lang. Teach. (2011), 44.4, 412–446. CUP