Speaking a language rather than our own

motivationboxidentityWhile reading Bonny Norton Chapter about Identity and Language Learning which was kindly shared at EVO Mentoring 2013 for Week 3, I connected it straight away with something I realized was going on last year- most students although seem to be motivated to learn a second language, they seem also not willing to invest in it orally. It just seemed oddly unsurprising that the more pressure students got into speaking, less they seem to engage in the oral skills tasks.

She raised the following point,

“[..]opportunities to practice English is structured by unequal relations of power in the home/work.” ( p.2)

As soon as I read that, I started wondering whether it also applies to my own classroom and if somehow my students feel overpowered by authoritive figure of the teacher. Because when we are judgmental, we look with our own eyes and perspectives, then it is easy to assume that they are not as interested and willing as they should be. But as I consider Bonny’s studies and the notions of power, identity and investiment, I start to understand that the problem may not be actually the fact that they are not eager to learn or speak, but the power that others have on this goal/task that subdues their own identities. This turned into food for thought and questions who actually is responsible primarily for the progress in learning the target the language as Bonny brings out to our attention. I could easily put the blame on the STUDENT as it is commonly accepted by teachers that a good learner is someone who,

” seeks out opportunities to learn the language, is highly motivated, has good attention to detail, can tolerate ambiguity and has low levels of anxiety.” (p.3)

Then, we could easily agree also that  a student who doesn’t match the description above,

“might be considered unmotivated and inflexible.” (p.3)

I never thought of this as I never considered that my identity as I understood it was at stake when I was learning a second/ third language, especially as I have lived in other countries for while. For me language IS a powerful tool for communication and integration into the community that I had never thought of it as something negative at all, as I was so eager to acquire their languages, be able to communicate and become independent. I still remember how proud I was the first time I was able to get a cab to my favorite store and had to negotiate the fare while learning Arabic, or when I traveled from Alexandria to Cairo on my own by train. Or when I didn’t need to carry a dictionary around anymore in London.

Motivation 2012

Motivation & Purpose to learn English – 2012

By reading what Bonny refers to by identity and contrasting it with my own experience in language learning, I discovered that my sense of identity never felt at stake because I never felt overpowered at the time and had a clear picture of the effect of it in my future. It makes sense to me and makes me go back to the beginning of 2012 when students were asked to write on a slip of paper ( see pictures above of the box) why they were learning English and most of their answers reflected an impossed commitment to study the language as this perspective usually leads us to think of them just as unmotivated.

“[..] identity is how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future.” (p. 5)

I’m intriguid now and I wonder how each individual that steps into my classroom see the world and relate to it when comes to second language learning? And how does his/her view of it affect his/her own learning?

Why do learners, even those that seem so motivated to learn, freeze at the chance of interacting with speakers of English? There is a number of students’ names that come to my mind while I’m writing this post.

Book added to my to-buy-list this semester:

Updated on 02/26/2013

It is not so much about learner identity, but I thought it brings some new thoughts on discussion of culture knowledge and multilingual identity.

So Where’s Home? A Film About Third Culture Kid Identity from Adrian Bautista on Vimeo.




11 thoughts on “Speaking a language rather than our own

  1. hi Rose

    i agree a identity is fundamental topic in language learning Carol Goodey has a great post on this http://cgoodey.wordpress.com/2012/10/10/language-use-for-learning/

    do you notice any difference in kids who have parents from different language groups? maybe asking monoligual kids who are deep in the process of constructing their indentities in one language to take on the challenge in an another language is asking too much? if not how can we approach this?

    what about adult second language learners are they too set in their identities? my family language is Tamil and though i understand conversational Tamil reasonably my production is not so good yet when i do talk in Tamil i feel a great sense of ownership; this naturally enough does not happen when i speak in French.



    • Thanks Mura for the questions you raised, lot more to reflect on.

      Thanks so much for Carol’s post on the issue of identity. It really expands my perception on the matter and makes me wonder even more how this has been played in my classes and my school as a whole.

      As Carol points out,
      “The way we talk to and about learners can have a significant impact on what they feel ABLE TO do, what they feel READY TO do, and what they feel they HAVE A RIGHT TO do.” (Goodey, 2012)

      I have always had a good sense of how much we affect each other and try my best to not overpower my students in any way, but I am not sure though how much force I have on my own, even when at time I may be failing this and contributing to it, as the pheonomenon of avoiding using the language either in written or orally seem to be everywhere I look around. This has been a concern among our teachers. And the notion of identity, power and investment may be giving me a direction to look at more deeply.

      Carol also raises a very important question and points to Teaching Unplugged book. Uhmm I think I will have to take it out of the bookshelf and do some reading.
      “So, to what extent should we encourage and help learners to speak like others and how much should we let them be who they are and who they want to be in their new language?” (Goodey, 2012)

      A must-read post by Carol. I can’t thank you enough Mura for leading me to it.


  2. Dear Rose,
    I am so proud of your conclusions and more food for thought. Most of all I feel honored as I had the chance to spend some time with you discussing, sharing and learning from you along the EVO Mentoring course. Thank you so much for making me reflect even more upon the theme. Great piece of reading for us educators!


    • Roseli dear,

      I am the luck one to count with such experienced teacher and trainer like you to share my reflections and learn with. I learned so much just by listening to your practical examples during EVO. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to skype and discuss this particular subject.


  3. I studied some of this on my masters and loved it. Norton makes a strong case for how most current models of motivation are biased and one-dimesional. I’d like to think I’m not a teacher that has a power distance with Sts – but it is inevitable, and the more we are aware of that, the better we can do for the people in our class (note move from ‘students’ to ‘people’ )


    • Thanks Sophia for taking the trip from FB to here and leaving the comment. 🙂 I really appreciate that.

      I would love to hear more of your observation to move from ‘students’ to ‘people’ whenever you can. Thanks in advance.


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  5. When I’m communicating in a second/third language to someone because there is no choice if I want to communicate, all that fear of being judged or fear of embarrassment fades away in my goal to communicate. In contrast, I feel silly speaking a second/third language to someone if their English is as good or better than my “other” language. The second scenario is common when our students are studying a second/alternate language in an International School. Food for thought.


    • Great points you’ve made Vivian. Thanks so much for the comment. So for some students the thought of being silly may be true for them as well. That is why I strive to create from day one the right environment and now that I know that may be one of the reasons, I should even think more carefully about this possibility and how to overcome it. Thanks a bunch.


      • Adding some more thoughts on this… thanks to Vicky!
        Does this feeling apply to every student in the class that are in similar situation? I mean that may feel that it is silly to try to communicate when there are others in the room they think tha can and will communicate better than them?
        This week (from March 18th to 22th) I asked students that had watched the video One day in Amar’s life to share wheather they liked the video, why and how they feel about Amar’s routine. I was amazed that everyone had a opinion about it and even the most reluctant student had something to say. For those who seems shy or lack, I encouraged to use one word. For those that lack the language to explain it, I let them use Portuguese and mix with English because the point is that they have something to say and I am not going to miss the opportunity to hear that student. And for students who like talking their minds out, I just gave them plenty of space for that. It was amazing. I am very inspired to continue encouraging them and providing the tools to talk away.


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