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Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus

Identity and language learning

November 19, 2008

By Melinda Kong

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

Students’ language learning may be influenced by multiple reasons that are interwoven and which may involve their identity. What is identity? Is use or non-use of language related to identity? How is language learning related to a student’s identity? This article attempts to explore some of these questions.

The concept of identity can be viewed by adapting and synthesising the definitions that are given by researchers such as Bonny Norton Pierce, (an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia), Stephen Frosh (a Professor at University of London) and Lee Su-Kim (an Associate Professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia). An individual’s identity ¬is understood to be how he or she perceives him or herself based upon his or her interaction with his or her immediate social network and the larger society. The immediate social network may share similarities such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, history, language and/or common ways of perceiving the world. The larger society can be a community, a nation, an ethnic group, a religious group or a professional group. A person’s identity is multiple and dynamic. It is shaped through language and through the person’s experiences across different times and settings.

A person’s identity and perception of him/herself is dependent on different contexts and not entirely within his/her control. An individual’s identity may change because of his/her experiences in different contexts. Here, contexts can include physical parameters as well as more intangible parameters like socio-economic background.

Bonny Norton Peirce and Valerie Pellegrino (a former Director of the Russian Language Program at Ohio State University) highlight some characteristics of identity. Among others, it is multiple, a “site of struggle” and subject to change.

Firstly, an individual may have multiple roles which may conflict with one another or replace one another when there is a need. Peirce and Pellegrino point out that the individual is dynamic, multifaceted and contradictory. The idea of identity as multiple and contradictory can be seen, for example, in one of the immigrants in Peirce’s study in 1993. “Eva” played at least two roles, including those of being a worker and also a language learner in her working place. The contradiction is suggested by her desire for her colleagues to show consideration for her difference, yet at the same time, her desiring to be treated as an equal where she works. According to her, “[w]hen I started to work there, they couldn’t understand that it might be difficult for me to understand everything and know about everything that is normal for them”.

In an English language class, a student may still communicate with his/her friends in Mandarin in order to complete an assignment in English because there may be a conflict between maintaining peer acceptance and keeping his/her role as a language learner.

Secondly, an individual’s identity is a “site of struggle”. According to Peirce in 1995, an individual’s social identity differs from one social setting to another. Peirce believes that all these settings are influenced by different degrees of power relations, depending on the role that an individual chooses to play (Ibid.) or is forced by circumstances to play. In fact, it would seem that there are cases where the number of roles that an individual can play is severely restricted by the setting. This is implied by Pellegrino who points out that when a learner’s identity and sense of control are at risk, the learners’ language-use behaviour can differ greatly from one setting to another.

Peirce adds that “[a]lthough [an individual] may be positioned in a particular way within a given discourse, the person might resist the subject position or even set up a counter discourse which positions the person in a powerful rather than marginalized subject position.” This counter discourse could also be a way to protect the individual’s identity, giving him/her a feeling of security regarding his/her weaknesses and strengths. In 2005, Pellegrino explains that it is because an individual can communicate his/her identity through social interaction by using verbal and non-verbal communication. Language is a significant means of conveying identity.

In 1999, Sarah Benesch, an Associate Professor at The City University of New York, explores power relations and resistance in an academic setting. She investigates how the classroom can be “a site of struggle” by looking into the exercise of power by a psychology professor and the resistance towards his power by learners who are non-native speakers. She suggests that learners are not compliant subjects. Instead, they are “potentially active participants” by (for example) complaining about the speed of delivery of the psychology lesson and by being silent. Benesch points out that even the reticence of learners can be a form of resistance.

Finally, Peirce states that an individual’s social identity can change over time and place. Pellegrino adds that when an individual faces a set of norms and values that are different from what he/she is used to, his/her perceptions are challenged, and his/her identity may adapt accordingly.

As lecturers, the focus should not be to put into practice a specific teaching method but to enhance students’ learning. This may include using methods that draw on aspects of students’ identity, yet are driven by teaching and learning that are student-centred. When lecturers do this, it will be a rewarding experience for both themselves and their students.

Melinda Kong is a lecturer with the School of Language and Foundation at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be contacted at mkong@swinburne.edu.my.