3.6 English as a second language and identity

Learners of English as a second language (ESL), especially migrants, have found that the identity positions offered them within the English speaking community can be crucial for their development of fluency in the language. In a longitudinal study of the experience of five immigrant women learning English in Canada, Bonny Norton (2000) argues that these women’s difficulties in mastering English cannot be adequately explained by traditional second language acquisition theory. This would explain their progress as the result of their individual motivation, self-confidence and anxiety and the degree to which they were prepared to assimilate to the lifestyle and values of Canadian society and thus maximise their contact with anglophones and the possibilities for natural language use.

Documenting the experience of the five women in her study, Norton shows that immersion and natural language learning are much more problematic than this suggests. The women were all very highly motivated to learn English, for different reasons, and were all good language learners. But they found that they could not gain access to the social networks which would give them the opportunity to practise and become fluent in English because of their current lack of fluency and their negative identification by Canadians as ‘immigrants’. The three older women had been professionally trained before they emigrated, but were able to obtain only unskilled jobs in Canada and felt doubly stigmatised by their inability to get work commensurate with their education and training and by their lack of fluency in English.

For all the women, the workplace was their major opportunity to mix with anglophones. However, they were often given the low-status, solitary jobs which no one else wanted to do and this marginalisation limited their opportunities to practise English and also reduced their confidence and heightened their anxiety so that they felt reluctant to initiate conversations with other workers. For instance, one woman, Eva, who had been allocated the jobs of cleaning the floors and putting out the garbage in a fast-food restaurant, said ‘When I see that I have to do everything and nobody cares about me because – then how can I talk to them?’ (Norton, 2000, p. 63). The other women also experienced this ‘silencing’ through marginalisation in jobs and social encounters where skills and cultural resources which they had previously taken for granted, as part of who they were, were ignored or not valued.

The women fought against this marginalisation in various ways. Martina, who saw her role as crucial for her family because of her husband’s lack of English, took cleaning jobs, attended ESL classes, borrowed her children’s books from school, watched soap operas and made superfluous practice phonecalls in order to ensure she acquired enough English for her family’s survival. Another woman, Felicia, who had enjoyed a very comfortable middle-class life as the wife of a successful businessman in Peru but whose husband had been unable to get work in Canada, refused the identity of ‘immigrant’ but explained that ‘I’ve never felt an immigrant in Canada, just as a foreigner person who lives here by accident’ (ibid., p. 101). She was very keen to practise her English and was comfortable speaking in private with anglophones who knew and accepted her middle-class Peruvian identity, although she still mainly listened. But she found it difficult to talk in public with strangers who might simply class her as an ‘immigrant’.

Eva, in the fast-food restaurant, made a breakthrough in relations with other staff during a company social outing when her partner provided a lift for some of her co-workers and her youth and charm were more in evidence. People began to talk to her and treat her as an interesting person, which gave her more opportunities to practise English and greater confidence to join in staff conversations, for instance to bring in her experience of Europe, and initiate contact with customers.

Through her detailed analysis of these women’s experience, Norton argues that confidence and anxiety are not individual attributes, but are socially constructed in encounters between the second language learners and the majority community, and that these encounters are structured by relations of inequality. Similarly, class and ethnicity do not reside in the individual, but are constructed and realised through social relations. The immigrant women were declassed because of their identification as ‘immigrant’ and their lack of access to social networks commensurate with their previous social standing.

Norton (2000) argues that second language acquisition theory needs to recognise that questions of identity (i.e. a person’s sense of themselves and of their relation with the world) are crucial for second language learning and that identity is not a set of individual attributes but rather emerges through social relations over time. As the result of her research she argues that identity is:

  1. ‘non-unitary’, involving apparent inconsistencies. For instance Eva wanted to be treated as an equal, but for her co-workers to recognise and respect her difference as a European. Martina was uncomfortable speaking English but determined to fight for her family’s survival. Felicia knew she needed to practise to improve her English but didn’t want to speak in public.
  2. a site of struggle, as people are positioned in various ways in the significant sites in their lives and try to resist or change some of these positionings. Felicia’s resistance to the positioning of ‘immigrant’ through replacing it with ‘foreigner person’ and Eva’s successful efforts to build social contact with her co-workers reduced their identification as ‘immigrant’.
  3. changing over time. Eva, in particular, changed her position from an ‘illegitimate’ to a ‘legitimate’ speaker in the workplace, and her increasing confidence about her identity within the workplace began to affect her public life more generally.

Pennycook (1998) suggests inequalities between anglophone communities and second language learners are also deeply encoded within the discourse of ESL teaching and within the textbooks used with learners. He traces the discourse of teaching English as a second language back to its historical roots in nineteenth century British colonialism and assumptions about the inherent superiority of the English language and, by association, of native English speakers. He argues that threats to standard English from other varieties are elided with ethnocentric and racist attitudes towards ethnic minorities and immigrants. These discourses and their associated value positions are then reproduced, often at an implicit level, within English language teaching materials.

3.5 Discourse and critique

3.7 Research focus