Using Personal Narrative to Examine the Role of Learning Styles, Classroom Pedagogy, and Self Identity in Second Language Acquisition
How do our foreign language classrooms prepare us to take on a second language? Are they suited for the needs of most learners? And what happens within a person as the brain starts to internalize a second language?
As a former English as a Foreign Language teacher in China and Mexico, as a current teacher of English Language Arts in a New Jersey middle school, and as a masters student of TESOL, I am deeply interested in these questions. But I do not only seek these answers from the perspective of a teacher; I am also sincerely invested in them from the perspective of a learner. Five years ago, I moved to Mexico for two and half years, purely for the pursuit of learning Spanish. Now, more than two years after having left Mexico, I am taking up formal Spanish study in order to analyze exactly what can happen to a learner in the L2 classroom.
I have enrolled myself in the highest level of community college Spanish I could find: SPA 202 at Burlington County Community College. At this point, I have attended fourteen classes, each two and half hours in duration, once a week. Between classes, I worked on assignments ranging from reading short articles and answering questions, to short written assignments, to translation activities, to vocabulary memorization, to verb conjugation activities. In addition, for the last six weeks, I have begun watching, on average, an hour of Mexican TV per day, several days a week. Over the last month, I became more engaged in the Spanish speaking community by attending a Spanish speaking happy hour and by initiating a series of email correspondences in Spanish with a woman with whom I may live during my summer stay in Mallorca.
During this learning period, I have maintained a diary in which I recorded my thoughts, perceptions, and observations. During each class I jotted down notes, and after class and homework assignments, I wrote a diary entry ranging from one half of a page to two pages of text. The following is an analysis of my diary entrees in order to come to a clearer understanding of how learning styles, learning strategies, and a shift in personal identify have impacted my personal second language learning experience.
While traditionally, first-person narratives as a tool for data collecting and analysis have been viewed as unreliable and subjective, in the field of human sciences, this is changing. In the context of sociolinguistics, first-person accounts are becoming valued for their ability to show the reconstruction of selves and worlds that results in individuals during language learning. As recent years have seen a shift in focus from the analysis of learning language as a code to the analysis of learning language as a participant in social interaction, the personal narratives have found their way back into a variety of disciplines, and in sociolinguistics, they are a much “richer source of data” than third-person observations (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2000, pp.156-157). Narrative explanation can be understood as retroactive; it clarifies events as one looks back over them for meaning (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 21).
Thus, while I recognize that self-analysis and introspection do come with limitations as a tool for research, my learning narrative may be seen as an example of the type of introspection that does occur to many people during language learning. Within the framework of my learning diary, one may see that I rely heavily on several key learning styles, some of which are not supported by the classroom activities and environment I experienced; overall, I am experiencing a mental shift from English to Spanish, as I acquire not just new language, but also a new sense of self.
An Analysis of Personal Learning Styles
Having taught a mixture of EFL, ESL, and English Language Arts over the past eight years, I am familiar with Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences and have spent considerable time identifying my own learning style. I came into this study with the assumption that I would be dependent on visual, kinesthetic and global learning styles. However, upon viewing my learning diary through the lens of the Ehrman-Leaver Cognitive Styles Construct, and the State Analysis Survey, I am now able to further clarify my learning style.
The E&L model consists of ten subscales, while the SAS model is comprised of five. The E&L model provides a thorough learner profile based on the following subsets: field sensitivity/field insensitivity, field independent/field dependent, random/sequential, global/particular, inductive/deductive, synthetic/analytic, analogical/digital, concrete/abstract, leveling/sharpening, and impulsive/reflective (Ehrman & Leaver, 2003, p. 395). By contrast, the SAS model speaks toward similar ideas with the following subsets: visual/hands-on/auditory, extraverted/introverted, intuitive/concrete-sequential, closure-oriented/open, and global/analytic (Carson & Longhini, 2002, Appendix B).
Upon close examination of my diary entries, I have concluded that my dominant learning styles are visual, inductive, analogical, global, and hands-on/concrete.
In this style the learner processes language better by eye than by ear. I have always been very aware of my reliance on visual information as I consider myself to have very weak aural comprehension. I have never been able to understand the words of the majority of songs (in my native tongue), I must take copious notes during a class to process what I am hearing the teacher say, and I like to intersperse drawings and symbols into my notes to help me conceptualize them. In addition, in order to learn a word or song, I must see the words written down, and later picture them in my head to remember them. My diary entries show that I am conscious of my visual learning style.
January 31: The teacher directs us to a picture of a car with Spanish vocabulary words superimposed on the picture. Even though the picture makes the meaning of each word clear, she insists on saying each word in Spanish, and then in English, while we sit and do nothing. This goes against everything I believe as a teacher. We should be repeating after her while looking at the photo. No L1 is needed because we can see a picture of it. Why switch the brain back and forth between Spanish and English? To keep myself sane, I draw the picture in my notes and write down the vocabulary over the drawing in my notebook. I learn several new vocabulary words for parts of the car that I didn’t know, even after living in Mexico for two and a half years.
February 21: Today we went over the parts of the body. Again the book features several drawings of the human body with Spanish words superimposed over the drawing. Again the teacher reads them to us and translates, which I find unnecessary being there is the image.
These entries illustrate my reliance on images to understand and internalize vocabulary. My preference for visual learning is so strong, that it irks me to hear the vocabulary terms translated into their English equivalent. I find this brain switching to be distracting from the mental visualization I am trying to maintain.
According to the E&L learning construct, the inductive learner is one who starts with existing data and then extracts generalizations, patterns, and theories from the data. Conversely, the deductive learner prefers to begin with the rule, the pattern, or the theory and apply it to specific cases. While the inductive learner wishes to see multiple examples of the language and later makes sense of the rules of it, the deductive learner prefers teacher explanation and rule study first, later seeing it applied (Ehrman & Leaver, 2003, pp. 398-399).
I was surprised to see that I show a strong preference for inductive learning.
February 7: Today the teacher says to us in our L1, “How many of you feel comfortable with the imperfect tense?’
I am seething. How are we supposed to know if we feel comfortable? I know because I used to teach it in English, but the average language learner may not know how to evaluate his comfortableness with a verb tense…he may recognize the tense in context and be able to use it, but not be able to say, “This is the imperfect tense.” I wanted the teacher to have us use the imperfect tense, and then decide what level of instruction we needed on it….But no. The entire class must relearn it from the beginning. The teacher puts conjugations on the board and explains how it translates into our L1. I zone out. The Dominican boy next to me watches videos on his iPhone.
March 7: We received back our quizzes and I realized I have been using a phrase wrong for the past couple of years. I’d been saying se me cayó when I should have been saying me caí. After Googling each phrase and looking at examples of both in context, and after speaking with the teacher about it after class and asking her to explain the difference and give me some examples, I now realize that the first phrase means that I accidentally dropped something; it’s kind of like saying, “That vase just went and dropped on me out of nowhere! I didn’t knock it down,” while the second phrase means, “I accidentally fell”…which is what I had been trying to say in my essay but failed.
A typical inductive learner, I prefer to start with the actual speech and then go back and put rules to it. I zone out and lose interest when the grammar is taught deductively. I prefer my teacher to have an inductive approach with us, as well—to start with her students using the language, and then going back and working with what we already have to make sense of it.
The second journal entry illustrates that I am only able to fully understand two different verb forms after viewing various examples and drawing meaning from them. A Google search results list has become my favorite tool for learning how to use vocabulary and verb tenses in a contextually correct way.
However, I do have some deductive moments:
March 28: Today we had another test on the past tense and the imperfect past tense. This test seemed easier than the last one because I can see that the teacher created the sentences herself to include key words that help you know which verb tense would be appropriate. It was a very long paragraph about family vacations in the past and one vacation in particular. Each verb was written in the infinitive form and we had to write the correct form of it in the blank within the sentence. As I was reading the passage and looking for key words and phrases that signify when to use each type of verb, my mind was flashing back to the lessons I taught about this in my EFL classes in Mexico. We use past tense for finite, finished actions, actions done for a known period of time. We use imperfect tense for ongoing, habitual actions of the past, or actions that we don’t really know when they began or ended. We also use it for past states of being (age, beauty, weather, etc.).
In this test-taking situation, I feel more at ease using the deductive approach to grammar. My mind reviews all the rules for when to use each verb tense. I then scan each sentence for the clue to which rule must be followed. I then apply that rule to the blank space in the sentence.
According to the Ehrman-Leaver Construct of analogical vs. digital thinking, analogical thinking is “non-linear, artistic, and uses a qualitative mechanism more or less.” In contrast, digital thinking utilizes logical, sequential processes and “utilizes and on/off mechanism.” Analogue representations of concepts are metaphorical, while digital representations are literal. Analogue learners have a preference for learning material in context, with a focus on connotations and implications of words, while digital learners tend to work with things “as they are on the surface.” While analogue learners tend to use comprehension strategies like association and elaboration, digital learners rely on strategies like memorization of word lists. Stories, parables, and analogies appeal to analogical learners, while the digital learner is apt to find these things “extraneous or fanciful embellishment” that clouds learning strategies (Ehrman & Leaver, 2003, pp. 399-400).
Having spent my undergraduate years studying art and literature, it comes as no surprise to me that my learning diary exhibits a strong preference for analogical thinking.
February 7: Then a fill-in-the blank version of Cinderella is given to us. The teacher instructs us to fill in the entire story with the imperfect forms of each verb in parenthesis. Afterward, we are to go back and determine which should have been the past simple tense and change those verbs to that form. I feel both annoyed to have to fill it in wrong the first time and completely disengaged from the activity. There are forty-two blanks to fill in. Going over them as a class is tortuous as she calls on us one by one to read, and then she repeats the reading we have just said and explains each time why it was imperfect tense or past simple tense. Meanwhile, we sit uncommunicatively in our chairs
February 14: We are given a chapter from the book House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I find myself enjoying having to apply the same kinds of comprehension strategies that I teach my struggling readers in my 5th-grade LAL class. I am circling and underlining characters, settings, and words I want to go back to. I really do not know the purpose for reading the chapter, but I get excited to analyze the characters presented, and to be able to read for the whole gist of things.
As I get toward the end of the chapter, which describes the narrator’s cousin showing up in a very nice (and stolen) car, I realize that the teacher may have selected this reading because many parts of the car are mentioned. Perhaps we are supposed to link this to past vocabulary?
Another activity that we did was to read a biography of Frida Kahlo. … from context, I learned a completely new and academic word desafriar, which means something like to go against the established way of society (such as going against the norms of patriarchy). Not sure when I’ll have the opportunity to utilize this word, but I am excited by it all the same, because I feel most inadequate as a Spanish speaker in my ability to have sophisticated talk…I have fluency, it is just not at all polished.
March 12: Perhaps the biggest advantage to reading and parroting back from the reading is the amount of vocabulary I am able to pick up from context–words that in isolation, I may not recall the meanings of, but in context, I remember having heard them before and I feel them become stronger in my mind. For example, evita lesiones (avoid muscular tears) are words that I certainly heard a lot while living in Mexico, but I would have been unable to recall them if put on the spot to produce them in spoken language. By reading them in context, I am able to re-learn them.
The above journal entries present a preference for analogical rather than digital learning. For example, I become highly annoyed when forced to work in a digital approach, as is the case with the Cinderella activity. In this activity we were told to ignore the context of each verb, and focus only on conjugating it into one tense, regardless of whether or not that tense fit into the context of the story. Then, after the fact, we were to go back and decide which verbs had been written in the wrong form.
Conversely, I become quite engaged in my learning when the analogical approach is facilitated. I become excited by the language I am learning within the context of story, such as House on Mango Street and a biography of Frida Kahlo. I respond well to learning new language in context, such as the art and medical terminology I encounter in my readings.
In addition, the connotations and implications of words intrigue me, as is evident in my enthusiasm over learning the academic vocabulary word desafriar (to go against the established way of society). In order to understand and internalize desafriar, I must utilize analogical strategies: I associate it with the patriarchal society that is Mexico and elaborate on the word by thinking about it within the context of Frida Kahlo being a great feminist artist in that society.
The global processing style focuses on the ‘big picture,’ first processing the overall meaning and later trying to work out the details, if at all. The other end of this spectrum is the particular processing style, in which the learner who readily attends to details without yet knowing the general meaning (Ehrman & Leaver, 2003, pp. 398). This element of my learning style is most evident in how I approach watching TV in Spanish and how I approach becoming comfortable with an unfamiliar verb form that I do not have the need to use in my current Spanish-speaking life.
February 28:After the quiz, we begin watching an Argentinean film, Valentín. At first I am distracted by the English subtitles at the bottom, but I soon learn to balance the presence of both English and Spanish. They do help in my comprehension tremendously, especially as I am unaccustomed to the Argentine accent.
I soon realize that they are using a verb form that I never heard or learned about in Mexico: the vos form, an informal second-person singular way of speaking. I am only able to realize this is happening because a few weeks prior, I was talking about Spanish to a friend of mine who had lived in Honduras for a few years. He explained the vos form to me—I couldn’t believe I was unaware of a way of speaking that the bulk of South America uses. Now I was finally hearing it in action. It was hard to understand, but hopefully if I watch more South American movies, I will become better able to understand it.
In the beginning of the film, I begin to jot down new vocabulary, but I quickly become too engrossed in the story to remember to do this.
March 6: For homework today we are to read an article about Pablo Picasso and translate the first two paragraphs into English. I enjoy reading the article, feeling the fluency grow in my brain. I find it strange to translate, it though. I find that when I read something and deal with it exclusively in my L2, I comprehend it as an L2 whole. But when I read L2 and instantaneously translate it into L1, I don’t actually comprehend what I am reading until the L1 sentence is completely out on the paper.
April 3:I began watching the program Por Ella Soy Eva (For Her I’m Eva) last week and am now completely hooked. Every night I have been watching an episode before bed….When I first started watching Por Ella Soy Eva, I would repeatedly rewind and re-watch the parts where I did not catch what they had said. As time progressed, I decided to accept that I may not understand every word that is said, but as long as I understand the storyline and what has been happening from the context of the conversation, then I would refrain from rewinding and viewing again.
The above diary entries illustrate that in terms of fluency acquisition, I am most comfortable with the global processing approach. While watching both Valentín and Por Ella Soy Eva, I initially wanted to stop and make sure I understood and internalized details, a particular processing approach. With Valentín, I wanted to write down new vocabulary I heard. With Por Ella Soy Eva, I wanted to rewind and re-watch any parts I did not fully understand. But the overall experience of fluency is sacrificed when language situations are approached in this way, and soon, I let myself relax into a mode of global understanding, focusing on the overall plot line and characterization present in the stories and refraining from stopping to write down new vocabulary or rewinding to watch again missed words.
My preference for global processing is also evident in translation activities. Having to break down the Picasso article line by line left me feeling disjointed, while reading an entire paragraph without translating gave me greater comprehension. During translation, I was not able to grasp each sentence until I could see it translated into English in its entirety. Although my head was translating word by word, my brain wasn’t making any meaning of it until it produced a finished end result.
Experiential learning and sensory contact are key to the hands-on or concrete learning style. I expected to be strong in this one, as over time I have relied on making physical actions to help me recall words. Total Physical Response is a teaching technique I incorporate into both my EFL and my LAL lessons. There was extremely little opportunity for this type of learning in my Spanish classroom experience; however, it is event in one test-taking situation.
February 28:Today we had a quiz on reflexive verbs and parts of the body….While taking the quiz, I notice myself having to actually touch or move the part of the body that I must write in order for the word to come into my mind. I am extremely kinesthetic.
A hands-on approach to learning body vocabulary is present in this example. I was very aware of how instead of thinking of the body vocabulary in terms of words, I think of them in terms of movements and actions before I can convert that into language.
While the Ehrman-Leaver Cognitive Styles Construct and the State Analysis Survey present many facets of various learning styles, those that appeared most prominently in my diary entries were those of visual, inductive, analogue, global, and concrete. I’m left wondering if a student with an entirely different set of dominant learning styles would view my Spanish classroom in a different light.
An Analysis of L2 Pedagogy in the Spanish Classroom
Examination of my learning diary suggests that overall, this particular Spanish classroom setting was not a good fit for my learning style, as it the classroom activities were not rooted in communicative language teaching. While my learning style is visual, global, inductive, analogical, and hands-on, the majority of the class activities was auditory, deductive, language out of context, and rooted in “fill in the blanks” exercises.
Some aspects of the class did allow me to grow as a speaker of Spanish. For example, the readings and the film were a good fit for my global learning style, as I was able to take in the storylines holistically and gain fluency by seeing the general meaning behind the texts. They were also well-suited to my analogical learning style, in that they were context-based–language use was exhibited within the context of stories and situations. The writing assignment assigned on March 6, exemplifies my strong preference for language use to be embedded in story and deeper meaning.
March 6: When asked to write two paragraphs about Valentin, I find it hard to keep it to two! I end up writing almost two pages of literary analysis in Spanish. I thoroughly enjoyed how this aided in my comprehension, and also I enjoy trying my hand at making inferences in Spanish and attempting literary criticism in Spanish. I am looking forward to receiving back the assignment with her corrections and feedback.
While the story-based elements of the class were well-suited for my learning style, the majority of class and homework activities were not. They involved mainly translation and deductive rule-giving about prescriptive grammar. There was a general lack of hands-on activities, student talk time, and communicative exercises. The following diary entries illustrate the emphasis placed on translation exercises in the class.
January 31:…the teacher directs us to a picture of a car with Spanish vocabulary words superimposed on the picture. Even though the picture makes the meaning of each word clear, she insists on saying each word in Spanish, and then in English, while we sit and do nothing.
February 14:Another activity that we did was to read a biography of Frida Kahlo. The teacher called on each person to read one paragraph to the class, then she would translate it into L1.
February 21: Today we went over the parts of the body. Again the book features several drawings of the human body with Spanish words superimposed over the drawing. Again the teacher reads them to us and translates….
March 6: For homework today we are to read an article about Pablo Picasso and translate the first two paragraphs into English…. But [after translating it] I see that the L1 syntax is totally “Spanglish” in parts and I wonder if I should go back and rewrite parts of my translation to make the English sound more natural. But it is my L1, so I decide not to belabor this.
Translation, while helpful at times, does not fit in with my global, analogical learning style. Rather than looking at the deeper meaning, or the overall meaning of a passage, the learner instead takes words at face value and merely translates them. A reader does not actually have to understand what the sentences and paragraphs are saying, but can simply change the language word by word. No analytical thought, commentary, elaboration, or personal connection is made with the language when language is manipulated in this way. As such, translation is an unsatisfying learning activity for me.
Also not optimal for my learning style is the deductive approach to grammar instruction favored by the instructor. The following excerpts demonstrate the frequent use of the deductive approach of teaching prescriptive grammar. This type of teaching took up a considerable portion of every class.
March 7: The grammar lesson is on informal commands. The teacher explains, “You put the verb in the el form.”
One of my classmates is from Columbia and asks, “What would it be to say tenga cuidado” (be careful)? She is noting an exception to the grammar rule, as tenga sounds like a formal command but it is being used informally.
The teacher explains that, although it is common to hear this in South America, it is grammatically incorrect. I make note of this in my notebook, as I want to know how things are said in different countries.
March 21: Today is another review of the past simple tense and the past imperfect tense. This time the teacher has given us several pages of a textbook photo copied and stapled together. It lists several situations in which one would utilize one verb tense or the other. It also has several charts for irregular verb spellings. I am shocked by how little I really know about the irregular verb spellings! It is easy to get by with speaking irregular verbs, but writing them is another matter, and I now realize that in Mexico, I had almost never written these verbs. For example, yo dormí (I slept) follows a regular spelling pattern, while él durmió (he slept) breaks the normal spelling pattern with a vowel change from “o” to “u.” When I finish the assigned exercises early, I go through the packet and complete as many other exercises as I can, and I find myself flipping back and forth throughout the packet to check the irregular spellings. I really need to brush up on this!
In each excerpt, we are given charts and rules about how to conjugate verbs and when to use them. We then have to complete fill-in-the-blank activities or translation. Furthermore, in the March 7 excerpt, the class discussion could have taken on a sociocultural focus in discussing why and when some countries’ speakers intentionally use the grammatically incorrect form of tenga instead of ten (forms of “have”), but the teacher instead just tells us it is incorrect. The emphasis is purely on prescriptive grammar, rather than descriptive grammar.
The heavy emphasis on translation and prescriptive grammar leaves little room for hands-on, task-based, communicative practice. In fact, the classes consisted almost entirely of teacher-talk time, rather than student-talk time. This is problematic to me as a learner because teacher talk requires me to be able to have good aural comprehension. As a visual learner, I tend to tune out when a teacher talks too much and I have no words to look at. The gross imbalance of teacher-talk time and student-talk time is evident in the following diary entries, starting with the first day of class.
January 24: I entered class today feeling excited about my first formal language study since my college days. As a language teacher, I immediately notice the seating arrangement: we will be seated in rows, facing the teacher. Students are spaced out sporadically in the large room. This is my first indication that there may be very little communication going on in the class.
January 31: Today during class I felt stagnant in my frustration at the lack of student talk time. In my notebook, I find myself mixing Spanish and English, journaling my frustration. Quiero shoot mi misma en la cabeza por falta de participación. Me siento que yo no digo nada por minutos y minutos y minutos—se siento una época. (I want to shoot myself in the head for lack of participation. I feel like I haven’t said anything for minutes and minutes—it feels like ages.)
February 7: There are 42 blanks to fill in. Going over them as a class in tortuous as she calls on us one by one to read, and then she repeats the reading we have just said and explains each time why it was imperfect tense or past simple tense. Meanwhile we sit uncommunicatively in our chairs.
February 14: Another activity that we did was to read a biography of Frida Kahlo. The teacher called on each person to read one paragraph to the class, and then she would translate it into L1. Sometimes she would ask us a comprehension question. I greatly enjoyed the few times she asked me to read because I was able to feel the Spanish accent take over the muscles in my mouth.
As these entries suggest, in all of the classes we stayed seated in rows, facing the back of the person in front of us, watching the teacher, almost never communicating. There was never any social interaction other than the teacher calling on us one by one to read. But even this was usually followed by the teacher repeating (with better pronunciation) what was just read by a student or by her English translation of it. She could have increased student-talk time by simply having us all read to a partner simultaneously so that we could all get more practice with the pronunciation and syntax. Instead of asking one person to raise his hand and answer a comprehension question, we could have been asking and answering them with each other in small groups. I would have liked to have seen us put into homogenous ability groups so that the fluent speakers (I was one of three or four) could use the target language in a more meaningful, discourse-based way, while the lower ability level would be able to focus on simple comprehension, pronunciation, and verb conjugation.
Although the last decade of language teaching has seen a shift away from teacher-centered, product-oriented instruction with the learner in isolation to student-centered, process-oriented instruction adapted to the social nature of the learner (Britto, 2007), I feel that this particular Spanish class goes in direct opposition of the trends in language education that are increasingly rooted in sociocultural theory and language socialization. Savignon (2007) describes the ability of classroom learners to interact with other speakers as communicative competence. This paved the way for today’s communicative language teaching which identifies four components: grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, strategic competence and discourse competence (p. 209).
Language teaching in the United States has become more rooted in the communicative approach, at least in terms of legislature that has been passed. In recent years, the federal government initiated the National Standards for Foreign Language Learning (NSFLL). This initiative lists five goal areas as the Five Cs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities (Savignon, 2007, p. 215). These standards focus on what one can do with the language—it is a shift away from the traditional Formalist approach to language teaching rooted in Chomsky’s theory of internal grammar and a shift towards functionalist, discourse-based approach.
The lack of student talk time and the lack of communication in general in my Spanish class may be indicative of a widespread struggle in the education arena to adopt communicative language teaching in a world that is increasingly driven by tests that focus on prescriptive grammar. Even though these are the theories proposed in university teacher-training programs, classroom teaching practices continue to lag behind in communicative language teaching. Research shows that “time and again, assessment appears to be the driving force behind curricular innovations” and that “demand for accountability, along with the positivistic stance that one cannot teach that which cannot be described and measured by a common yard stick, continue to influence program content and goals.” Both teachers and learners become compelled to teach to the test and master the test (Savignon, 2007, pp. 217-218). While the bulk of research done has been in English language classes, my experience in a Spanish class follows the generalization. My Spanish teacher most likely feels incredible pressure to get us to pass tests on imperfect and preterit tenses –tests that focus on grammar form and function but not speech acts. One may infer that this problem of a lack of CLT in the classroom is something many foreign language classrooms suffer from as much as do ESL classrooms.
In sum, my experience in the Spanish classroom, serves as an example of the lack of communicative language teaching that still exists in many language classrooms. Rather than preparing students for competence and participation in a language community, the learners sit silently, timid to speak up, conjugating verbs with pencils, but almost never feeling those verbs within the muscles of the mouth, tongue, and lips through speaking. This class is not only ill-suited for my learning style, but it is also ill-suited for the communicative needs of people everywhere.
An Analysis of Identity Formation
Upon viewing my learning diary, it is evident that I experienced an internal change deeper than acquiring new vocabulary and grammar. Reflection on the diary entries suggests that my sense of self is evolving to feel more Latino and that my inner voice is becoming more connected to Spanish.
Over the past decades, sociolinguistic theory has come to view second language learning as a process of becoming a member of a community. It is viewed “as a struggle for participation” (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2000, p. 155). Learning a new language is more than producing proper grammar and varied vocabulary, it is the open doorway that provides one access to other cultures, to varied ways of thinking and experiencing the world. It is instrumental in the reconstruction of self as a participating member of another society.
Philadelphia is home to many speech communities. My time spent studying Spanish here may be seen in the light of trying to become a part of the Latino community of Philadelphia, as well as part of the larger, international Spanish-speaking community as a whole. Facebook messages from friends back in Mexico, as well as watching my favorite Mexican actor on TV, help me feel connected to Mexico, my second home for two and a half years. At the same time, I am trying to prepare myself for a summer in Mallorca, Spain, where I will be studying in a few months. The past few months of my Spanish-learning endeavors have rekindled in me the feeling of belonging to the Latino community that I had developed while living in Mexico.
This reconstructing of my Spanish-speaking identity is particularly evident in a more recent diary entry in which I had finally pushed myself to take my learning much beyond the classroom. In this entry I reflect on the change of my sense of identity I experienced after I reconnected (mentally) with my favorite Mexican actor and began interacting with Spanish speakers in natural settings.
April 3: After finishing the Argentine film in my Spanish class, I was more motivated than ever to throw my Spanish training into high gear! I could barely understand the Argentine accent and their use of vos instead of tu. If it weren’t for the English subtitles on the movie, I would not have been able to really follow it.
So shortly after that class, I went onto Hulu.com to find Spanish movies, made in Spain, so that I could work on my understanding of the accent from Spain which is so different from the Mexican Spanish to which I am accustomed. But instead of finding movies, I found a telenovela (soap opera) that I knew I could sink my teeth into. Although I had intended to find something made in Spain, this one was made in Mexico with my favorite Mexican soap star: Jaime Camil. I decided that although I need to work on my understanding of Spanish from Spain, it couldn’t hurt to begin forming the Spanish-TV-watching habit with something I am familiar with and already love.
The above excerpt illustrates how even after more than two years away from Mexico, I still hold onto that part of my identity. I still want to feel Mexican. Language learning is about more than acquiring comprehension of different accents. I could have found something made in Spain to help me prepare for my upcoming time in Spain, but the emotional connection I have to Mexico was stronger than my desire to expand my practical abilities.
I also am deeply motivated by the sense of familiarity I have with the main actor of the show. Jaime Camil is someone about whom I already know; he is an actor about whom I have shared many conversations while living in Mexico. My housemates and I passed many a night together in our house laughing over Camil’s old telenovelas, exclaiming over the crazy antics of the characters, and making predictions about what we thought would happen next. Through these telenovelas, I was able to become a participating member of not just my Mexican household, but also of the Mexican pop-culture scene, by engaging in discourse about a TV show. The experience was pivotal in constructing my Mexican self.
In addition to feeling an emotional connection to my L2, the mental connection to Spanish is also surfacing in this journal entry. The reconstruction of my identity as a Spanish speaker surfaces as I begin to code switch:
I began watching the program Por Ella Soy Eva (For Her I’m Eva) last week and am now completely hooked. Every night I have been watching an episode before bed. Almost immediately, I noticed that my mind was in Spanglish mode even when I wasn’t watching the program. (Spanglish, a term lovingly used by bilingual Spanish and English speakers, refers to the mixing of the two languages, either on purpose or by accident.) Certain phrases are popping into my head in Spanish, rather than in English. It is amazing how I can feel my brain turning. For example, after watching the program for two days, I had a Spanglish moment. Upon walking with a friend into a dance class for which we both lacked motivation, I said to her, “We have to animarnos,” which literally translates to “animate ourselves,” but in Spanish means something akin to “psych ourselves up” for doing something. Last Wednesday morning, I was speaking to my fifth grade class and wanted to say to them that they were to sell candles to raise money. Instead, I used the Spanglish word win money. This is Spanglish because the word for raise, win, and earn money is the same in Spanish: ganar….At lunch that day I wanted to say that I would miss the bus, but instead said the Spanglish lose the bus. This is Spanglish because in Spanish the word perder is used for both “miss” and “lose.”
I do not understand what provokes the code switching for me. It seems to be at random times. In the past I would notice it when talking to someone about my Mexican experiences, but now it is happening completely out of context. Just last night, while discussing with a non-Spanish speaker how the deadline for this paper is coming up, I found myself unable to explain it without using the word presionarme. “I have to presionarme to get it done,” I said wanting to explain how I needed to put pressure on myself.
The emergence of code-switching may be viewed in terms of multi-competence, or the knowledge of two languages in one mind (Cook, 2007a, p. 241). Through this lens, L2 users exhibit slight differences in both their L1 and L2 as their minds form “links” between the two languages (p. 243). Whichever language they are using, they are simultaneously affected by the other language. “Neither of the two lexicons is ever completely off-line, but is always present at some level of activation, whichever language is actually being used” (Cook, 2007b, p. 23). This explains why my code-switching from L1 to L2 is increasing as participate in more L2 activities, as I am broadening my lexical range and retaining it, even if in a subconscious way. Through reigniting my study of Spanish, I am gradually gaining multi-competence.
In addition to viewing the emergence of code switching as multi-competence, it may also be explained in terms of my “inner speech” morphing. Russian scholars Vygotsky and Bakhtin discuss inner speech as a key component to language learning. Vygotsky explains it to be “semantically dense with personal meaning,” and Bakhtin terms it a private dialogue in which the participant is both a speaker and a listener simultaneously. Inner speech functions to organize and make sense of a person’s experiences of the world (Lantolf and Pavlenko, 2000, p. 165). As such, I view my code switching to be a result of the new experiences of the world brought to me from the Mexican soap opera. My mind is in another place and so the words from that place are beginning to be the ones that help me shape my experiences.
In addition, I feel myself taking on others’ voices, particularly with reading response activities and with my interest in the vos form. According to Lantolf and Pavlenko (2000), “the initial step toward recovery and reconstruction of a self,” according to L2 learners’ narrative accounts, “is the appropriation of others’ voices.” Hoffman, a second language learner, describes feeling as though he had no voice. “The voices invade me as if I were a silent ventriloquist.” He describes the voices filling him up inside, lending him “their modulations, intonations, rhythms,” –things he does not yet possess. Hoffman continues, “They stick to my ribs….Eventually the voices enter me; by assuming them, gradually, I am able to make them mine” (p. 167). This idea of taking on others’ voices without full understanding of what the voices say is seen in the subsequent self-reflections.
March 12: I feel fulfillment in…noticing syntactical constructions that I would not know how to do if I were not copying phrases from my reading in order to answer comprehension questions. While in the past, I viewed going back into the text and restating parts of it in an answer to a comprehension question boring, I now find it fascinating. I realized this may be the best way for me to internalize the syntactical structures that do not translate from my L1. I feel that if I do this with my readings enough times, I greatly improve the quality of my fluency in speaking and in writing because I am forging new brain habits.
For example, realizing when to include a definite article began to cement in my mind. Just as I often see my ELL students struggle with knowing when to include an article and whether or not it is definite or indefinite, I also struggle with this in Spanish. For example, while writing my homework, I struggle with knowing why I include the definite article in la dieta (the diet) but not in panes, arrozes y pastas (breads, rice, and pastas). And just as there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to tell my ELL students about when to use the article, so must I simply internalize how and when it is used. And right now, parroting back from the text is helping me forge these habits.
April 3: If someone were to ask me to speak in vos form, I would not be able to produce the conjugations… I am repeating it whenever possible, such as at the Spanish happy hour. Each time my friend used it with me, I repeated it to myself. He then corrected my pronunciation if necessary, and in this way, I am starting to internalize the conjugations and make a habit of it.
Therefore, by parroting back native speakers’ voices, I am molding my own internal voice.
In addition to looking at the cognitive shifts a language learner undergoes, one must examine the emotional side effects that do accompany it. My last diary entry is a prime example of the frustration and shame felt by a struggling L2 learner. In this journal entry, I feel upset because I often fail to be able to fully participate with the Spanish-speaking community.
April 3: In addition to adding Spanish TV-watching into my life, I also have begun reaching out more to my Spanish-speaking friends in my neighborhood. A few days ago, I went to a Spanish-speaking “meet up” group’s happy hour. While there, I often felt frustrated with my inability to express myself and embarrassed that I did not always understand what people were saying to me. It is a reminder that although I can understand nearly all of a TV show made in Mexico with my favorite actor (whose manner of speaking I am used to), I am far from being able to easily understand Spanish from other regions of the world and outside of the context of a storyline.
My frustration and embarrassment may stem from the reality that L2 speakers are often viewed by their native-speaking counterparts as being both socially and linguistically incompetent, an outsider, something “other.” While living in Mexico, this was a constant source of discomfort for me, as I knew that if I even slightly stumbled in my speech, or if I had to ask someone to repeat something to me for lack of being able to hear it, the speaker would often respond with, “Oh you don’t speak Spanish, right?” It would stop the natural progression of the interaction and turn the focus onto how I did not fit in and how I appeared to be not able to fully communicate. When I am speaking Spanish, I am very aware that if I stumble, I may not be able to continue with the interaction because the native speaker may change the topic of the conversation to my inadequacies, or he may start speaking English to me.
As you can see, nonnative speakers often feel pressure to ‘counter’ perceptions that native speakers have of them as being interactionally and linguistically incompetent, a reality that Wong (2000) has illustrated with analysis of the use of the token yeah in repair sequences in non-native speakers of English (who speak Mandarin). Nonnative speakers of a language run a greater risk than their native-speaking counterparts of being perceived as having “limited command, knowledge, experience, or grasp of the language of interaction.” As such, L2 speakers may develop practices that help them to appear more overtly competent to native speakers. In the case of Mandarin speakers of English, Wong argues that the token yeah possibly serves as “a self-presentational display” that serves to inform the other conversation participants’ that the L2 speaker is “competently managing language deficiencies” (p. 60). By saying yeah during a repair, the language learner is signaling to the native speaker that he has the discourse situation under control and that it can continue. I believe that adaptions such as this are necessary for L2 individuals as we struggle in recrafting not just our self-identities, but also others’ perceptions of us.
Overall, language learning is an emotionally-tied process of becoming a competent participant in a community. It is something I am still struggling with, and will continue to struggle with for as long as I try acquiring new language.
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As language teachers, it is important to be cognizant of the mental and emotional roller coaster that is language learning. Learning styles coupled with experiences both inside and outside of the classroom result in an inner transformation for the language learner. Beyond grammar and vocabulary, frustrations and joys prevail. Language is so intricately linked to one’s self identity and inner voice that it is impossible to not feel disappointment at our failings to be competent. At the same time, it is this tie with sense of self that makes taking on a new language, and thus a new persona, so exhilarating. Language teachers facilitate this experience with their students, and should be ready to support and nourish both the academic needs and the emotional needs of their students as they arise.
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