Emerging Self-Identities and Emotion in Foreign Language Learning: A Narrative-Oriented Approach

Emerging Self-Identities and Emotion in Foreign Language Learning: A Narrative-Oriented Approach

by Masuko Miyahara

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This book uses a narrative-oriented approach to shed light on the processes of identity construction and development among Japanese university students of English. The research highlights the instrumental agency of individuals in responding to and acting upon the social environment, and in developing, maintaining and/or reconstructing their identities as L2 users. The study offers unique insights into the role of experience, emotions, social and environmental affordances in shaping their personal orientations to English and self-perceptions as English learner-users. It also examines individuals’ responses to these factors and discusses fluctuations in their motivations. The additional value of this book lies in its detailed account of methodological procedures, challenges and ways to overcome obstacles encountered when undertaking qualitative longitudinal studies.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783093830
Publisher: Channel View Publications
Publication date: 07/16/2015
Series: Second Language Acquisition , #89
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 210
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Masuko Miyahara is Lecturer at the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan. She has been working in the field for over 20 years and her areas of interest include identity studies and language learning, autonomy, emotions in language learning and methodological issues related to language learning research.

Masuko Miyahara is Lecturer at the International Christian University, Tokyo, Japan. She has been working in the field for over 25 years and her areas of interest include identity studies and language learning, autonomy, emotions in language learning and methodological issues related to language learning research.

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Emerging Self-Identities and Emotion in Foreign Language Learning

A Narrative-Oriented Approach

By Masuko Miyahara

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2015 Masuko Miyahara
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-383-0



This book seeks to examine the issue of identity construction and its implications for the process of learning a foreign language. As many researchers have argued, any discussion of 'identity' is fundamentally based on one's personal experience and is inescapably subjective. This is true for me as well. My interest in this subject is, first, rooted in my background as a returnee (kikokushijo). Returnees are sons and daughters of Japanese governmental officials and business people who have lived aboard for a certain period during their childhood and adolescence before returning to Japan (Block, 2006a; Kanno, 2003). Second, my interest stems from my professional experiences as an English teacher and language educator in Japan for nearly two decades. During this time I have observed that language learning is more than a cognitive and individual phenomenon, but one that needs to be addressed from a broader perspective, to take into account the dialectic relationship between learners and their social milieu.

Kanno's now famous longitudinal study of returnees (2000, 2003) was of special and poignant interest to me. Reflecting on my experiences as a teenager attending a high school in New York three decades previously, I found that they resonated with those of Kanno's participants, who also struggled to claim their identities in their new environments abroad, as well as upon their return to Japan. Identity issues are also at the centre of ethnographic case studies by Angelia-Carter (1997), Haneda (1997), Pierce (1995), Toohey (2000) and Willet (1995). These works have investigated the experiences of those who migrated into their new educational contexts, where themes of mainstreaming, participation and language socialisation emerged as central issues. Such studies not only informed my general understanding that learning a language is 'an integral and inseparable aspect of social practice' (Lave & Wenger, 1991: 31) but they also showed me how identity is intertwined with social and affective dimensions.

Until quite recently, I held to an essentialist point of view regarding identity as a static and stable entity. However, my frequent trips to and from London and Tokyo over the last decade or so have prompted me to re-evaluate my thoughts on identity from a slightly different perspective. For example, upon landing at Heathrow Airport, the first encounter on British soil is usually with immigration officers. As many foreigners arriving in London have experienced, one is required to submit to a routine set of questions, such as the purpose of one's visit and the intended length of stay. To me, this ritual symbolises my status as an outsider and as a 'visitor' who does not 'belong' to the British community. In contrast, on my return to Japan, and in fact even as soon as I set foot in a Japanese-owned airline, I am greeted with a flight attendant's bubbling words of welcome, 'okaerinasai!' The literal English translation is 'welcome home', but okaerinasai tends to have a special connotation, as it is used only for people who are considered to be insiders, and it carries a subtle message that one is considered to belong to that group. Such experiences at airports are of course not unique – they are shared by thousands of other Japanese people making similar journeys. However, the irony for me is that although my appearance might define me as ethnically 'Japanese', I am aware that some in Japan would not consider me to be truly, wholly or purely Japanese, because of my upbringing as a returnee. These contradictions would not make sense if I viewed identity as unchanging. My travels abroad, as well as my experiences of living both in and out of Japan, have thus influenced me to change my understanding of identity, which I now perceive as fluid, dynamic and multifaceted.

This broadened understanding of identity motivated me to reflect on the issue of identity with students who are studying English at a liberal arts college in Japan. Observing the struggles these students undergo during their first year of college, I discovered that the difficulty was not only to do with language, but was also linked to the changes in their sense of self. In class and during tutorials, I noticed that their emotional responses in learning a language figured prominently in their perceptions of themselves. This stirred my interest in examining how emotions influence the construction of identity. However, I am interested not only in what kinds of identities develop, but also in how, why and in what contexts the students construct their identities and, furthermore, how the affective dimensions of learning a language are implicated in this process. In particular, I focus on learners' experiences by examining what the learners themselves present to me. This study, therefore, takes a participant-relevant perspective, where the aim is to investigate learners' language learning experiences from their perspective. Research in this field should not be limited to presenting an account of participants' experience, but should also clearly show how the learners themselves perceive and articulate these experiences. For this reason, I decided to work within a qualitative paradigm; more specifically, I adopted a narrative-oriented approach to explore the process of the construction of identities of Japanese learners studying English within higher education in Japan.

Overview of the Enquiry: The Rationale and Aims of the Research

Prioritising a more socially oriented approach in the conceptualisation of second language acquisition (SLA) is not new. It was explored as far back as the 1960s (Lafford, 2007; Swain & Deters, 2007), even if for many years there was no overt conflict between what we might call in very general terms cognitive versus social approaches to second language learning. However, with the publication of Firth and Wagner's landmark article in 1997, the social perspective to second language learning gained prominence. A large number of studies that include the social and contextual dimensions have since emerged in SLA and language learning research. These studies have paved the way for researchers to draw upon a wide range of disciplines and include various theoretical perspectives in their work (Block, 2003).

One example is Firth and Wagner's article (2007) where their expanded understanding of 'learning' is presented, where learning is framed as a social process. They contend that the central tenet for making the distinction between the ideas of language 'acquisition' and 'use' emerges from one's conception of learning. Drawing on Lave and Wenger (1991: 807), they view the process of learning as an 'inseparable part of ongoing activities, situated in social practice and social interaction'. Language learning is regarded as a situated activity in a specific context, where the participants 'engage in complex, multimodal, finely tuned co-participation, integrating body posture, gaze, verbal and prosodic activities, rhythm, and pace in their choreography of action' (Egbert et al., 2004, quoted in Firth & Wagner, 2007: 807). From this broader notion, it is a short step to see why identity has come to be seen as a key element in understanding language learning. Framing language learning as a social process implies that there is a struggle for participation in a new social environment (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000). The process involves a host of sociocultural and contextual factors that preclude discussions of subjectivity, agency and multiple identities. Learning a second language through participation is thus an emergent process where constructs such as agency, voice, power and control intermittently intertwine with societal structure.

Grounded in such an understanding of second language learning, I attempt in this study to develop a conceptual framework and practical understanding of the process of identity construction of learners of English as a foreign language. The research focuses on tracing the identity development of the focal students by obtaining first-hand accounts of their learning experiences through talks with the participants. The stories of their learning endeavours are complemented and triangulated with other methods, such as their monthly journals, as they complete a one-year intensive programme in EAP (English for as academic purposes) in their first year at a Japanese university in Tokyo. The observations show how learners strive to create their own English learning communities, enhance their feelings of belonging (or the opposite) in these learning communities and, in effect, experience changes in their self-identities. The study examines how learning a language involves subjective experiences in which emotions (both positive and negative) and identities are involved.

The main research question addressed is as follows:

How is the affective dimension implicated in the construction of the identity of a language learner?

There were consequently four broad areas of enquiry (Box 1.1). These were based on the findings of a pilot study.

Situating the Context of the Research

In the next section of this chapter, I will first present a brief overview of English education in contemporary Japan to offset out the context of the research. This information is necessary to contextualise the experiences of the six participants in this study.

First, I will describe the major developments in language education in the past two decades, to provide a general picture of how Japanese learners study English in contemporary Japan. The aim here is to sketch out the trajectory of learners. The highly government-controlled nature of language education in the Japanese school system makes it unavoidable that I include general insights from language policy studies. An examination of how the English language is conceptualised at the policy level provides insights into how policies are translated into curriculum and classroom practices. These, in turn, may influence how learners perceive the language and their language learning.

Second, I will outline how English is conceptualised in current Japanese society, as this informs the relationship that people have with the language. People's desire to study a language is often closely related to how they perceive the language and what its function and affordances are. Thus, the reasons why individuals wish to learn a language are not only personal constructions but can also be framed by public discourse about the language, which often reflects a broader framework of politics and ideology (Fujita-Round & Maher, 2008; Tsui & Tollefson, 2007). As Phillipson (1992) and Pennycook (1994) argue, language education does not operate in a social vacuum. There is a complex interplay between social, political and economic 'macro' events (both on a domestic level and from a global perspective) that has an impact upon 'micro' events at a local level. Such an outlook is important to the study since, as I will attempt to illustrate in later chapters, how learners visualise their future selves is influenced by global forces (as, indeed, are their past and present selves).

English Education in Contemporary Japan: Teaching English as Communication

English language teaching can be located in three major educational networks: school networks, private language schools (including private tutoring) and courses established by business and other organisations (Maravoka, 2004). The current focus on globalisation and the recent introduction of English education at the elementary level have pushed many parents to send their children to private language schools from a very early age (Katsuyama et al., 2008). Indeed many of my participants in this study were exposed to English from infancy. However, under the current Japanese education system, the majority of Japanese children begin to study English 'formally' in junior high school, and continue for a further three years in high school before entering college. Since my participants were 18-20 years of age around the time of our interviews, I focus on two developments during the last two decades: the introduction and implementation of communicative language teaching (CLT); and the proposal to make English an official second language in Japan. The questions that are of particular interest for this study are:

(1) What kind of language education have the students been exposed to?

(2) How does it relate to their view of English?

Communicative Language teaching (CLT) in Japan

As noted above, English language education in the school network is highly government controlled. National standards for the school curriculum for each of three school levels (elementary, lower and upper secondary) are laid down in the Course of Study prescribed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT, the official abbreviation of the Ministry). The Course of Study provides the basic framework for school curricula, including the objectives and contents of teaching in all subjects, and is mandatory for all schools, both private and public. The Course of Study was first issued by the Ministry of Education in 1947, and it is revised every 10 years or so, in line with amendments in governmental policies, which are often in response to societal changes, both domestic and international. The two reforms that are of relevance to this study are the Reform Acts of 1989 and 2002. These are considered to contain the most important innovations for English language education in modern Japan (Lamie, 2005; Makarova, 2004).

The 1989 Reform Act coincided with the communicative approach in the wider TESOL world (Brumfit & Johnson, 1979; Littlewood, 1981). For the first time in the history of Japanese foreign language education, the word 'communicative' appeared in the Course of Study, and it underscored that the goal for both junior high school and high school English was to 'understand a foreign language', to 'develop a positive attitude to want to communicate in a foreign language' and to 'develop the basis for international understanding' (Yoshida, 1999). The government's determination to develop practical communicative competence is further illustrated by the instigation of the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme, where each year the Japanese government invites over 5000 people from all over the world as Assistant Language Teachers (ALT) to assist in English instruction in secondary schools (Borg, 2008). The 1989 Reform Act also officially introduced oral communication courses in high schools (Kunieda, 2000;

Lamie, 2005). In conjunction with the 2002 Reform Act, MEXT announced an Action Plan in 2003 to further promote this communicative focus by stating that its main aim was to produce proficient English speaking citizens who could function effectively in the current globalised world. The 2003 Action Plan presented a set of strategic national goals:

(1) the formal introduction of English at the elementary school level;

(2) the implementation of the 'Super English High Schools' programme (which places emphasis on not only English language studies but also English-medium study of non-English subjects);

(3) an ongoing reform of the higher education system in Japan;

(4) a wide-ranging teacher training programme for all junior and senior high school teachers.

However, the communicative model initiated by the government does not appear to have been successful, as both academics and the general public are dubious as to whether the government's policy has produced the intended outcome (see for example Kunieda, 2000; Murphey & Carpenter, 2008). It is beyond the scope of this study to analyse in detail the many cited reasons for the supposed failure, but a brief examination of the matter offers an interesting insight into how Japanese learners view both English and their language learning.

A considerable amount of research has shown that the perceived lack of success in producing competent English-users is largely due to the difficulties teachers have experienced in implementing the policies. These policies stem from specific beliefs about language teaching that are deeply rooted in the nation's sociocultural traditions of learning (Borg, 2008; Brown & Wada, 1998; Gorsuch, 2000, 2001; Koike & Tanaka, 1995; LoCastro, 1996; McGroarty & Taguchi, 2005; Miyahara, 2002; Oka & Yoshida, 1997; Sato, 2002; Taguchi, 2005; Takeuchi, 2003; Wada, 2002).

In order to explore the complexities of implementing CLT in the classroom, Taguchi (2005) documented the characteristics of oral communications classes at several high schools in one prefecture. Survey responses from 92 high school teachers showed that the most typical classroom activities were listening drills and practice at dialogue. Activities for negotiating meanings or creative expressions (e.g. giving speeches, presentations) were minimal. Ninety-three per cent of the teachers reported that the language used to give instructions was mainly Japanese. Taguchi also observed four oral communication classes, which revealed the following: the teacher provided most of the input (48-74% of class time); the teacher guided all classroom activities; students spoke for only 15% of the class time, and this usually involved choral repeating of dialogues; the use of the 'fill in the gap' type of listening exercises was frequently observed. Given these findings, it is obvious that teachers do not have a good understanding of the communicative teaching style (Miyahara, 2002; Wada, 2002).


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Table of Contents

Overview of the Research


Researcher’s Background

  1. Introduction
  2. Theoretical Frameworks
  3. Narrative Approach: Identities Studies and Emotions
  4. The Research Design, the Site, Participants, Data Collection and Analysis
  5. Sayaka and Megumi ‘s Stories: Authenticate and Strengthen the L2 Possible Selves
  6. Megumi and Yui’s Stories: Desires to Create and Develop the L2 Possible Selves
  7. Hinako and Takehiro’s Stories: Ambivalent Desires to Create the L2 Possible Selves
  8. An Attempt to Weave the Threads Together:
  9. Conclusion and Afterword

Figures and Tables 



What People are Saying About This

Alison Stewart

Miyahara’s detailed and illuminating narrative study of university students in Japan offers new insights into the role of experience and emotion in language learning in an EFL context. This book brings to life both current theories surrounding identity and motivation in language learning and complex methodological issues that arise in the research of these important concepts.

David Block

This book uniquely incorporates Dewey’s work on experience to the development of an understanding of situated learning, imagined communities and the L2 ideal self. Miyahara links social and psychological factors in an effective and innovative way, making for a complex model of L2 identity which she applies masterfully to the English language learning narratives of Japanese university students. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in L2 identities, either from a theoretical or practical perspective.

Martin Lamb

This is a bold study that brings together psychological and sociological perspectives on the motivation to learn English of six young Japanese. Informed both by wide reading and an intimate knowledge of context, Miyahara uses a narrative approach to demonstrate convincingly how the learners' experiences with English in childhood and adolescence colour their attitudes and motivation to learn during their first year at college.

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