Gendered Identities and Immigrant Language Learning

Gendered Identities and Immigrant Language Learning

by Julia Menard-Warwick


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Gendered Identities and Immigrant Language Learning by Julia Menard-Warwick

Based on participant observation in a California English as a Second Language family literacy program, this ethnographic study examines how the complexly gendered life histories of immigrant adults shaped their participation in both the English language classroom and the education of their children, within the contemporary sociohistorical context of increasing Latin American immigration to the United States. Through outlining the connections between (gendered) identity work and language learning, this study builds theoretical and empirical justification for teachers to negotiate classroom practice with each community of learners, responding to students’ individual goals, histories, and lives outside the classroom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847692139
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 10/15/2009
Series: Critical Language and Literacy Studies Series , #4
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Julia Menard-Warwick is an Associate Professor in the Linguistics department at University of California Davis, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in areas such as language pedagogy, second language literacy and technology, and language and gender. Before beginning doctoral studies in 1999, she taught ESL for ten years at a community college in Washington state (USA), and for one year at a university in Nicaragua. Her on-going research focuses on language pedagogies, bilingual development, cultural identities, and language ideologies in both US and Latin American contexts.

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The Social Context of Immigrant Language Learning1

People learn languages in social, cultural, and political contexts that constrain the linguistic forms they hear and use and also mark the social significance of linguistic and cultural forms in various ways Watson-Gegeo, 2004: 340

In May 2002, I began an ethnographic study at an English as a Second Language (ESL) family literacy program in a multi-ethnic working-class city in the San Francisco Bay area of California. This program, which I will refer to as the Community English Center (CEC), was the institutional context where I met and got to know the Latin American immigrants who participated in my study, seven women and one man. As Hondagneu-Sotelo explains, contemporary research on gender and immigration has gone beyond an earlier focus on families and communities to examine how 'gender is incorporated into a myriad of daily operations and institutional political and economic structures ... (and) organizes a number of immigrant practices, beliefs, and institutions' (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2003: 9).

In the following interview excerpt, Fabiana, a recent immigrant from Peru, explains the gendered nature of the CEC classes:

My school and my husband's school are different. [...] They don't teach him, for example, about what if a child falls down, what if a child has a wound that swells up. [...] They don't teach him that children need to eat vegetables. They don't teach him those kinds of things. Things that are very interesting that they teach us in my school, because we have children. (Interview, 10/18/02)

Fabiana here indicates how her language learning was connected to her life experiences as the mother of a young child. Both she and her husband were studying English, but she went to morning classes with childcare, while he went to night classes after finishing his day's work in a money-wiring office. In Fabiana's class (but not in her husband's), teachers and students drew upon common discourses of motherhood, shared ways of referring to and evaluating maternal experiences, to 'mark the social significance' of the 'linguistic and cultural forms' taught (Watson-Gegeo, 2004).

If we consider gender as 'a system of social relations and discursive practices' (Piller & Pavlenko, 2001: 17), we can see gendered practices and discourses playing a central role in the immigration experiences of the participants in this research – experiences that to varying degrees included English-language learning. Indeed, language learning itself is perhaps best conceptualized as occurring through participation in speech and literacy events within a (gendered) sociohistorical context – a theoretical perspective that has been referred to as the language socialization paradigm (Bayley & Schecter, 2002; Watson-Gegeo, 2004) and as situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). For more discussion of theoretical connections between learning and gendered identities, see Chapter 2.

In this chapter, I explain my study's focus on gender as a structuring factor in immigration and second-language (L2) learning; place participants' language learning in an historical context where 'the globalization of capital ... is largely behind the largest migratory wave in U.S. history' (Suárez-Orozco, 2001: 356); describe my own positionality in the site as a Spanish-speaking Anglo-American former ESL teacher turned graduatestudent researcher; and then outline my research questions and the structure of the book as a whole.

Gender as a Structuring Factor

Throughout this book, I explore gender in terms of both practices, recurrent socially meaningful activities (Scribner, 1997), and ideologies, belief systems 'generated in power relations as a dimension of the exercise of power' (Fairclough, 1992: 67) (see endnote 4). To explore the influence of gendered practices and ideologies on the immigration experiences of participants, I turn again to an interview narrative told by Fabiana, who arrived in California with her year-old son in the fall of 2001 to join her husband, Carlos. This narrative constructs her perspective on the social, cultural and political context in which her English-language learning necessarily unfolded (Watson-Gegeo, 2004).

Both Fabiana and Carlos had studied business at a two-year college in Lima, and then worked for 14 years as employees of the import business owned by Fabiana's father. This family company brought in chemical raw materials, primarily from Asian countries like Taiwan, and then sold them as raw ingredients for the Peruvian pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. When Fabiana began telling the following narrative, she had just explained how this previously successful enterprise had sunk into near bankruptcy in the 1990s, along with many other Peruvian companies. She and her husband found that their upper-middle-class status did not protect them from poverty as the economy worsened. For a long time, they had to live with Fabiana's parents, and according to her, this negatively affected their relationship:

It was difficult for him because ... I would say to him for example, "Hey, help me cook," and he wouldn't help; "Hey, help me wash the dishes," because ... it's like it made him feel a little embarrassed (le daba un poco de vergüenza) ... he didn't feel ... like he didn't feel at home, not really, the only thing he wanted was to be in our room, no? There he felt comfortable because he had his things. And afterwards, no? At night he wanted to be with his friends, something that doesn't happen here. (Interview, 11/20/02)

In her narrative, Fabiana focuses on her husband's emotions, not her own, even though she is in a sense complaining about his lack of engagement with her. She quotes herself asking for help with the housework, but his response is no response at all. She emphasizes his feelings of 'vergüenza (shame or embarrassment)' and his sense of not belonging in the house: Carlos is only comfortable in their room with his possessions or when he is with his friends. Immigration was the solution he found to not having a place of his/their own in Peru, especially after getting laid off from his job at Fabiana's father's company.

However, Carlos faced similar problems of dependency once in the United States:

So then he lived with his sister, so he says it was very difficult for him because he was accustomed in Peru to have his credit cards, to have his driver's license, his salary, and to spend, no? Not exaggeratedly, but at least to give you the little things you like. But to come here and say to someone, "You want a coca cola? You want a soda? OK. I invited you, no? Do you want this?" Or he says, no? that sometimes he had to wait for his sister until five in the afternoon to have lunch with her, no? to eat. His sister says, "if you want I'll leave you some money so you can go out and eat something." "No, better I wait for you." [...] Well, like that, and she had to practically support him (y lo tenía prácticamente que mantener), give him his plane tickets and everything, no? And it was like that for a couple months more or less, until he got a job. (Interview, 11/20/02)

In fact, on arrival in the United States, Carlos found that he had even less autonomy than he had in Peru. He lacked the markers of middle-class manhood such as a credit card and driver's license. In her narrative, Fabiana voices the things that he was no longer able to say, the invitations he was no longer able to offer, now that he was completely dependent on his sister for food and shelter. Although his sister's offer of lunch money is humiliating to him, rejecting that offer means sitting and waiting for her to come home and feed him. His dependence is even more total, because she was the one who had bought his air ticket.

After the end of this excerpt, Fabiana went on to explain that his sister was the one who found him his first job in a fried chicken restaurant. Thus, Fabiana's narrative emphasizes her husband's shame and frustration at ending up in a position of dependence. Carlos eventually found an office job with a money-wiring firm, but still considered himself underemployed. In explaining this, Fabiana finally alludes to the fact that they have similar occupational skills, and additionally face similar linguistic and legal challenges:

He would like another job now, but the problem ... well, it's due to papers. He would like, for example, to work in a company where they speak English and where he'd have to speak English. Because we know how to do things, but in Spanish, no? That is, we have experience with a lot of things, for example, filing letters, that's simple, but there are people who don't know how to do it. [...] So, uh, but it's because of the language. Me too, for example, if I knew the language, I could work no problem as a secretary. [...] Of course, it's easy, it's extremely easy that kind of work. But it's a question of papers (Pero por cuestión de papeles, pues). (Interview, 11/20/02)

Despite the commonalities in the professional backgrounds of Fabiana and her husband Carlos, despite what they shared as undocumented immigrant language learners, it is his feelings of frustration, dependency and downward mobility that she focuses on in her narrative – not her own feelings as she spends weekday evenings and afternoons alone with a toddler in a small apartment. She told me that she was studying English so that she would be able to find an office job when her son started school, but she had little need for English in her daily life in California, and her daily attendance at the CEC may well have been as much for social as linguistic reasons. While gender relations are key, I believe, to understanding Fabiana's experience as a language learner, the effect of gender in her life as a Latin American immigrant woman cannot be seen as restricted to her relationships with her husband and son (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2003). Rather, the gender relations that Fabiana experienced, and that affected her language learning, must be viewed in the larger social and political context in which she was immersed (Watson-Gegeo, 2004). As Villenas and Moreno point out in their study of transnational motherhood, Fabiana's and Carlos's marital difficulties and parenting practices emerged at 'the disjunctures between nationalisms, the states, and the globalized movement of capital and labor' (Villenas & Moreno, 2001: 672). Had the Peruvian economy remained stable during the 1990s, their family life would have developed in different directions, and they may never have needed to learn English.

Peru and the United States

In this section, I explain how I came to understand the larger historical context of Fabiana's narratives of immigration, beyond what she had told me. Canagarajah points to the danger in 'traditional ethnography' of 'treat(ing) the words of informants from the community as sacrosanct' and accepting everything they say as strictly factual. Rather, he argues that it is important to look at the 'larger historical processes and social contradictions' (Canagarajah, 1999: 48) in which a research study is immersed. As Watson-Gegeo explains

Context refers to the whole set of relationships in which a phenomenon is situated ... for an ethnographic description to be adequate, it must cover whole events and behavior in light of both the long-term history of relationships in the immediate setting and the relevant larger historical and institutional processes. (Watson-Gegeo, 1992: 53)

Thus Watson-Gegeo sees context in terms of both community (relationships in the immediate setting) and society (institutional processes), making it clear that both of these domains must be viewed over the long haul, rather than in the 'ethnographic present'.

From the beginning, I conceived this research as critical ethnography and strove to see participants' experiences within a larger context of contemporary US immigration. Also, from very early in the project, I saw participants' life-history narratives as valuable for contextualizing their current experiences of learning. Although gender had not been an initial focus of my research, it was impossible for me to ignore the fact that these narratives were highly gendered. When in early 2008, I decided to rewrite this study as a book, it became clear to me that gender would necessarily be a central theme, as it had been in the articles I had published about this research in the intervening years (e.g. Menard-Warwick, 2004b, 2006a). However, another thing I had done in the four years since finishing my dissertation was to conduct a study on English-language teaching in contemporary Chile (Menard-Warwick, 2008b, 2008c). Though I had met no Chileans at the CEC, my research in Chile offered me a more detailed picture of the sociohistorical context of the Latin American CEC students' emigration experiences, and specifically the neoliberal policies that had imposed political and economic changes across the region in the 1980s and 1990s (Hershberg & Rosen, 2006).

Nowhere in Fabiana's interviews did the word neoliberalism appear in my data, and at the time I interviewed her, it did not cross my mind to wonder why all those Peruvian companies had gone bankrupt in the 1990s. I simply accepted her contention that the economy had gone into steep decline, leading to her family's emigration. By 2008, however, I saw that I could no longer consider my 'ethnographic description (of the CEC students) to be adequate' since I had inadvertently ignored many of 'the relevant larger historical and institutional processes' (cf. Canagarajah, 1999; Watson-Gegeo, 1992: 53) that had led my participants' to relocate in California and invest in English-language learning (Norton, 2000).

While my work with Chilean teachers had taught me the word neoliberalism, I realized that in order to responsibly describe the context for my CEC study, I needed to embark on a literature review of recent Latin American political and economic history. With some guidance from a librarian, I eventually found myself scrolling through the Economist Intelligence Unit database online at my university library. This was an unfamiliar site for an applied linguist, but as I perused year-by-year economic reports written for potential international investors in Peru, I gained new insights into Fabiana's narratives and their historical context (insights reinforced by the other historical reading I was doing). In later chapters, I will fill in some details of how neoliberalism affected the homelands of some of my other participants (Nicaragua and Mexico), but Peru makes a good case study with which to begin.

The immediate roots of neoliberalism's current hegemony in Latin America lie in the 'debt crisis' of the 1980s (Dello Buono & Bell Lara, 2007; Hershberg & Rosen, 2006; McClintock & Vallas, 2003). Like many Latin American governments in the 1970s, the leaders of Peru ran up debts to international institutions, such as the World Bank; in the 1980s, as interest rates rose, economies sank and hyperinflation raged, Peru like other countries fell behind on its payments (Clayton, 1999; McClintock & Vallas, 2003). In 1990, Alberto Fujimori, newly elected president of Peru, was persuaded to adopt the principles of the newly minted Washington Consensus, a policy package named by US economic analyst John Williamson (Center for International Development, 2003), and subsequently promoted by successive US administrations as well as international economic institutions (Hershberg & Rosen, 2006). The neoliberal principles of this widely adopted 'consensus' include fiscal discipline, a redirection of public expenditure priorities, tax reform, interest rate liberalization, a competitive exchange rate, trade liberalization, privatization, deregulation and property rights (Center for International Development, 2003).


Excerpted from "Gendered Identities and Immigrant Language Learning"
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Copyright © 2009 Julia Menard-Warwick.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments, ix,
Preface, xi,
1 The Social Context of Immigrant Language Learning, 1,
2 Second-Language Learning as Gendered Practice, 25,
3 Gendered Narratives of Immigrant Language Learners, 48,
4 The Sociohistorical Construction of Parental Involvement in Education, 76,
5 Gendered Positioning in ESL Classroom Activities, 105,
6 Changing Gender Ideologies in Local Communities, 135,
7 (Gendered) Identities and Language Learning: Continuing the Dialogue, 163,
Notes, 188,
References, 191,
Appendix A, 204,
Appendix B, 205,
Appendix C, 207,
Index, 208,

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