Identity and the Young English Language Learner

Identity and the Young English Language Learner

by Elaine Day

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853595974
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 09/05/2002
Series: Bilingual Education & Bilingualism Series , #36
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Elaine Day is a Research Associate at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada). She is co-author of the book Studies in Immersion Education published by Multilingual Matters. Currently she is studying the language socialization experiences of minority language and French immersion children in late elementary school and is a member of the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network.

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In recent years, there has been increasing discussion of the need for the researcher to be reflexive, to declare her investment and interest in the research. The researcher's personal biography cannot remain disassociated from the research; the period in which that research takes place, the researcher's social location and her access to theories play key roles in motivating and framing the research (Skeggs, 1995). Hence, I begin this work with a brief personal introduction.

I am the child of Greek parents who immigrated from Greece to the United States before World War II and settled in the city of Boston in the north-eastern United States. Greek was the language we spoke at home. I do not know whether I would have been classified as an 'ESL child' in the sense of knowing little English upon entering kindergarten. I do not think so, as I had older siblings who spoke English; however, I certainly would have been classified as a 'minority language child'; that is, a child coming from a home in which the family used a language other than English.

My learning our home language, Greek, was very important to my family. Hence, during the elementary school years I attended Greek school twice a week after school. Religion also played an important part in our lives, and I attended church and Sunday school weekly at the Greek Orthodox Church. This situation meant that I had at least three peer social networks, two of which (Greek and Sunday school) overlapped, and one of which (the public school) did not.

I remember as far back as my kindergarten days sensing that there were differences between my family and those of my classmates, most of whom were Irish Catholic. Although we sometimes played in one another's homes, where whatever differences existed might have become obvious, I can remember being careful to hide some aspects of my Greek identity from my 'American school' friends. I would not, for example, tell them that I spoke Greek or went to Greek school, and I managed to escape (a verb that describes my feelings at the time) doing so until I was about ten years old.

At that age, four or five of my 'American school' friends and I had decided to form a club which would meet weekly in our homes. One of the two meeting days proposed was a Greek school day; I remember struggling over whether I should tell my friends the real reason I could not meet on that day or whether I should make up some excuse. I decided on the former and came later to look on this act of identity as a critical turning point in my life.

Like most North American school children, I did not receive in elementary school any encouragement or praise for learning my home language. Gutierrez and Larson's (1994) description of Latino children in California leaving their 'maletas' behind when they entered school accords with my own experience. However, in my secondary school, an academically oriented girls' school drawing from the entire urban population and therefore quite diverse in terms of the students' sociocultural backgrounds, some of my teachers positively reinforced those of us who came from immigrant backgrounds and could speak other languages. I remember liking this at the time and I think that this positive recognition made a difference to my perceptions of who I was.

Not until I carried out the observations for the present study of English language learners had I ever personally questioned or confronted the fact that my home language and bilingual skills were not recognized in my elementary school years. One day at around the time of Chinese New Year, one little girl from a Chinese home background had drawn two Chinese characters, which the teacher posted on the bulletin board. I wrote in my field notes and explored in my journal:

Sarah so pleased about her Chinese characters. My moment of consciousness! I was so pleased with the recognition we got in high school about speaking our home languages. But now I see: No one ever recognized in elementary school that I could write Greek! (February 1997).

Bourdieu (1991) uses the term 'symbolic domination' to refer to 'the ability of certain social groups to maintain control over others by establishing their view of reality and their cultural practices as the most valued, and, perhaps more importantly, as the norm' (Heller, 1995: 373). The neglect and denial of children's home languages was and continues to be a very emotional issue for me. Perhaps because I was afraid that my emotions would intrude too much, I did not take up the issue of home language recognition fully in this work, though I have done so elsewhere (Dagenais & Day, 1998, 1999).

I have always loved languages and studied them avidly, both at school and through self-study and travel. As an undergraduate at Harvard-Radcliffe, I majored in Ancient Greek and Latin and then taught Latin and English in secondary school in Massachusetts. When I later moved to British Columbia, I did a Master's degree in French linguistics at Simon Fraser University and also taught French there. Out of personal background and interest, I have always believed in the benefits of learning languages and have had an enduring interest in and commitment to second language education, in my personal life, as an advocate in my own community, and in my professional life, a large part of which has been devoted to research into French immersion education.

Starting in the late 1970s and continuing until the early 1990s, I worked in a research unit devoted to French language education, based at Simon Fraser University. There, I collaborated with my colleague, Stan Shapson, and others on a wide variety of studies on French immersion, covering the areas of evaluation and assessment, curriculum and instruction, and teacher education. Much of our work was for school districts and government agencies in the days when the Canadian French immersion program was experimental and when bilingualism carried negative associations in the eyes of the general public. My experience in this context was with research as practice, in that the questions we asked were to a certain extent determined by and accountable to a whole network of groups and individuals, both in the public at large and in the educational system, who were concerned with determining the French immersion program's effectiveness, its suitability for different students, and areas where it needed change and improvement.

We used a range of research methodologies and approaches, including experimental, survey, case study, and other qualitative approaches (see Day & Shapson, 1996). As Cumming (1994) points out:

decisions to utilize any one research orientation ... pose a unique, contextually based set of decisions requiring careful consideration of the orientation to research itself, the situation and resources at hand, and the purposes to be achieved (p. 697).

Through work in French immersion teacher education, in particular, I became more familiar with the philosophic orientation underlying research under the broad rubric of 'naturalism' (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983), and my work became increasingly oriented that way. In addition, more recent qualitative studies in which we observed classrooms also forced me to face issues in doing qualitative research, including grappling with issues of power relations and of taking a visualist stance on other people and representing them through text. These I consider very problematic; although I had hoped that I could somehow overcome them, I cannot claim to have done so in this work.

Contemporary researchers discuss many sources of influence on their research, such as their personal experiences, cultural ideologies and philosophical and ethical commitments. The intellectual biography of the researcher influences the research and has to be openly acknowledged (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984). Before undertaking this study, I had read some ethnographic work on bilingual programs in the United States (e.g., Saravia-Shore & Arvizu, 1992) in connection with a study of French immersion children with home languages other than English or French, on which I was collaborating with Diane Dagenais (Dagenais & Day, 1998, 1999). These readings dovetailed nicely with some of the readings I was doing on sociocultural and poststructural theories in connection with my doctoral studies in second language education.

Thus, when Kelleen Toohey, my senior supervisor, received funding in 1996 to continue her ethnographic project on English language learners and asked me if I was interested in joining, I gladly accepted because I wanted to work with the sociocultural research perspectives I was reading about and in an area (English language learning) different from the one in which I had worked before. I also joined for pragmatic reasons (this project already had secure funding and an administrative structure established) and for social ones (Kelly was a person I felt I could trust and with whom I could have a collegial research relationship such as the one I had been used to). A more fundamental consideration related to values. One day, Kelly told me about some of her experiences in her research project and her conviction of its importance, saying of the English language learners she had been studying: 'No one speaks for them.' Her emotional tone of conviction and commitment convinced me that hers was a project on which I would want to work. This conviction, and our shared interests in broader philosophical issues related to the individualizing of children in schools and in alternative perspectives proposed by philosophers (Taylor, 1989), researchers (Lave, 1996; McDermott, 1993) and educators (Paley, 1992), inspired the research that led to this book.

The Project

The ethnographic project from which this research draws follows two cohorts of English language learners enrolled in mainstream Canadian primary classrooms from kindergarten through Grade 2. Kelly Toohey, the director, initiated the project in 1994, with the purposes of documenting the school experiences over time of several children learning English as a second language, specifically investigating classroom activities and practices and how these create possibilities for engagement in particular kinds of conversations (Toohey, 2000).

The project was conducted in an elementary school in a rapidly growing suburb close to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada's most western province. It included weekly observations of two cohorts of children in their classrooms, monthly videotaping, document collection, teacher interviews, and interviews with the families and children in their homes. The first cohort of six children (three boys, three girls) was observed from the beginning of kindergarten to the end of Grade 2 (1994 to 1997). The second cohort of five children (one boy, four girls) was observed in kindergarten and in Grade 1 (1996 to 1998). The children's home language backgrounds are Chinese, Polish, and Punjabi.

I joined the project in September 1996, when the first cohort (Cohort 1) was beginning Grade 2 and the second cohort (Cohort 2) kindergarten. Another researcher, Sarah Yip, also joined the project at that time. Sarah and I worked with Kelly as a research team, conducting observations in both cohorts, but I assumed major responsibility for the observations of the Cohort 2 children in kindergarten and continued my observations of them through Grade 1.

Kelly's study (Toohey, 2000) of Cohort 1 followed the six children from kindergarten through Grade 2, focusing on: (a) identity practices in kindergarten; (b) physical, material and intellectual resource distribution practices in Grade 1; and (c) instructional practices in Grade 2. My study, which draws from data on the Cohort 2 children while in kindergarten, follows the learning trajectory of one child, a Punjabi-speaking boy to whom I give the pseudonym Hari, over the course of one year in the context of his relations with others in his classroom. My study centrally concerns identity practices and their effects on access to language. My personal background as a 'minority language child' undoubtedly drove me to probe into the lived experience of one child alone as it concerned these topics.


Although Kelly (Toohey, 2000) and I both deal with similar issues, we have somewhat different foci. With respect to the question of access, Kelly concentrates on teacher practices that regulate children's access to material, linguistic, social and other mediating resources, whereas I concentrate on the dynamics of classroom relationships. With respect to identity practices, she uses a social construction analysis to show how specific kinds of students (e.g., 'ESL') are constructed through labeling, evaluation, and ranking practices. I bring together sociocultural and poststructural approaches to probe into the relation between individual and social processes, exploring a current dilemma in the conceptualization of the social human person aptly expressed by Lemke (1995) as:

how to have an active, creative human subject which constructs social meanings, at the same time that this subject itself must be a social construction (quoted in John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996: 196).


In Chapter 2, I describe the theoretical framework for the study, which includes Bakhtin's (1981, 1984a,b, 1986) and Vygotsky's (1978, 1986) theories on language and learning, the work of contemporary sociocultural theorists on situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and poststructural theories on identity (Henriques et al., 1984; Weedon, 1987); I also summarize recent ethnographic literature related to my work. In Chapter 3, I provide a brief account of how I conducted the study. In Chapter 4, I present background and contextual information on Hari's school, teacher, and classroom and on Hari himself, describing how he made use of his home language and his English and the changes I observed over the year. In the subsequent chapters, I explore the intimate connection between learning, identity, and social membership by examining Hari's relationships with his peers and teacher, using themes derived from my theoretical framework. These themes include social relations, participation, positioning, appropriation, and identification.

In Chapter 5, I first examine Hari's relationship with Kevin, one of the children with whom Hari affiliated in the beginning months of the school year. In the second section, I examine how Hari participates with the larger sub-group of children of which the two boys were a part. I also examine the identities he displays in different social networks and in different oral practices. In the last section, I analyze power relations and positioning practices to show the kinds of identities on offer to Hari and to help understand the kinds of participation I observed. I also examine strategies Hari uses in responding to the positions assigned to him and how he negotiates a more powerful identity.

In Chapter 6, I trace the development of Hari's relationship with Casey, a boy who was a newcomer to the class in late January. As in Chapter 5, I analyze social and political aspects of their relationship, but I focus more closely on questions of identity and language appropriation, showing the kinds of positions on offer to Hari, the identities available to him and how these affected his possibilities for appropriating language.

In Chapter 7, I examine Hari's relationship and interactions with his teacher, Mrs Clark. In the first section, I focus on Hari's participation in circle activities. In the second section, I examine the teacher's discourse, revealing her construction of Hari and his positioning as student. In the final section, I suggest that Hari plays his own role in maintaining and enhancing the position offered to him by the teacher. The final chapter (Chapter 8) contains a summary discussion, conclusions, and practical and theoretical implications. Overall, I stress the importance of social relationships in learning, highlighting both power and affective dynamics in these relationships and their unconscious as well as conscious dimensions.


Theory and Literature

I have tried elsewhere to draw attention to the hegemony of the view that learning is a matter of an increase in or reorganization of knowledge. ... This dominant concern with epistemological issues precludes any reference to changes in practice or changes in being ...

(Packer, 1993: 264)

Indirectly, the Cartesian assumption of the separateness of mind and body and of self and other underlies most twentieth-century linguistics and mainstream second language acquisition (SLA) research (Marková & Foppa, 1990). More particularly, the assumptions underlying SLA research derive from a conceptualization of language developed by the Swiss philologist and linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, whose work forms the basis for much of twentieth-century linguistic thought. Saussure aimed to establish language study as a science; to do so, he posited 'an object of study given in advance of scientific investigation, in other words, a reality existing independently of its study and free from human beliefs, intentions, and feelings' (Dunn & Lantolf, 1998: 425). This object of study, 'langue,' constituted a rule-governed closed system of signs to be studied separately from 'parole,' or language as social practice, which Saussure considered unsystematic and not amenable to scientific investigation. Saussure also gave precedence to the contemporary rather than historical study of language ('synchrony' as opposed to 'diachrony').


Excerpted from "Identity and the Young English Language Learner"
by .
Copyright © 2002 Elaine Mellen Day.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

The Project4
2Theory and Literature8
Mainstream SLA Research9
Language as Dialogic10
Learning as Social12
Contemporary Sociocultural Perspectives13
Ethnographic Research20
Recent Ethnographic Studies22
The Present Study25
Data Collection28
Ethics and Power Relations32
4Hari: His School, Teacher and Classroom and Language at Home and at School35
Hari's Community and School36
Hari's Teacher37
Hari's Classroom39
Hari in School43
Use of Home Language44
Hari's Use of English49
5Hari and his Classmates55
Social Relations55
Politics and Positioning65
6Hari and Casey, a Newcomer73
Social Relations74
7Hari and his Teacher90
Implications for Research110
Implications for Classrooms112
Limitations of the Study115
Final Comments116
AppendixTranscription Conventions128

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