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Conflict and Self-Identification in the L2 Classroom

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Conflict and Self-Identification
In this exploratory research project, I set out to investigate the relationship between classroom tasks and self-identification: does the learner redefine herself in order to access the L2 discourse? Does the classroom allow her to? What purpose does self-definition serve? In several studies I found, students did not feel that they identified with the target language, and those who did fell in and out of favor with the target language as they struggled to figure out their position between discourse communities. This type of struggle and lack of clearly measurable improvement is frequently viewed as a classroom failure. For example, as we have discussed in class, interpretations of a text that deviate from the “authoritative” interpretation are considered failed attempts even though reader response theory sustains that students read texts against their L1-mediated life experiences. It would seem that some sort of conflict between what is expected and what the learner brings to the table is a site for learning. Therefore, teacher emphasis on language as a tool to mediate an “identity crisis” may actually discourage students from identifying with the target language. The teacher is in danger of providing an “identity solution” of accommodation or acculturation (Lu 1992). Since to some extent the goal of reading and writing classrooms is have students actively redefine their identity position both as a learner and as a person in the world through critical reading, teachers must be wary of prescribing L2 identity categories for students in the process. Borrowing from Lu (1992), perhaps a way forward is to view conflict as the new status quo, where writing is a sort of coping process to be able to understand the agency of the self to adopt, restrain, and transform different discourses within a given discourse community. I will first analyze examples of teaching practices that highlight the need for such an approach, then I will discuss pedagogical suggestions.
Prescriptive Practices Stifle Self-Identification Learner identity emerges as a crucial factor in L2 identification in a tertiary Arabic classroom that Cruikshank was a participant-investigator in (2012). The teacher of this class considered Modern Standard Arabic as correct and looked down upon Lebanese varieties. Students who had background knowledge of another variety felt their community or spousal ties were not honored, and those in cross-cultural marriages were the first to drop out because they were attempting to learn a language that “did not exist” in their realities (Cruikshank 2012, p. 179). By elevating MSA to a position of linguistic privilege, the teacher prevented the Lebanese students from self-defining as Arabic learners. Validating other varieties of Arabic may have allowed students to grapple with issues of linguistic privilege personal to them, opening the door for them to define for themselves what it means to be a user of Arabic.
I interpret Griswold (2011)’s discursive analysis of an ESL citizenship class in much the same way. The teacher focuses feedback heavily on grammatical and phonological accuracy and tells students during lecture what they will and will not be tested on during the naturalization exam. It is clear that this class is geared towards navigating the tightly constructed “hurdles” of the citizenship exam itself, which is valid end goal for many students. However, if the goal is to equip students to be active citizens in the civic process, then the class is inadequate - most citizenship test standards are arbitrary, resting on political agendas that venerate the U.S. English monolingual and view bilingualism as a “temporary and unwelcome state” (Griswold 2011, p. 408). By teaching to the (rather low) expectations of test, the citizenship class implicitly supports this ideology. It not allow students to carve out their own political level of participation that may or may not involve the L2. The teacher plays a crucial role in opening the door to student self-identification, since classroom correction is “grounded in the teachers’ underlying beliefs about the social and cultural functions of language, its learnability, its desirable and desired forms, and its communicative use” (Griswold 2011, p. 416).
The Problem The apparent problem that emerges from the above studies is the prescriptive nature of the class that projects identity categories for the students to struggle toward, rather than allowing them to forge their own through struggling within the classroom. In the case of the Arabic class, the students are told to learn MSA in order to access the L2, thereby constructing a false binary between primary and secondary discourse. Under such a binary, which Min-Zhan Lu (1989) likens to dress, the schoolgoer puts on their “secondary discourse suit” to use conventions of the university, then goes home and changes into the “primary discourse sweatpants,” employing the language of friends and family. It is not just language and conventions that are relegated to separate arenas, but also the ideological basis on which the language rests. When ideologies are segregated and not allowed to dialogue with each other, the self finds itself in conflict shifting back and forth between discourse environments. Ideologies are allowed to polarize in their separate cubicles. Perhaps the goal is not to resolve this conflict, as it might not ever be resolved. Students who try to resolve it and fail might feel frustrated and unmotivated to use English because they do not see reading and writing as emancipatory.
Pedagogical Suggestions
We need to create classroom discourse that is not like an outfit to be put on before entering and taken off after leaving. This discourse needs to be backpacks – heavy things that you carry around with you, sometimes two or more at a time, that weigh you down but that you unpack in the company of others. The classroom can be a space to engage with discourse conflicts as people grow and change, with the knowledge that it is a constant conversation to be reckoned with.
Making critical topics like linguistic privilege explicit is one way to open the door to self-definition, but it is not always enough. In Huang (2011)’s study of a Taiwanese ESL class that read EFL textbooks and various teen magazine advertisements, students adopted English as a critical instrument but it is unclear whether they later saw themselves as critical English users. One student in particular “constructed a version of herself that is at once overlapping but also separate from the ideal reader which the teen magazines construct” (19). She is able to note her conflicting position as someone who identifies with the message and audience of the advertisements yet finds deep faults with the text. However, Huang concludes that critical practices remained “an understanding reserved for intellectual exercises within the classroom” (159).
For students to generalize classroom practices to their life practices, teachers should be sensitive to issues of linguistic privilege, especially when teaching listening and speaking. Making topics like linguistic privilege or discourse privilege the topic of instruction can be one way to “permit students to define their needs in relation to the culture [of the classroom/academy/mainstream discourse] rather than rejecting it for them (Kriegel 1969, p. 180, as cited in Lu 1992, p.901). Freewriting and rewriting are process-oriented practices that allow students the space to redefine themselves as they grapple with new ideas and decide to what extent they are adopting a new culture or language in the L2 classroom. In doing so, teachers can allow students to use lexis or conventions from another discourse in their writing, as it presents an opportunity to discuss how and when to conform to discourse expectations. It would also present an opportunity to examine style/voice in different genres of writing, giving them the agency to use both descriptive language and detached, objective language where appropriate.

Cruickshank, K. (2012). Constructions of language and learner identity in the classroom: confessions of a failure. Australian Review of Applied Linguistics, 35(2), 170-182.
Huang, S. (2011). "critical literacy helps wipe away the dirt on our glasses": Towards an understanding of reading as ideological practice. English Teaching-practice and Critique, 10(1), 140-164.

Griswold, O. (2011). The english you need to know: Language ideology in a citizenship classroom. Linguistics and Education: An International Research Journal, 22(4), 406-418.
Lu, M. (1987). From silence to words: Writing as struggle. College English, 49(4), 437-448.
Lu, M. (1992). Conflict and struggle: The enemies or preconditions of basic writing? College English, 54(8), 887.

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