Second language proficiency and identity construction: evidence from personal narratives

Rasinger, Sebastian M.

Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom


In this paper, we analyse the relationship between L2 proficiency and usage, and ethnic identity from a qualitative angle, using a poststructural framework as proposed by Pavlenko and Blackledge (2004), and, more specifically, methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (Blommaert, 2005; Fairclough, 1988; 1992).

Over the last decade, research on second language acquisition (SLA) has started to acknowledge the influence of social factors on the acquisition process, and research has increasingly focused on the impact learner-external factors have onto this process. Birdsong and Molis (2001) in their discussion of a Critical Period in L2 acquisition suggest that exogenous, that is, social factors may also have a considerable impact; similarly, Moyer (2004) and Rasinger (2007; forthcoming) have illustrated the substantial contribution socio-cultural factors play in the acquisition of a second language, particularly in migration contexts where the L2 is acquired in the target-language country. Even earlier, Schumann’s (1978) Acculturation Model provided a first systematic attempt to integrate social factors into a model of SLA – particularly geared towards SLA in migrant groups. Other research has increasingly focused on the issue of (ethnic) identity and its impact on L2 acquisition in immigrant settings. Svanes (1988) established a clear link between cultural distance and L2 skills; similarly, Gatboton et al (2005) suggest a relationship between ethnic group affiliation and L2 pronunciation accuracy. The majority of studies are quantitative in nature.

Personal narratives were collected from 6 Bangladeshi migrants living in London’s East End, all of whom have English as their L2, through semi-structured interviews. Respondents had been living in Britain for between 2 and 20 years; all respondents are post-pubescent immigrants and L2 English speakers. In addition, data from two respondents who arrived in Britain at the age of 6 and 8 years, respectively, was analysed. All respondents showed different levels of spoken English language proficiency, measured by means of a proficiency score as discussed in Unsworth (2002) and Rasinger (2007).

The analysis shows that across the sample, the issue L2 proficiency is closely linked to both ingroup and outgroup attitudes and perceptions. More specifically, two recurring themes can be identified throughout the data-set. First, L2 proficiency, or lack thereof, is perceived negatively by all respondents (‘I like the English language but not speaking very good.’), clearly highlighting the second language as a social or cultural ‘capital’ (Bourdieu, 1991). Second, close-knit Bangladeshi networks in the borough (see, e.g., Eade et al 1996) receive considerably negative evaluation, in particular with regard to lack of interaction with other ethnic groups (‘This area is too much Bengali. […] No English friend.’). Yet, ‘Bangladeshi-ness’ as a social practice is clearly distinguished from language use: ‘What does integration mean, and what does assimilation mean? […] I would integrate with my own identity, I should not compromise with my identity.’.

We suggest that SLA entails the acquisition of L2 as a social practice (Gatbonton et al., 2005), and that L2ers negotiate ‘diverse identity options’ (Pavlenko and Blackledge, 2004), leading to a complex interplay between proficiency and identity.

Session: Paper session
Various Topics
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 13