Discursive constructions of learner identities as foreign language users

Anne Pitkänen-Huhta

University of Jyväskylä/Research Unit for the Study of Variation, Contacts and Change in English, Finland


In recent years, the English language has become an important linguistic resource for people who do not speak it as their first language. In Finland, young people’s everyday lives are currently saturated with English, but at the same time they are also learners of English in the institutional setting of the school. This paper focuses on Finnish teenagers’ accounts of learning English in their out-of-school lives. The study reported here is part of a larger project on English in Finnish teenagers’ everyday practises. In general terms, our project draws on discursive views of language and literacy, and makes use of methods inspired by ethnographic approaches. The project is based on the general assumption that language and literacy are inherently social and that people make sense of and construct their social realities in discursive practices; people draw on these macro-level social, cultural and historical practices in constructing their identities as micro-level users of language and literacy.

The participants in our study were four girls, aged 14-15 and three boys, aged 15-16. Following ethnographic approaches, we kept sustained contact with these young people for 16 months. In the course of our study we used multiple methods in order to give the participants various possibilities and multimodal means to tackle the complex and abstract phenomenon of language use and language learning. The methods included photographs taken by the participants themselves, visualization tasks, group discussions and individual interviews. The combination of different methods made it possible to approach the meanings attached to English from both micro and macro perspectives. For example, it became evident in the analysis that the local constructions of identities in specific discourse practices indexed the values, attitudes and practices related to English prevalent in Finnish society at large. Moreover, even though the methods used triggered accounts of informal language learning outside the school contexts in particular, the participants were able to unravel the multiple layers of their learner identities in skilfully reflecting over the complex contacts between school (formal) and everyday (informal) learning. Teenagers’ own understandings of these contacts provide useful insights into how their language learner and language user identities are intertwined.

Session: Paper session
Identity 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 12