Language barriers, helplessness and the “new identity”

Yesterday, I arrived in Palermo to start my new job at the International House here. I’ve never worked for an International House before but so far I am hugely impressed with how organised, helpful and supportive they have been (since I had the interview and was offered the job, up until now). Our induction timetable is truly a thing of beauty!!

Help is always good, but never more so than when you are in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak. My Italian is virtually non-existent so I am back to being a language learner – of the less than elementary variety! Back to being reminded just how difficult it can be to do something as basic as go into a cafe/bar and ask for some food/drink. Nothing is straight-forward, nothing is easy, everything is very tiring and daunting. I’ve done it before so I know the feeling but it’s easy to forget once you are over the language barrier and can function relatively normally.

I went into a food bar today, thinking I would pick up a slice of pizza. I went in and stood by the counter. A few minutes later, when nothing had happened and I didn’t have the guts to try and marshall the very simple language necessary to make something happen, I walked out again, feeling quite frustrated with myself. I shouldn’t be this helpless! But it’s daunting to open your mouth when you aren’t quite sure what will come out of it and what will be the result…  However, I also learnt a bit of Italian from an Italian and really enjoyed trying to say it and sound as Italian as possible! I think I was able to do that because it was a non-threatening situation and someone was telling me the words to say. And in those moments, I could imagine an Italian identity for myself – being this confident person able to speak Italian rather than helplessly clam up. Reflecting on that, I thought it would be quite fun to have Italian lessons, which included being given an Italian name to use during those lessons. To cultivate this Italian identity. Not that this identity would be a ‘not me’, but more a space to play with the language in, to experiment freely with sounds and words and gestures.

The funny thing is, I’ve always been quite anti- the idea of giving learners (of English) English names. But maybe instead of ‘giving learners different (English) names’, one could ask them if they’d like different (English) names and let them choose the names. I imagine it’s one of those horses for courses/marmite things – some would love it, some would hate it. I’m playing with the idea of experimenting, creating my own little Italian persona and using it as I try and learn. I’ve got a ‘survival Italian’ class on Friday, so maybe I will do it then – even if only *I* know about it! Maybe it’s something like creating a mental space for myself to get acquainted with the language, to develop some confidence in opening my mouth and asking for something instead of beetling off with my tail between my legs…

Anyway, now I’m very interested to know:

  • Have you given or encouraged your learners to choose different names/cultivate a second language identity before?
  • How did you do it?
  • How did it work out?
  • Also, what was your context? (Were you in the target language country or in the learners’ own country?)
  • Alternatively, have you ever tried adopting a ‘new identity’ of any description before, in learning a foreign language?
  • Ever taken on a different name for your language lessons?
  • Have you ever used any materials (as teacher or learner) that exploit the whole ‘second language identity’ thing? If so, which ones and how did you find them?

And what are your thoughts on this whole issue generally? Answers on a postcard, please!! (aka the comment box below) 🙂


8 thoughts on “Language barriers, helplessness and the “new identity”

  1. I’ve kind of had similar issues with the who English name thing. But I like the idea of offering the students an “alter ego” so to speak. A way to have a different persona in the classroom and take a few chances and step out of who they are in the real world.

    • Yes, exactly a way to step out of the pressure of the mismatch between what your mouth can do in the target language and who you are in your main language. 🙂

  2. I’ve had different experiences with this, but the most curious was when teaching YLs in Spain who had come from different schools. Some told me an English version of their name, which they used with their schoolteacher, and others didn’t. They also had differing opinions about whether to name me Caroline or the more Spanish-sounding Carolina, and – in the way only 7-year-olds can – decided that because I was English and teaching English, my name should remain English too!

    P.S. I taught at IH Palermo this year too. I loved the pub nights with students, a great way to debate life, love and everything over a beer! Hope you enjoy it!

    • That’s really interesting! Now I think what I will do is ask each of my classes if they have used English names before and what they think of the idea (whether they have or haven’t) – I bet some really interesting answers will emerge…
      Pub nights sound good. I’m looking forward to getting started – induction proper begins on Friday. Tomorrow is more flat hunting but a morning off first. I suspect I will be doing a bit of Italian study…. 😉
      Thanks v much for sharing your experiences!

  3. Pingback: Language barriers, helplessness and the “new identity” (Part 2) | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

  4. Pingback: Being an Elementary language learner again… | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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