Language barriers, helplessness and the “new identity” (Part 2)

On the 25th September, I wrote about my experiences of arriving in Palermo, the vibrant capital of Sicily, with virtually no Italian and getting to grips with being a below elementary level language learner again. I also explored the idea of the second language identity, as my experiences made me reconsider the idea of learners having a target language name to use in language lessons (and perhaps mentally when negotiating the target language environment!). You can find that post here. This post is an update!

I had a couple of comments on my initial post, which gave me the idea of asking my learners what *they* think of the idea. This appealed to me because previously I’d only heard the idea of target language learners discussed in terms of ‘giving learners English names’, i.e. the teacher makes the decision and chooses the names. Last night, in my first lesson with my advanced learners, I broached the subject towards the end of the class after we’d done some getting-to-know-you activities and found their response very interesting.

Firstly, to give a bit of context, this was a group of six learners (there should have been more but they were absent!), of whom 50% were comfortably middle aged (two women and one man) and 50% were teenage boys. Quite an interesting demographic for a class (we all thought, it came up in discussion at one point!). Anyway, I started by asking them if they had any experience of being given English names in any of their previous English classes (at IH, at school, at university, wherever they had learnt English before). The answer was a unanimous no. Neither did they know anybody who had been given an English name. I had expected more of a mixture of experience (purely because when I was a British Council language assistant in France, many moons ago, I worked in a few French primary schools and some of the French classroom teachers had given their learners English names for use in English lessons… :-p).

I then asked them if this was something they would be interested in, at this point fully expecting them to say “no” but soldiering on nevertheless because I’d brought up the subject so I had to see it through! However, they unanimously said they would like English names. (I did then explain the reason for bringing it up – i.e. how I’d thought having an Italian name, for learning Italian and helping along my experimentation with Italian words and sounds, might actually be quite a nice idea.) They also asked if I was going to give them English names, but I encouraged them to choose their own. Interestingly (to me), they all chose Anglicised versions of their own names. I say ‘interesting’ because when I thought about having an Italian name, I didn’t then look for the Italian version of ‘Lizzie’ or ‘Elizabeth’ – I looked at a list of Italian girls names, to see if I could find one that appealed. Thinking about it, that’s quite a nice compromise though – you get the other language identity but don’t quite relinquish your own in the process.

Of course, these are advanced learners studying in a non-English-speaking environment so it’s a very different scenario from my own. It’s also a different scenario from what it would be for their lower level counter-parts at this school. Why? Because they already have a strong command of the language. Nevertheless, they are interested and have chosen their names, so next lesson I must remember to use these English names and will be interested to see it how it goes and what they make of it all as the course progresses. I wonder if they will use their English names when (if?!) they use the class blog I have set up for them: they will all have access to it using a single user-name and password, so they will need to put their name in the title line to identify their posts as their own.  I haven’t broached the subject with any of my other classes yet – mostly because I forgot! – but may do in the next couple of weeks. It will be interesting to compare different classes’ (different ages, levels etc.) responses to the idea.

As for my Italian persona, well, I’ve dabbled. I haven’t fixed on a name but the concept of trying to be Italian, I have used a bit – for extra spoonfuls of confidence! And at least I can now manage with ordering food and drink, rather than running away empty-handed: progress!

Finally, my questions from the initial post still stand:

  • 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?

I really would be interested to know! 🙂

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One thought on “Language barriers, helplessness and the “new identity” (Part 2)

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

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