The Infantilisation of Language-Learner Identity

By Christian Griffiths for TransCollaborate.

In a recent post, Julien Leyre wrote about some of the specific challenges that face language learners, especially in the context of migration. Foremost among these is the challenge of “incorporating the new language to your identity, and enacting a persona consistent with your own in the new medium.” Rediscovering a persona in the structures of a new language may be difficult enough, but in some ways the traditional structures of language education make it harder.

Leyre also observes that, when learning a new language …” your adult self [is] trapped in the linguistic body of a 2 year old”. One consequence of this is a tendency towards infantalisation in the ESL classroom, where learners are structurally disadvantaged in the transaction of knowledge sought (by the learner) and knowledge possessed (by the instructor). This disadvantage can become rooted in the learner’s emerging identity, and pose a genuine obstacle to their developing a mature, newly-integrated self. Collaborative translation has the capacity to disrupt this trend. 

In a 2019 series of TransCollaborate workshops, Mandarin speakers collaborated with their native-English instructor to translate short prose texts from Mandarin into English. The instructor had no previous experience of Mandarin, and so the learners were suddenly the ones who possessed the required knowledge – and the instructor who lacked it. What was observed in these workshops was that the learners started exhibiting signs of ownership and authority that had been absent in their earlier classroom interactions. It is clear that bringing their own linguistic and cultural knowledge into the learning space provides learners with an opportunity to shift some of their own adult personas into their developing L2 identity.

A TransCollaborate workshop, Wheeler Centre, 2019

TransCollaborate’s recent VicHealth project has witnessed how this process of learner empowerment can be further supported through engagement with local and national literatures. In our Romanian workshops, for example, we have noticed that a great deal of enthusiasm has arisen when participants have worked with texts by Romanian writers such as Vasile Baghiu, Cosmin Perta and Diana Badica, and have bonded over this connection with their shared culture. In addition, by delivering this literature to a new readership in English, the participants are undertaking the important work of representing their home culture in a new social context. These outcomes represent significant gains for participants whose identities may have struggled to mature in the context of their new language and new home.  


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