We somehow survive: English language learning, social cohesion and questions of identity.

Author:Ray, Smita


Issue: 2016(2).

This article was published on: 16 Jan, 2017.

Keywords: Gujarati women, Social Class, Identity, ESOL, Second Language Learning, SLA.


Second language learning involves affective factors such as interactions with the dominant linguistic and cultural group, and related problems of self-concept, identity, and self-esteem. Substantial attention has not been paid to these categories in the field of earlier studies of second language acquisition. In recent years however, there has been increasing research on the relationship between second language learning and the question of identity. The lives of immigrant women, particularly of ethnic minority, may be complicated not only by gendered and systematic inequalities but also cultural conflicts which makes them struggle to define and redefine their identity. It is important to raise awareness of perceptions of immigrant women learning and speaking the language of the host community as their experiences intersect with race, gender and class, and contribute to their identity formations. Drawing on the poststructuralist notion of identity as "multiple, changing, and a site of struggle" (Norton and Toohey 2011, p. 412 Butler 1990; Weedon 1997, p.21) and Norton's (1997) work on identity and investment, this paper examines the relationship between the process of learning English as a second language and social class, and analyses the construction gender identity of Gujarati women upon migration to the UK. It further underlines how the inability to speak English for migrant women is further complicated by inequities brought about by classed structures, private/public patriarchy and processes of 'othering'. External life experiences and personal relationships are integrally linked to linguistic confidence and identity formation/subjectivities. This study aims to understand from a sociolinguistic perspective the dynamics of Gujarati women's identities across different migrations and patterns of settlements in the UK.


There have been very many changes in the policy for English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision in the UK over the past few years. It is known that historically, policy towards ESOL provision has been rather stringent and isolated from other provision for adult education (Hamilton and Merrifield 2000). Current and further proposed cuts in funding for ESOL are likely to disproportionately impact on women. This paper argues that it is important to understand the impact of social class and gender on the lives of marginalised immigrant women where they intersect with the process of language learning, while planning for their futures with a view of social cohesion.

This research topic is the outcome of my personal experiences of teaching English as a second language in London over the period of last ten years. In the Indian subcontinent, it is generally believed that diasporic populations have a better status, are economically and socially better off, and undoubtedly possess fluency in English language. As an economic migrant to the UK, I myself held somewhat similar view of the South Asian community settled abroad. It was only after arriving in the UK that I realised the gendered experiences of South Asian women in Britain, as Brah (1996), Anthias and Yuval-Davis (1992) and Wilson (2006) have noted, are bound up with differentiation as to, for example, race, class, and region of origin. Being an Indian woman myself, I was aware of the source of social and cultural constraints these migrant women might have had to deal with; yet, I found it ironic that many of these women had to spend their entire life living in a developed country like Britain without actually being able to learn English. On the other hand, I was also familiar with the collective and individual struggle of South Asian women to resist the power exerted by racialized and patriarchal relations within the context of British society through the academic work of Brah (1996), Yuval-Davis (1992), Shain (2013), Thakar (2003) and Mirza (1997). I particularly found the new discourses challenging earlier invisibilities and representations of South Asian women interesting and decided to focus on their language learning experiences and shifting identities, keeping in mind the limited availability of research in this field.

It is a general view that language learning is beneficial for society and the individual; however, according to Leathwood (2006, p.44), although this is presented as the logical choice for individuals, there is no acknowledgment of the ways in which the choice-making individual of neo-liberal economic policy is a gendered, classed and racialized one. Leathwood (2006) explains how the policy discourse surrounding language learning is constructed in a way that the learner has to take full responsibility for their own learning. The ESOL provision in the UK originally started as a service by volunteers and was influenced over the years by various government legislation (Hamilton and Merrifield, 2000). This provision was not included in the 1975 Right to Read literacy campaign, which shows how bilingual speakers of ethnic minority were totally invisible in the eyes of the policy makers. Shain (2013) argues that the social mobility has been declining in the UK over the past few decades which has led to further structural inequalities. The current funding cuts in ESOL provision, reflect the neo-liberal shift away from state responsibility to that of the individual in a market economy. They imply that individuals, i.e. ESOL learners in this case, are expected to adapt to these 'new times'. This research shows how ESOL provision is critically important to the UK as a tool to secure social inclusion.

This paper is structured as follows: Firstly, I will briefly review research in feminist poststructuralist approaches to identity and second language learning followed by methodology before concluding with the findings of the research.


    It is vital to understand the relevance of psycholinguistic theories of Second Language Acquisition before discussing the literature this research is drawing on. According to traditional Second Language Acquisition theorists, the inability to speak a second language results from lack of motivation, affective filtering, or socialisation (Krashen 1985) (1). However, Norton (2000) through her research on immigrant Canadian women, established 'identity' as another variable operative in the language learning process. She establishes that where social distance between the second language group and target language group is wide, the second language group struggles to become proficient speakers of the target language.

    Bourdieu (1991) discussed social position in relation to language use. The use or production of language is directly related to the speaker's position in society. Speakers lacking the legitimate competence are de facto excluded from the social domains in which this competence is required, or are condemned to silence (Bourdieu 1991). This "linguistic capital" demonstrates a clear affinity between linguistic capital and material wealth, both of which are distributed unequally and depend on the location and the position of the individuals in society.

    Similarly, according to Weedon (1987, p.21) language is the place where actual and possible forms of social organization and their likely social and political consequences are defined and contested. Yet it is also the place where our sense of ourselves, our subjectivity, is constructed. Thus subjectivity consists of "an individual's conscious and unconscious sense of self, emotions and desires" (Weedon 2004, p.18). However, individuals are not the authors of their subjectivity, as this is imposed on them by their social context, and the relationship between an individual's subjectivity and her 'self' is therefore imaginary. Ideological state apparatuses, "such as religion, education, the family, the law, politics, culture and the media produce the ideologies within which we assume identities and become subjects" (Weedon 2004, p.6).

    It is the notion of agency that holds the key to know how an individual constantly renegotiates positions while moving through wide ranges of available discourses (Davies 1990, Weedon 1987). Lantolf and Pavlenko (2001) further define agency as "a relationship that is constantly co-constructed and renegotiated with those around the individual and with the society at large" (p. 148) and infer that agency is connected to the power relations in discourse and is related to society's system of stratification. Higgins (2011) has also demonstrated that much scholarship on language learning often references a target community, a term that refers to the idea of a mostly cohesive group of people who speak a (standard) language in relatively homogeneous ways, and whose cultural practices are likely to differ significantly from those who study the target language of that community. However, these assumptions underlying the visions of language learners and the communities in which they use their additional languages do not relate well to the contexts of actual usage of second language, at times referred to as L2. Adult immigrants, such as the participants in the present research often experience social exclusion as well (Norton 2000), and, in spite of living in the 'target community' many immigrants often struggle to find opportunities to use their second language in interactionally rich environments (Warriner 2007). In order to problematize the language learning in the 'target community' another important strand of identity research, i.e. a post-structuralist approach, is taken into consideration to theorize how second language users develop a sense of self through finding their voice in their second language (Norton & Toohey 2004).

    Rather than creating fixed identities for learners, including the identification of a...

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