Learning a second language is both challenging and rewarding. A language is an essential tool that is used by learners to shape their conversations while also helping them understand who they are as people and how they view the process of learning and the world around them. Because of this, it is crucial to consider the vast impact that second-language learning would have on individuals, especially in the context of its influence on identity. The aim of this paper is to explore the impact of English language learning on the identity of its non-native speakers. The ways in which identity would vary from one learner to another, depending on the past experiences, repeated occurrences, interactions within the language acquisition frameworks, as well as the extent to which previous cultural, socioeconomic, ethnic, gender, and other values influenced their identity.
Identity Shaping within the Language Context
Identity is usually conceptualized through the essentialist and non-essentialist perspectives. Within the essentialist framework, identity refers to something associated with a person’s self; it is something stable and singular. Within a non-essentialist view, identity is continuously changing, it is fluid and evolving, thus shifting depending on the qualities of the environment (Anbreen, 2015). Therefore, the current exploration will address the concept of identity in regard to the non-essentialist framework. In language learning acquisition, the context within which individuals learn or interact changes as language is directly associated to the culture with which it is associated. The politics of location, as suggested by Anbreen (2015), also plays an important role within language learning context as related to postcolonial societies where English exists within vernacular languages, with the identities of learners being hybrid and fluid. Therefore, identity shaping in the language learning contextwill be reflected in the juxtaposition of the native and second language culture. As the English language is attributed to Western cultures, juxtaposing it to Eastern cultures, with completely different sets of values and beliefs, there would be an inevitable change in values as influenced by the introduction of a new language and associated values.
Ways of Identity Change
Since identity is viewed from the perspective of non-essentialism, it is expected to be highly fluid and changing based on the environment. According to the findings of the study by Anbreen (2015), identity can change in the context of language acquisition in various ways. For example, self-confidence can change due to English language learning as it is considered to be the language that gives individuals power and flexibility in the local culture. The self-confidence aspect of self-identity improves because learners begin to identify themselves with the developed English-speaking world. This shows that English language acquisition would have a positive impact on the self-perceptions of learners as they gain power and confidence by learning new information and using it in new contexts.
Language learning has also shown to change the identity of learners as related to family opinions. This pertains to the liberal views that are being taught within English language learning as well as their discussions in class. In the study by Anbreen (2015), participants indicated that they discussed the liberal views on the family with their relatives, and such views could be different to those shared by people around them. It was also identified that English learning resulted in the use of the language by learners in their interactions with other people. As the language is rarely spoken in families as a second language, speaking English was initially thought to have a negative influence on frankness and intimacy. However, it was found that the mix of English with one’s native language did not have much adverse impact on family relationships (Cabrera & Leyendecker, 2017). As a result of embedding English into everyday conversations, learners’ identity was shown to change because of the possibility to integrate new knowledge, skills, and perspectives into the exchange of information with other people.
Relationships with people were also influenced as a result of changing identities associated with English language learning. For instance, changes have been observed in learners’ interactions with school mates. Participants involved in Anbreen’s (2015) research indicated that they had observed a shift in the way in which they interacted with high school classmates who were studying at the same university as them. They said that the relationships were not the same, and they became more formal and reduced. This is indicative of a change in identity as concerned with sociocultural perceptions and the way in which they approached their identity while interacting with others.
English language learning requires dedication and focus on short- and long-term goals. The process has shown to help shape the identity of learners as related to the exposure to new ideas, concepts, and values, which are different to those inherent to the native culture and language. The increase in confidence and self-perception is one of the most prominent ways in which language learning influences individuals. By learning a new language, they acquire a sense of power and confidence in one’s knowledge and capabilities, which is a crucial takeaway to consider in further learning and teaching practice.
Anbreen, T. (2015). The influence of English second language learning on Pakistani university students’ identity. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 192, 379-387.
Cabrera, N., & Leyendecker, B. (2017). Handbook on positive development of minority children and youth. Springer.