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|Volume 25, No. 2||Spring 2002|
by Greta Vollmer, Sonoma State University
As a writer, I have strong feelings and thinking that are a part of me, and I want those things reflected in my writing so the reader can have a sense of me. If you don't express it very well, people might not get it, so … for me, it's important people get it.
(Leah, 11th grade English language learner)
Developing as a writer is often seen as one of the most difficult and complex tasks for a second language learner. While research on second language writing has expanded exponentially in recent years, it has for the most part situated writing as a cognitive activity focused primarily on the learner (e.g., composing processes or strategies) or the text (e.g., syntactic, lexical, or rhetorical features). Increasingly, though, the field of applied linguistics has come to consider the role of culture and identity in second language learning, developing a sociocultural theory of language acquisition that rejects the traditional dichotomy between the individual language learner and the context of learning. (See, e.g., Kern, 2000; Kramsch, 2000; Lantolf, 2000.) From this perspective, the notion of writing as a uniquely cognitive activity, situated within the individual learner and used primarily to impart information, must be revised in favor of a more complex understanding of writing as a contextually situated social and cultural practice. As Kern (2000) points out, "sociocultural approaches to literacy disabuse us of the notion that how and why we read and write is an entirely private and individual affair. [Rather] … reading and writing are communicative acts in which readers and writers position one another in particular ways, drawing on conventions and resources provided by the culture" (pp. 34, 37).
Culture is not a unitary or easily defined phenomenon. Yet elusive as the notion may be, if we view language in all its forms as social practice, then "culture becomes the very core of language teaching" (Kramsch, 1993, p. 8). This means that language teachers, in their role as cultural brokers, are often called upon to explain something that is by nature difficult to pin down. Harklau (1999) asserts that teachers must "in a sense reify their own interpretation of culture, making static something that is in constant flux, and making unified something that is inherently multiple"(p. 110). The learner's identity within a culture is not static and fixed, either. A learner may be, among other things, a student, a mother, a lawyer, a woman, a Latina, a teacher, and a concerned social activist. Sociolinguistic research has amply documented the multiple ways that we signal these identities through our speech, dress, and ways of behaving (Ivanic & Camps, 2001). What is the complex relationship between writing and the expression of these identities? This question is central to a sociocultural perspective on writing, which focuses on "the discoursal construction of self" (Kramsch, 2000, p.133). In other words, writing is more than a simple transmission of information or thought-it conveys the writer as well.
If we take identity construction to be an essential component of written discourse, we must then look carefully at texts as evidence of participation in a given culture. How do second language writers position themselves in texts, and what linguistic and rhetorical resources do they use to do so? Traditionally, composition theorists have evoked the notion of voice as synonymous with identity, defined as either the clear and forceful expression of opinion or as some intangible rhetorical quality that conveys the author's uniqueness.1
Ivanic and Camps (2001) argue that voice in this sense may or may not be present in a given text, while voice as self-representation (or "positioning") is an inherent feature of any text. Writers construct themselves socially, and they do so in multiple ways. For example, they may position themselves ideationally through word choices that express values and beliefs about the topics they address. They may express themselves interpersonally by communicating a sense of their authority and relationship to the reader through, for instance, their choice of pronouns or modal markers of certainty. Finally, they may position themselves textually, adopting or resisting the linguistic features of a particular genre, setting, or task (e.g., the academic paper or the summary).2 In short, writers exploit the linguistic and cultural resources available to them to define their relationship to the world they live in (Ivanic & Camps, 2001).
In the first-person narratives of bilingual authors such as Eva Hoffman (Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, 1989, Dutton) and Andre Codrescu (The Disappearance of the Outside, 1990, Addison-Wesley), Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) found a rich source of evidence for the ways in which language learners both lose and reconstruct their identity in the second language. The authors delineate the stages of initial loss, including a loss of linguistic identity, a loss of the "inner voice," and a loss of their first language. Hoffman offers one of the more eloquent expressions of this linguistic journey:
I wait for that spontaneous flow of inner language which used to be my nighttime talk with myself. Nothing comes. Polish, in a short time, has atrophied, shriveled from sheer uselessness. Its words don't apply to my new experiences; they're not coeval with any of the objects, or faces, or the very air I breathe in the daytime. In English, the words have not penetrated to those layers of my psyche from which a private connection could be processed. (Hoffman, as cited in Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000, p.165)
Recovery of voice also has multiple stages. Two of these-the appropriation of other voices and the emergence of one's new voice-seem particularly evident in written discourse. These narratives, Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) argue, are about "a profound struggle to reconstruct a self" and, therefore, do not represent language acquisition per se (to use the traditional metaphor) but rather "participation" in the sense of "contextualization and engagement with others" in a larger social context (p. 174).
It is not necessary to look only to accomplished writers to document the representation of self in second language writing. Maguire & Graves (2001) found evidence of multiple positions-as autobiographical self, authorial self, and discursive self-in the journal writing of three 8-year-old English language learners. Each child set forth distinct and multiple positions as a writer, establishing complex relationships to American culture, schools, their religion (Islam), their teacher, and their families. In another context, Kramsch (2000) analyzed college students' summaries of a short story ("Crickets" by Robert Olen Butler) to examine their use of personal histories, American discourse on immigration, and various genre conventions to construct very different texts and shifting narrative stances within those texts. More importantly, she found that the subsequent classroom dialogue, in which students discussed their texts and the linguistic choices they had made, allowed these writers to articulate and reflect on the relationships their words created among themselves, their texts, and their readers. In other words, they were able to "mak[e] explicit their authorial or discursive selves" (Kramsch, 2000, p.149). These studies offer ample evidence that across genres, ages, language groups, and learning contexts, second language learners use writing to create and recreate themselves, drawing upon a variety of linguistic, textual, and cultural resources to do so.
Understanding second language writing as active participation in the construction of a discourse identity offers a very different view of second language writers from the more typical deficit perspective, which sees them as developmentally weak and their texts as riddled with errors. But just as writers construct themselves textually, sociocultural theorists point out that the context in turn constructs the writer. Harklau (2000) offers vivid examples of the ways in which the same language learners were viewed in radically different ways as they moved from high school to a community college context, and the subsequent impact that this shift in context had on their academic performance and on their investment in learning. Harklau (1999) also warns of the danger of relying on "received representations of culture" (p.127) in the writing curriculum and consequently pigeon-holing students as representatives of a given culture. She points out that writing assignments often reinforce one-dimensional "travelogue" representations of culture or insist on simplistic my country/your country dichotomies that enforce polarization and a sense of otherness in students. Vollmer (2000), for example, found that some teachers who espoused a writing workshop approach with free choice of topics at the same time restrained and constricted student writing by ascribing them the sole identity of immigrant from which to develop their topics. Thus, we need to recognize not only the ways in which student writers seek to construct a new identity-and multiple identities-in a second language, but also the ways in which classroom practices and assignments may assume and enforce restrictive identities for the writers.
Clearly, we must acknowledge the slipperiness of some of the concepts set forth by sociocultural theory. There is no easy agreement on what is meant by social identity, the self, or even culture. Yet reconceptualizing writing as social practice offers tantalizing glimpses of the potential role it can serve in second language learning. As in Kramsch's (2000) study, students increase their control over written discourse when they become aware of the interpretive contexts for their texts and develop a metalanguage from which to analyze these contexts. Ivanic and Camps (2001) argue that this sort of critical awareness offers second language writers the means to "maintain control over the personal and cultural identity they are projecting in their writing" (p. 31). In addition, this understanding might allow them to creatively select and recombine the discursive voices they encounter:
Learner-writers can discuss the aspects of voices they encounter in source texts that they would like to adopt and those they would like to avoid. [Critical awareness raising] can focus on helping [them] find ways to word their meanings with which they feel in harmony culturally and personally. (Ivanic & Camps, 2001, p. 31)
Perhaps more importantly, though, a sociocultural perspective allows written discourse to become the means to explore social identity, what Harklau (1999) terms "cultural inquiry through writing" (p. 125). Learners can use writing to question representations of culture or to question their role as narrator/author in a new cultural context. In this sense, second language writers become "border crossers" (Kramsch 1993), a journey that is never easy, as Hoffman and many others have noted. Kramsch explains that "the realization of difference, not only between oneself and others, but between one's personal and one's social self, indeed between different perceptions of oneself can be at once an elating and deeply troubling experience" (1993, p. 234). But if we understand writing as a medium through which language learners attempt to understand and control the shifting perspectives in their lives, to express and explore new identities, and to position themselves in new ways, writing in a second language becomes a powerfully motivating and potentially transformative force. Leki (2000) has noted that second language writing research will most certainly "expand upon identity issues" (p. 107) in the coming decade. For a writer like Leah, the 11th grader quoted at the beginning of this article, this could mean increased opportunities to communicate a sense of herself as well as a greater understanding of the linguistic and cultural resources she has to explore those possibilities.
1. This definition of voice has been extensively critiqued as being imbued with cultural assumptions of individuality and creative expression which are problematic in second language contexts. For a thorough discussion of the concept of voice in second language writing, see the Journal of Second Language Writing, Special Issue on Voice (2001, Volume 10, 1-2).
2. Atkinson (2001) expresses concern about the "looseness of such taxonomies" and calls for caution in their use as a research tool and in pedagogical applications (p. 114).
Atkinson, D. (2001). Reflections and refractions on the JSLW special issue on voice. Journal of Second Language Writing, 10, 107-124.
Harklau, L. (1999). Representing culture in the ESL writing classroom. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Culture in second language learning and teaching (pp. 109-135). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Harklau, L. (2000). From the "good kids" to the "worst": Representations of English language learners across educational settings. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 35-67.
Ivanic, R., & Camps, D. (2001). I am how I sound: Voice as self-representation in L2 writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 10, 3-33.
Kern, R. (2000). Literacy and language teaching. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kramsch, C. (1993). Context and culture in language teaching. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kramsch, C. (2000). Social discursive constructions of self in L2 learning. In J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 133-153). New York: Oxford University Press.
Lantolf, J. (2000). Sociocultural theory and second language learning. New York: Oxford University Press.
Leki, I. (2000). Writing, literacy and applied linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 20, 99-115.
Maguire, M. H., & Graves, B. (2001). Speaking personalities in primary school children's L2 writing. TESOL Quarterly, 35, 561-593.
Pavlenko, A., & Lantolf, J. (2000). Second language learning as participation and the (re) construction of selves. In J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 155-177). New York: Oxford University Press.
Vollmer, G. (2000). Classroom contexts for academic literacy: The intersection of language and writing development in secondary ESL classrooms. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
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