By Nathan J. Devos
[This article was first printed in the Winter 2016 issue of TEAL News.]
“Transformation” is a word in the English lexicon that carries a lot of weight for me. Without opening a dictionary, my understanding of the word is as follows: Someone or something going through considerable change that involves alterations which might not be expected, cannot be reversed, and may be surprising to those observing from outside. In this case, positive transformations are exciting to watch and fascinating to be a part of, like watching a caterpillar transform into a butterfly or a small seed transform into a massive sunflower. Meanwhile, negative transformations, being equally complex, appear tragic, like the downward spiral of substance abuse. However, as I consider the word “transformation” further, less complicated and more positive images surface as well, like, for example, my childhood memory of a toy Transformer that I finally got one Christmas after begging for it for months. For me, this memory is also valuable as it helps me construct a complete understanding of what this word might actually mean. Maybe that is what makes these words so weighty, the basic fact that they can conjure up both complex explanations and humble images at the same time.
In order to connect transformation with second language learning, I think I need to include the word “identity” to build that bridge properly in my mind, however. Without considering identity in this process, a certain conceptual gap remains between how language learning may indeed be able to transform an individual. Like the word transformation, identity is a term that also requires some serious thinking and often cannot be explained quickly. Again, if I try to describe identity, I would say that it is something each person possesses and is profoundly intimate to what marks us as the individuals that we are. It additionally develops over time and is influenced deeply by family, culture, heritage, religion, and personal experiences. It might especially be the last of these factors, personal experiences—and specifically for my reflection, learning a second / foreign language as an adult—which may cause a very noticeable transformation in a person. Indeed, many adult language learners can tell you that their identities and personal journeys of language learning are inextricably linked.
My own journey of foreign language learning and transformation began in 2003 when I moved to Europe to immerse myself in a new culture. I wanted to explore its history mostly and, by way of numerous detours, landed in a city in northern Germany, about an hour from Hannover. I believed naively then that I could quickly learn the language and travel around the country, passing myself off as a cosmopolitan and native speaker. However, I was just as hastily humbled as I sat in my first intensive Basic German class and struggled to pronounce, “Hallo, ich bin Nat-han. Ich komme aus Kanada.” From that moment on, a much deeper understanding and empathy grew within me as I recognized how extremely difficult yet transforming foreign language learning can be. I spent the next ten months—five hours per day and five days a week—with other immigrants from Turkey, Russia, Poland, Spain, Peru, Japan, and more, laboriously trudging through grammar, speaking, writing, listening, and reading tasks. I watched as some students aptly grasped phonemes, grammatical structures, and discourse conventions, while others painfully sank in the depth of these. A small handful quickly gained confidence and pushed the teachers to move on. Meanwhile, others merely stopped attending or hung their heads in class, hoping the teacher would never call their names. I also consciously recognized in this process how my identity had become extremely vulnerable. Where I used to feel confidence in my first language, perhaps being humorous, witty, deep, thoughtful, and well-spoken, I suddenly became timid, formal, serious, self-conscious, and exposed in my second language. I lucidly remember the shock to my identity as people lost patience with me when I couldn’t find the right words, sometimes snickered at their mispronunciation, or even looked outright confused when the sentences that I had strung together became illogical and incoherent. The humbling feelings of shame and embarrassment I experienced in these moments remain crystal clear in my mind to this day. However, I believe that it was persistence and perseverance through such situations that a process of positive transformation through language learning did indeed occur within me.
Acquiring a truly bi- or multilingual identity can be a positive transforming process; however, not every speaker of another language gets to experience this. In total, I spent twelve years in Germany. After the language courses, I enrolled in a university, finished a Master’s degree, went on to teach in a postsecondary institution, and completed my PhD. During this time, I was lucky enough to travel back and forth to BC on numerous occasions. It was during my travels that it became clear to me that I had transformed my monolingual identity into a bilingual one. Biliteracy and biculturalism gave me an amazing sense of feeling truly comfortable in two countries. By the same token, I consider myself very fortunate as my bilingual identity was openly received in Canada and Germany, something speakers of other less prestigious languages who have other cultures, races, and religions may never experience. Indeed, I know young people from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, just for examples, who have endured stigmatization and felt that they must linguistically assimilate to the point of almost forgetting their first language. Subsequently and over time, they experienced complicated feelings of neither being accepted in their country of residence nor in their country of heritage. This predicament is found not only in Europe, however. Upon returning to Canada permanently this past summer, I have actively sought conversations with newcomers to Canada to share immigration experiences. Despite the majority of reports being positive, I am still saddened by some of the stories I hear. Rejection, unacceptance, or simply a dearth of open-mindedness and flexibility seemingly prevail in some institutions, irrespective of our present age of internationalization and globalization. I am disappointed when I hear these stories, mostly because I know how incredibly vulnerable one is as an adult language learner, yet at the same time how incredibly enriching transforming from a monolingual identity to an accepted bilingual identity can be. Thus, any unnecessary roadblocks set by others along this path can make this already arduous journey negative and more difficult.
In the end, the weight of the word “transformation” and its impact on individual personal experiences should not be taken lightly as language learners transform and acquire bi- or multilingual identities. Like the word itself, this process can be complex, and language teachers can play an important role in turning these journeys into positive memories of the past for those who chose to—or are even forced to—undertake this transformation.
From the Winter 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter: From 2006-2015, Nathan Devos taught EFL and TEFL in Germany. He has also published articles on Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), bilingual education in America, and EFL teacher education. His most recent publication is a volume on peer interactions in new CLIL settings.
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Original reference information:
Devos, N. J. (2016, Winter). The weight of transformations. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-TEAL-Newsletter-Winter-2016-FINAL.pdf