Friday, 3 April 2015

Finding your Identity in a Second Language (L2)

Hello there!
If you were looking for something to read in this Bank Holiday here you have, in my opinion, an interesting and hopefully helpful post. Today we will be talking about finding your identity in a Second Language (or Foreign Language, if that is your case): why you should create this identity and how to do it, as well as some aspects to take into consideration. This topic is also related to a frequently visited post which you readers seem to have liked called The Power of being an English Learner, so perhaps you would find it interesting too, in case you have not read it yet.

  You might be wondering what the reasons are to create an identity or personality different from the one you have when speaking in your mother tongue. First, we should differentiate slightly changing your sense of identity for a Second Language (L2), which is what this post is about, from betraying oneself by changing one's values or way of thinking. In creating an identity for an L2 we are adapting our former personality rather than changing it drastically.
  But why would we need to do so? Let me give you an example: let's say that you are French and when you are speaking in English you feel very French (that is, you do not switch your mother tongue's identity) Chances are that even you will not believe that you sound like a native speaker or advanced learner. Since you have not shifted your mother tongue's identity to your L2 one, you will probably be constantly translating from your native language to the target language, sounding unnatural and feeling uneasy with that language. Consequently, you will not be as confident thinking "I am French and I will never be able to acquire English to a high standard." Thus, you are unconsciously building yourself barriers instead of taking the more natural, fluent path, almost mirroring a native speaker's with the advantage that, unlike what you experienced with your native language, this time you will be able to make your own decisions in terms of which accent you like the most, which community of speakers appeals you and you would like to be a part of, etc. Summing up, this new identity will be the way you feel when talking in an L2: who you are in that particular language. You will not longer feel as the French guy who speaks English with a French accent, and that will give you an enormous boost of confidence which will make you love talking in English.
  As I mentioned, this entails adapting your identity and not changing it completely so you will have to mimic certain aspects of native speakers and adapt them to yourself; your personality, style and reality. Among all the aspects from the target language you could look into when adapting your identity, these are the ones I consider to be more important: accent and cultural aspects. In this post we will discuss only the first one. Stay tuned for next week's post on why and how to adopt cultural aspects.

  Choosing an Accent: there exists a vast number of English accents so do have fun listening to lots of them before deciding to adopt one. This is also a great exercise to train your listening abilities and understand native speakers better. Some questions you may want to ask yourself are:
  'Am I comfortable with rothicity or do I prefer non-rothic accents?' This might be helpful to decide between two of the most studied types of English: American (rothic) and British (non-rothic) For example, if you opt for rothicity you have to know that an American speaker moves his/her mouth articulators more than a British speaker: it is a more dynamic articulation since they drop their jaw more when speaking and the quality of their vowels is more open than British vowels, in general. Among other things, Americans usually use more body gestures along with their pronunciation while British pronunciation requires keeping the lips closer and not making so many hand movements.
  'Do I want to sound standard or am I interested in any particular accent?' So let's say you are not comfortable with rothicity (the way it sounds, the way you produce it, the feeling the movements of the articulators required gives you, etc) and you choose British or Australian English. Now, would you like to sound as standard as possible? Imagine you are opting for a job in Yorkshire (North of England); you may be interested in acquiring or be able to imitate that accent to feel and be more accepted by your colleges, neighbours...
  At this point you should always choose the accent that suits your personality the best. Obviously, native speakers did not choose their accents: they have them because they were born in that specific place, because of their upbringings, parent's accents, place where they developed their career, and the list goes on; so, it is usually something they have acquired rather unconsciously. Thus, although for them their accent may not depend on their personality, it is true that certain accents remind us of certain behaviours, traditions or personalities associated with their native speaker community. This is the case of the accent from California; the frequently called 'Cali Girls' are usually seen as sweet girls because of the way they sound and, unfortunately, are usually perceived as not being academic people (this is, of course, a prejudice, no offense intended) The point that I am trying to make is that maybe you do not want to acquire this accent if your goal of sounding like a native speaker is to be perceived as a professional, educated and refine person. On the contrary, if you just want to socialise and be perceived as easy-going this might be the perfect accent for you.
  If you would like to know how to acquire an accent using this criterion you may want to:

  1. Listen to the chosen accent in particular from various people and mimic the sounds that you like the most and are recurrent of this accent; pay attention to how vowels are pronounced since they are "the strongest cross-dialectal differences" (Cutler 2012); and, the facial expressions which may go along with the musicality of its intonation.
  2. Do research; it could be deep or superficial research, but at least try to understand how this specific community of speakers are perceived by the rest of native speakers, even from other countries. For example, how do British and American accented individuals perceive each other? This kind of research could be done by asking for opinions to native speakers themselves and it might be a lot of fun if you are a bit keen on Sociolinguistics! The resulting new knowledge should help to build your sense of belonging, identifying what makes you different from other members of different speaker's communities and what you have in common and connects you with the native speakers whose accent you are trying to imitate.
  3. Practice in real conversation and in front of a mirror; see if you like yourself in that accent. You may like how other people sound but not how it comes out of your own mouth. Model an accent whose sounds you feel confident with and comfortable using.

Please, feel free to share with us which accent you have acquired or you would like to acquire and why!
If you agree with this post, what are your personal reasons for adapting your sense of identity when speaking a second language? Any tips about how to do it?

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