In Changing Perspectives on Good Language Learners , Norton and Toohey (2001) assess different approaches that try to explain success in second language acquisition (SLA) and affirm the importance of social practices within a community as means to enhance or constrain learning.
Early research on good language learning focused on the importance of personal motivations, attitudes and cognitive styles as determining to a learner’s success. Environment and social interaction were not focused.
More recent research, however, has brought into SLA studies an emphasis on sociocultural aspects. This approach stresses that learning takes place within a “community of practice” where there are opportunities and relations established that foster or prevent more effective learning.
Norton and Toohey propose that the sociocultural conditions include the learner’s perception of the language and its accompanying relations of power and symbolic constructions. Such are evident in their case study of immigrants in Canada.
The authors observed two female Polish immigrants – a 5-year-old child, Julie, and a young woman, Eva – that were highly successful English learners. The authors investigated how these two immigrants' social practices could facilitate, or not, their L2 acquisition, as well as how they negotiated their acceptance into the social network around them.
Working in a fast-food restaurant, Eva found an environment where long conversations were not expected between employees and costumers and even talk between co-workers was short and limited. At first, she was assigned to tasks that required little, if any, speaking, such as cleaning the floor. That situation constrained her access to language practice and put her in a low social position. However, with her participation in the monthly activities sponsored by the company outside the workplace, Eva started being seen from a different angle where her personality and youth constituted positive symbolic features. As a result, she later had other jobs in the restaurant that offered more interaction opportunities.
At kindergarten, Julie had speaking as a requirement and participated of activities in group. Giving Julie communicative opportunities and scaffolding her learning were responsibilities of the teacher, who would also help her deal with social difficulties in class, something that Eva did not have at her workplace.
Julie’s and Eva’s agency was determinant not only to enter their peer networks but to affirm their identities as respectable and desirable members. They were able to overcome attempts to exclude or subordinate them through intellectual and social resources.
In terms of intellectual resources, Eva’s knowledge of Italian and European countries was impressive to her Canadian peers and was a way to resist subordination or isolation. With a similar outcome, Julie tried to teach classmates some Polish words. Also, her previous knowledge of classroom dynamics acquired in a Sunday school made her a recipient of “valued information” about classroom routines and activities.
An important social resource Eva and Julie had were their “allies”. Eva had a Polish boyfriend who used to drive her co-workers to the monthly activities, while Julie had the teacher and some of her peers helping her. The perception their peers had of these allies as desirable people was also significant to their acceptance. If the perception about them had been negative, it is likely that this social strategy would not have been successful. These strategies helped both Eva and Julie to establish strong identities in those contexts, where the possibilities offered to interact with the group were met by their personal choices and strategies.
Norton and Toohey conclude stressing the importance of considering the social practices involved in L2 acquisition and questioning how other factors can also be influential on this matter. The fact that Eva and Julie were Caucasian, with blond hair and blue eyes, able-bodied, slim and well-dressed could have affected their interaction in a very positive way within their communities. The authors then suggest for further developments in SLA research a closer consideration on how ethnicity and physical appearance may influence this process of social interaction and language acquisition.
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