The Construction of Second Language Identity in two Chicano Autobiographies

Author: Cristina Ros i Solé


This short paper uses literary autobiographies to explore intercultural experiences and the relationship between the perception of the self and language learning. The analysis will follow a post-structuralist view of language learning where L2 users have identities of their own, that are multiple and that are subject to change over time (Norton 2000, Pavlenko 2002). Extracts from autobiographies of L2 writers are used to demonstrate that language learning takes place by socialization, i.e. by appropriation and internalization of voices around us and by having the power to impose reception on others. We will conclude by arguing that to do justice to language learners permeable and dynamic identities we need to take on board how identity markers, such as social and ethnic background, together with socialization process, can be crucial for language learning success.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum, which was part of the 4th Annual Conference of IALIC (International Association for Languages and Intercultural Learning).


Traditionally, language learners have been considered poor copies of native speakers and defective users of the target language. A more contemporary view of language learning acknowledges that language learners are legitimate owners and users of the second language, who perform their own representations of the language and have identities in their own right (Pennycook 1994 in Guilherme 2002, Cook 2002, Pavlenko 2002, Kramsch 1998).

Underlying this view of language learners’ identity is the post-structuralist theory of language learning, which sees language as the site of identity construction. This approach has challenged the notion that language learners’ identities are fixed, firmly anchored in the original culture and resistant to change (Norton, 1995, Pavlenko 2002). Instead, learners’ linguistic and cultural identities are seen as multiple - learners can be members of multiple ethnic, social and cultural communities - contradictory, changing, and permeable over time. Learners can not only cross the borders between two cultures, but they can re-position themselves and modify their previous selves without having to completely lose their old personas.

Another of the tenets of post-structuralist approaches to language learning is that language learning is determined by social, cultural and political contexts. Language learning becomes a product of socialization where different social markers such as gender, race and other relations of power will have an impact on language acquisition. Indeed, according to Pavlenko (2002), L2 learning occurs through social contact, and through each individual’s interaction with the world and the internalization of the voices available to him/her.

But, not only is it important to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the group, but this might not be possible unless a degree of ‘status’ and ‘self-worth’ is established. It is increasingly believed that it is not only the social background and the status of the L2 learners’ culture, but also the social value that individuals develop in the new community of practice that is critical for language learning (Norton & Toohey 2001).

Examples from two chicano autobiographies

I will now briefly discuss the influence of identity on language learning by giving examples from two chicano autobiographies that give two widely different models of identity construction.

The works quoted are Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory and Ilán Stavans’ On Borrowed Words, as well as other autobiographical writings of his, which focus on the negotiation of identities of bilingual Spanish-English individuals resident in the United States.

The tension between the two cultures:

Rodriguez and Stavans have different ways of dealing with the second culture. In the following quote, Richard Rodriguez comments on the tensions and uneasiness created by belonging to two different cultures:

‘I’m a comic victim of two cultures’ (Rodriguez, 1982:5)

Ilán Stavans, on the other hand, merges the two cultures although reflecting on the ambiguity and uncertainty of his ‘in between’ condition.

‘We Latinos in the United States have chosen to consciously embrace an ambiguous, labyrinthine identity as a cultural signature (…) Resistance to the English-speaking environment has been replaced by the notions of transcreation and transculturation, to exist in constant confusion, to be a hybrid, in constant change…(…)’ (2002:9).

In order to fully understand the conflict and construction of new identities in the L2, together with looking at the encounter of the two cultures and its conflict, we need to take into account individual’s social backgrounds and how it affects the shaping of new cultural and language identities.

The socialization process in the L2

To understand Richard Rodriguez’s L2 identity, we shall look back at his parents’ experience. Like many immigrants, Richard Rodriguez’s parents were probably associated, by American citizens, with poverty, humility and illegitimacy (Pavlenko 2001). Because their English skills were poor, they were not able to negotiate a better position for themselves, which, in turn, prevented them from holding a strong identity in the new social mileu, and from exerting any power in the society they were living in:

‘It was unsettling to hear my parents struggle with English. Hearing them, I’d grow nervous, my clutching trust in their protection and power weakened’ (Rodriguez 1981:15).

As a result, he openly rejects their cultural model and craves for the more powerful role and identity of his teachers.

‘But I never tried to explain that it was not the occupation of teaching I yearned for as much as it was something more elusive: I wanted to be like my teachers, to possess their knowledge, to assume their authority, their confidence, even to assume a teachers’ persona (Rodriguez 1982:55)

It is clear then, that Rodriguez’s answer to the conflict of identities is not to create a new hybrid identity for himself, which for him had low social value, but to acculturate to the target culture, therefore rejecting his previous identity.

Ethnic markers and identity building

Another powerful marker of identity is ethnic background. As standard varieties of most languages are associated with whiteness, ethnic background is bound to affect a language learner’s chance to impose his/her weaker linguistic identity while interacting with speakers of the target language. In the next passage, Rodriguez talks about the dislike of his own physical appearance, which might also indicate that he is ashamed of his identity, and as consequence, his first language.

‘With disgust then I would come face to face with myself in mirrors. With disappointment I located myself in class photographs (…) I grew divorced from my body (…) I kept my head down. Or walked in the shade’ (Rodriguez 1982: 123-138)

On the other hand, Stavans feels that his ethnic identity is in his favour.

‘Thus as a white-skinned Hispanic, I was automatically awarded a higher status, and among the Latino community in New York, that status- again, attached to my Jewishness- opened doors to me’ (Stavans 2002:227).


We have seen in the extracts of the two authors briefly referred to that it is only Stavans who succeeds in creating an identity that includes both his first and second culture, while Rodriguez prefers to switch to the new linguistic and cultural identity by acculturating and rejecting his former cultural self. Although I have been referring to the immigrant language learner context, I believe that the narrative accounts of Richard Rodriguez and Ilán Stavans’ experience reflect the socialization processes that take place when acquiring a language and entering into contact with a different community of practice. To date, language learning has been regarded as a skill divorced from the self and his/her linguistic, social and ethnic identity. I would like to argue that learners need to become aware of the different social aspects that influence language learning by investing more than purely cognitive skills in the language learning process and seeking to reposition their identities in relation to the speakers of the target language.


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Guilherme, M. (2002). The Critical Dimension in Foreign Culture Education, in Critical Citizens for an Intercultural World. Clevedon, Multilingual Matters.

Kramsch, C. (1998). The privilege of the intercultural speaker. In M.Byram and M. Fleming (eds). Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity, and Educational Change. London, Longman.

Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (2001). Changing Perspectives in Good Language Learners. TESOL Quarterly, 35 (2) pp. 307-322

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Rodriguez, R. (1982). Hunger of Memory. Boston, Godine.

Stavans, I. (2002). On Borrowed Words. Penguin, New York.