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Me and those English-speaking Elites: Uncovering the Identity of One ELL in Singapore

A presentation at the 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference on 10 September 2013.
Me and those English-speaking elites: Uncovering the identity of one minority ELL in Singapore

The minority English language learner (ELL) in Singapore is one who does not have English as a home language nor considers English as one’s first language even though Singapore’s education system and virtually every aspect of civic life uses and promotes English as a first and official language. Using the narrative inquiry method, I explore one minority ELL’s (“Rachel”) past and present schooling experiences in learning English.

Through the lens of primary and secondary Discourses (Gee, 2012), I examine how social relationships and investment (Norton Peirce, 1995; Norton, 2000) have contributed to Rachel’s identity as an ELL. In her foundational school years, Rachel’s English language learning experiences were marked by judgment and humiliation. While her secondary school experience saw more positive experiences through safe houses such as the school band, the fear of using English among English-proficient users remained. At the post-secondary level, Rachel was motivated to improve her English through cumulative successes and a desire for school success. Coming from a working-class background, Rachel’s investment in learning English increased as she saw herself as a future financial provider for her family. Nonetheless, Rachel’s identity as an ELL and the process of gaining cultural capital continue to be at odds with her primary Discourse as a predominantly Mandarin-speaker.

The implications of this research include encouraging similar ELLs to tap on positive identities for language learning, as well as helping them come to terms with tensions between their primary Discourse and the secondary Discourse of school.

Gee, J. P. (2012). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse (4th ed.). Oxford: Routledge.
Norton Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 9–31.
Norton, B. (2000). Fact and fiction in language learning. Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change (pp. 1–19). London: Longman/Pearson Education.

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Me and those English-speaking Elites: Uncovering the Identity of One ELL in Singapore

  1. 1. Me and those English-speaking Elites Uncovering the Identity of One Minority English Language Learner (ELL) in Singapore Sherrie Lee Temasek Polytechnic 2013 Joint SELF Biennial International Conference and Educational Research Association of Singapore (ERAS) Conference
  2. 2. Identity positions Investment Identity NortonPeirce,1995 Norton,2000 Inequitable social structures Past, present, future
  3. 3. Discourse (with a capital ‘D’)Gee,2012 Distinctive ways of being Socially recognisable identities and activities Primary Discourse Secondary Discourse Original1990 +=
  4. 4. Image: Mushfake making do with something less when the real thing is not available Gee, 2012
  5. 5. Singapore: English Only? English as lingua franca v. native tongue (Alsagoff, 2010) More English-dominant speakers at home (Singapore Department of Statistics, 2011). Image: What about the non-English speakers?
  6. 6. Who is a minority ELL? Home language environment = Mother tongue, no/little English Not international ESL (English as 2nd Language) students  Flickr: Cliff Muller
  7. 7. Case Study: “Rachel” Singaporean Chinese, Mandarin/Hokkien-speaking home background Relatively lower English proficiency PSLE “C” / N-Levels “B” Former Normal Tech and ITE student
  8. 8. Research Questions How have Discourses and social relationships influenced Rachel’s English language learning experience? What has motivated Rachel’s investment in learning English and how has it changed over time? What identity positions have been useful in helping Rachel learn English?
  9. 9. Methodology 15 students wrote responses to two prompts on past & current English learning experience 6 students selected for face-to-face interviews “Rachel” chosen as case study Flickr: wenzday01
  10. 10. Flickr: Marc Wathieu 80 min semi-structured interview Data analyzed according to themes Questions about family, school, classmates and teachers Verified analysis with Rachel Discourses social relationships investment Narrative Inquiry
  11. 11. Flickr: bhima Limited English Primary Discourse = Mandarin speaking / working class Limited right to speak during English lessons and peer interactions Low investment in language learning
  12. 12. R: My English foundation is not that good. Then I just feel very inferior when they are talking to me in English. When I respond, I respond back in broken English, how to say, [pause] not in full sentence. So they will think what is this girl trying to relate? I: You mean that say that to you? R: No, they just give me that face. Interview Flickr: Jan Tik Primary school classmates
  13. 13. Primary school English teacher Instead of encouraging me, she laughed and criticized me, [said] that … I am a disgrace to her. I remember clearly that she said ‘stupid’ Email response Secondary school English teacher R: I just remember favoritism. I: To those who can speak English? R: Yah. … She ask them to sit near her, then she will keep asking them questions and not us, and ask us to keep quiet. Interview
  14. 14. School band Interacted with students with better English; used more English than Chinese Peer coaching Used Chinese as linguistic capital in exchange for English Reading and blogging Using English skills in a non-threatening environment Safe Houses Flickr: gaylon Canagarajah,2004
  15. 15. By starting a blog about things that inspire me and share my thoughts is part of learning and sharing information with others. Email response … I join [the] band, I have a lot of friends. Actually band helped me to improve my speaking of English. Interview R: most of my friends, I mean, those elites in English, actually help me in my English language. They prepare those assessments for me to do, guide me through. …[T]hey normally fail their Chinese. But when I teach them, they actually pass. I: So did you get better grades [in English] because they helped you? R: Yep, I got a B because they help me. Interview
  16. 16. Flickr: HaoJan I: Can you describe the students in your class and your diploma? R: Oh, there are all very good, way better than me. Like what I say, feel very inferior. I: Did they behave in any way that made you feel that way? R: Maybe the way they speak, the way they do their homework. They get prepared before coming to lessons. The way they bother themselves to answer teachers' questions, participation. Interview English = Challenge I do feel afraid of speaking and writing when I am working as a group with the power elite (English elite). However, I do know that I need to make mistakes so that people can correct me and is a process of learning. Email
  17. 17. Identity Positions Flickr: Dima Bushkov Successful student Future worker Family provider Investment in language learning
  18. 18. Mushfake Identity Fear of speaking to proficient English speakers still lingers Feels more at ease with Mandarin speakers or less proficient English speakers Social interaction limits Rachel’s right to speak but academic context gives her incentive to learn from peers Mushfake Identity: Using identity positions to overcome anxiety when interacting with English-speaking elites
  19. 19. Limitations of study Could have better triangulation with observations and journal reflections Reliance on introspective self-reported data
  20. 20. Conclusions ELLs become more invested in language learning when they take on positive identity positions Mushfaking can potentially help one overcome the tension Tensions between primary and secondary Discourses are a result of inequitable social structures Flickr: Toni Blay
  21. 21. Discussion Questions Are there really minority ELLs? To what extent do we see them as marginalised? Do you know any mushfaking students?
  22. 22. References Alsagoff, L. (2010). English in Singapore: culture, capital and identity in linguistic variation. World Englishes, 29(3), 336–348. Canagarajah, S. (2004). Subversive identities, pedagogical safe houses, and critical learning. In B. Norton, & K. Toohey (Eds.), Critical pedagogies and language learning (pp. 116–137). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Gee, J. P. (2012). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourse (4th ed.). Oxford: Routledge. Norton Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 9–31. Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. London: Longman/Pearson Education. Singapore Department of Statistics. (2011). Census of population 2010. Available from
  23. 23. Sherrie Lee LinkedIn | SlideShare | Twitter @orangecanton