Volume IV - 1997

Who Am I in English? Developing a Language Ego
by Jean Zukowski/Faust

        Jean Zukowski/Faust is a professor of applied linguistics in the Department of English at Northern Arizona University. She has lived in Turkey and Poland, in Wisconsin and Arizona. She is probably best known as a speaker and for her materials development work. Her books include In Context, Between the Lines, Steps and Plateaus, Keys to Composition, the Teacher's Manuals for the Longman-Addison-Wesley Exploring English Series, and the new Asia Communications Network Return to Sender series with Mary Ann Christison and Adrian Palmer.
         I had no idea what I was doing when I started learning languages; I had no idea that I was opening myself up to development of other "personalities." However, it was unavoidable. In ninth grade, we started learning Latin. Mr. Quever was really a biology teacher, but he had been an altar boy and therefore had to teach Latin to the ninth and tenth graders in my small-town high school. Now that I am a language teacher myself, I can look back on his methods and analyze the shortcomings of his course, and also the ways that he was way ahead of his time. The high-point of the two years of foreign language offered at Niagara High School in northern Wisconsin was the Roman Banquet. Held near the end of the school term every spring, the banquet was real-life application of Latin.

Patricians and Slaves

         The sophomore class, being more experienced in language and certainly much wiser, were the patricians, having earned that right by being slaves as freshmen Latin students. The slaves were compelled to answer the every whim of the patricians who sat around in makeshift bedsheet togas on triclinia [Roman dining facilities] fashioned out of kindergarten chairs and pillows . Surely an experience like this fits in with the communicative competence goals of modern language teaching methods. First-year students (slaves) were safe in the approved silent period of language learning: they had to obey, not talk back. And the entire fourth semester of Latin class was devoted to learning how to request, command, and invent sentences that would achieve the results that teenaged minds could imagine_"Scratch my left foot," "Fan me with the plumed fan (someone's ostrich feathers were attached to a clean lawn rake to produce the kind of fan we saw in movies),"

         Bring me cool water to drink from yon fountain." The necessary vocabulary, as dictated by the patricians, formed parts of the lessons of the first-year class. Of course, many of my classmates missed the point of the whole exercise. I'm not sure that I was cognizant of the whole purpose. Nonetheless, Mr. Quever knew what he was doing. And years later, as a teacher educator, I understood. Naturally, none of us became fluent, and we probably didn't really form true language egos in Latin either. However, from my days as a Roman slave, I distinctly remember some unusual personality shifts in some of the sophomores. They were hard task masters.

Herr Doktor Siefert's Yellow Submarine

         At the University of Wisconsin, I started each morning of my Freshman year at 7:45, in Herr Siefert's German class. Audio-lingual methodology was at its peak; we repeated and repeated, learning behaviorally and semiconsciously in the sleepy state of the college student in northern climes. It was different in Herr Doktor Hefner's section. There, in the afternoon, eight hand-picked freshmen studied with the esteemed head of the department. He liked to work with a promising group of new students every year. Departing significantly from Twaddell's recommended methodology, Herr Hefner encouraged the expressions of our young personalities in German. He taught us to be users of German, not parrots. Our personalities in German developed as our language did. Then I joined the Peace Corps, and my life-long love for the Turkish language began.

For Every Language, Another Soul

         In today's world, many people learn languages in the classroom setting. The profession of language teaching has become widespread. For the teacher in an intensive language institute, the idea of fostering a new personality is strange, perhaps even abhorrent. For the student, earning a new personality with the learning of a new language may seem an unusual goal. Most of us as language learners are just trying to get into a mind set of the target language, so much so that we do not realize how deeply the experience is affecting us. Larry Selinker's concept of Interlanguage, a total language ability affected by the learning of another language, shows how the new language affects the first language. In my case, the appreciation of having a soul in each of my languages was something that I realized both naturally and as an accident.

         Awareness of this concept started about 25 years ago. At the time I was a teacher at the American College for Girls (now a part of Robert College), then an English-language high school and junior college in Istanbul. I had been living in Turkey for about six years, and my favorite pastime was studying the Turkish language. I loved the consistency and predictability of the language, I loved the music of its vowel and consonantal harmonies, I loved the images possible within the language. Most of all, I loved to play with the language. I gloried in the fact that I could speak a second language_though actually it was my third language. I loved to speak Turkish. You would love it too, if you were a student of languages. Why? Because when you learn a rule in Turkish, you know that it has no exceptions and that you will always follow it. Even if you follow that rule as no one else ever has, you will be understood. I know it to be true because I learned rules, I used rules, I played, and I was understood.

         One day my friend Hediye and I were having a conversation about a student, and we were speaking in Turkish. I learned a lot of Turkish from Hediye because she was my neighbor, and her sister_who was frequently there_did not speak English. Suddenly, Hediye said, "Let's change to English." I was shocked by her sudden language shift. "Neden dolayi?" I asked, using one of the three ways I knew to ask why_the why that asked for the connection between the cause of the thought and the result.

She said, "Because I like you better in English."

         When I had recovered from the effect of her statement_well, sort of recovered, since it still hurts_I spent a considerable time listening to myself in Turkish, trying to decide what it was that formed the personality that Hediye felt I had in her language. I analyzed inside where I learn language, listened for the things that I said that made people angry or made them laugh, studied my attempts at jokes, and took to heart Hediye's analysis of my Turkish persona. I also considered the Turkish Hediye and her English-speaking counter-self. In Turkish Hediye was well-educated and terbiyeli ("well-mannered"). In English she said "hell," "shit," and "damned" a lot. In Turkish, Hediye used words like a poet; she used metaphor, her language was full of dynamism and spirit. But Hediye became just another angry young woman in English. I liked Hediye better in Turkish. But was I imitating the (Turkish) Hediye that I understood better_in English?

         In March of 1996, Hediye and I met again in Chicago, where I had gone for the TESOL convention. We talked about the concept of language ego and separate personalities in different languages. She began by identifying some of the traits that I had in Turkish that I didn't have in English. "In Turkish," she said, "You whine when you bargain, just like a Turkish woman. It seemed funny coming from an American. It made me uncomfortable." And then she laughed, "That's probably why you were so successful in the market. You amused the merchants, made them forget their profits, and made a killing." She added that the mistakes I made in speaking her native language didn't bother her as much as my successes with it. When my translated thoughts were particularly poignant, especially expressive, she said she felt that she should have thought to use those images_forgetting, of course, that I was merely translating imperfectly my native English idioms. I noted that Hediye's English persona had, over the years, developed as distinctly professional. She left Turkey for graduate school in the United States even before I left Istanbul, and, therefore, has lived in an English environment ever since.

Subversive English

         The concept of language personas gives one cause for pause. Elliot Judd (1987) and Mary Ashworth (1990) suggested that teaching English could be considered a subversive act, for the language of terrorism is English, and one human being cannot terrorize another unless that second person understands the first. This internationalization of English may be cause for concern. What is our responsibility as teachers? It is also the reason for the spread of English, is it not? If one person can call out to the world, the world will understand and respond, and then an Auschwitz or a Kampuchea cannot happen.

         At the time, upon considering the world role of English and terrorism and war, I had the idea of deliberately developing a language persona. At its beginnings, the thoughts that I now share with you were not fully formed, as you might expect. There was a concept, but it was undergoing expansion. H. D. Brown explains, "Your self identity is inextricably bound up with your language, for it is in the communicative process_the process of sending out messages and having them 'bounced' back that such identities are confirmed, shaped, and reshaped" (1994, pp. 62-63).

Early Mention of the Language Ego

         The concept of one's native language ego, defined originally by Guiora (1981), has been around for a number of years, as a term-since 1972, in fact. Our identities are tied up with the languages we speak. If we lose a native accent, we lose a part of our identity. One is reminded of the story of an American woman who married a Frenchman and went with him to live in France. This was a sure motivation to continue her study of French and to work on her accent. Finally, her French had become so good that she was mistaken for a Frenchwoman_and was considered just a little bit gauche. There was an indefinable but undeniable something that wasn't quite right about her French, i.e., her French identity. It would have served her well to have maintained just a small part of her American identity in her French and to have taken American-French accent lessons (such as the lessons that Maurice Chevalier is rumored to have taken to preserve his "Frenchness").

         The problem of maintaining one's true self as one develops a new ego in English is a matter for teachers in language programs to consider, remember, and allow. The concept of a language ego is formed from many perspectives, such as how one is perceived, how one is limited, how one feels about oneself in the new language (Ehrman, 1993). Learning a language is earning another soul. Paraphrased, language learning can be schizophrenogenic.

         What could a well-thought-out curriculum of language elements for a language persona result in? We know that thoughtful words are well received_that is, we even use the word thoughtful to mean "kind." Carefully considered words are those words that we take time to select, words that then are said to be "considerate." From "think" to "thoughtful" and from "consider" to "considerate," it's as if we recognize that there is a language value placed on taking time to make one's word selection. If in language teaching we are concerned with creating an English language personality, might we not be able to include some of the elements (such as careful word selection for thoughtful and considerate results) that were left out in the original model?

Consciously Developing a Language Ego Could Be Beneficial

         The deliberate development of a language ego could result in the development of many important communication abilities. In this field, much of the impetus comes from personal reports. Perhaps in these reports there is a germ for research. For example, the interruption of the development of a language ego seems to result in an impaired persona. Mary Ann Christison tells me that she found out about her Spanish language personality in a surprising way. She was in Peru where she and a native speaker of Spanish were preparing themselves for a radio interview on a professional program, when her colleague asked if she might give Mary Ann some feedback. Mary Ann said "yes," and the colleague proceeded to tell Mary Ann that she came across like a little girl when she spoke Spanish. The language ego of a woman who had learned Spanish as a child and then gone back to use it years later_to use it as a professional and no longer as a child_had not developed to adulthood in Spanish. And the adult professional woman was not aware of it.

         My student Ricardo returned from mid-semester break somewhat troubled. When I asked what was bothering him, he said that he felt that he was losing his Spanish. It was difficult, he reported, to talk to his parents in Spanish, and he feared losing touch with his roots. As we talked, it became obvious that Ricardo wanted to share some of the wonderful things he was learning at the university with his family. Although he wasn't losing his native Spanish, he was learning in English and was able to discuss in English concepts that he lacked vocabulary for in Spanish. His Spanish wasn't growing as his English was.

Informal Queries on the Second Language Ego

         I have queried many other people on this topic of language ego and language personality, first of all to determine whether others perceive the existence of such a thing. And there have been some wonderful stories. One woman, Laurie, an Anglo who was reared in Mexico and Nicaragua, is fluent in Spanish and English. Laurie says that her Spanish is more developed, that she can handle more of life's curves in Spanish, but her English is more cultured. In Spanish, she replied, "I'm earthy, like the life I led there, completely irreverent, loud, aggressive, and maybe even bawdy. In English I'm a college graduate." I asked which Laurie she like better, and she said the Spanish one, but that ego doesn't fly here, in an English environment.

         Aaron Berman, the totally bilingual Spanish-English publisher from Alta Book Center, told me about a man, Gustavo, who is a native speaker of Spanish but who uses English in business. Gus always conducts business in English_even when he is dealing with Spanish-speaking businessmen. Like Aaron and his business partner Simon, Gus conducts all of his business dealings in English. Even if Aaron or Simon speaks to Gustavo in Spanish, Gus answers in his accented English. Gus, it seems, cannot do business in Spanish!

         Another professional colleague Cathy told me of a similar situation, a person who could not code-switch, but who could persona-switch, from one language personality to another. A language learner reported, "I never got to the point of a Portuguese personality. I was just a translated American. I had no real personality in Brazil."

         Another learner, Fife McDuff, an American who had lived most of his life in Brazil, told me: "I am Brazilian in Portuguese_wild, untamed, happy, alive, laughing, and ignorant of life's troubles. In English I'm, I'm, I'm . . . boring. . . . " He isn't a boring person in any language, but his self- perception tells us a great deal about the existence of two language egos. Because I know this person also speaks Spanish, I asked him whether he has the same persona in Portuguese and Spanish. He said "no." In Spanish, "I'm very respectful. To a fault." I asked him why. He said, "I need to listen more in Spanish than I do in English or Portuguese. So I am respectful of the language facility that other speakers have. I listen more." His very aura became more subdued as he spoke about speaking Spanish.

         Specializing in language development is nothing new. Home language and school language are common phenomena in many settings; furthermore, in some settings languages specialize along other lines. My friend Esther Eisenhower in a phone interview told me about language personalities in her multilingual family. She, the mother in the family, speaks French as her native language and English as a learned language and the language of much of her education. Her husband, the father in the family, grew up in a bilingual family. He speaks English natively, and German as a home language. English is not only their common language, but also the language of wider communication where the family lives. Therefore, the language of conversation is English; the language of discipline is German. And when the children (now grown) want something from their mother, they use French. As Esther says, there was a time when at the hearing of the first French pronoun, she just reached for her purse.

         I invite all readers to consider what actually helped them as language learners. I asked a colleague, Adele Barker, a professor of Russian at the University of Arizona, to answer this question for me. She said, "Consistency, totality of language and culture. When I'm there, where they speak the language, when I'm surrounded,...then I'm like a sponge_I just soak it all up. I make breakthroughs in my language development only when I am there." She continued, "Writing helps, writing with a dictionary, to keep up my language, because then I can be deliberate. I can try things out."

         I asked Adele what she was like in Russian, who she was, and she answered, "I'm a clone of Russian values with an alternative opinion. I have very definite ideas, but I like to talk about the same things Russians like to talk about. Within an hour of first meeting a new person, I know, we both know, exactly where the other stands on the issue of the existence of God. But we probably don't know much about the other person's family or education or home. I could discuss God fluently in Russian before I could buy a bread roll at the bakery."

         This colleague said that developing areas of expertise was a great help for her in becoming fluent. Topic by topic, she added to her conversational arsenal. She added, "It is easier to get to know a lot of people a little than to get to know one person well. You can learn about the "getting to know you" level of language and try it out, practice it, with lots of people. For an hour in anybody's house, I can be totally fluent in Russian."

The "Concept" Curriculum: A New Concept

         In a language program, it is good to cultivate sets of words, topics, a repertoire. The beginning of an ego might be programmed to follow certain phases. Perhaps at the beginning, we should teach less surface stuff and more concepts around a concept_that is, we could teach a "concept curriculum." In fact, I would like to suggest that perhaps the next step in language development might well be such a concept curriculum. The concepts of linguistic competence and communicative competence have served the profession for about a decade now, and developments in the communicative curriculum, or curricula arranged for maximum input of language for nonlinear learners are slowing down. What is next on the horizon? At the CESL Roundtable in February, 1994, Marianne Celce-Murcia suggested an improved model for communicative competence. What I heard and have expanded upon from her talk, among other things, is this idea that development should be focused, coherent and individual. The focus should be on developing areas of language proficiency and comfort. It is good to cultivate sets of topics: we should think about developing a "concept curriculum," perhaps.

         According to this notion, for every language learner, there's a big gap between (1) what Jim Cummins (1981) calls the basic interpersonal communication skill level to (2) the cognitive academic language proficiency level. But a person, even a child, can and probably ought to proceed gradually, by developing topics of many kinds_sort of like safe conversation topic islands in the vast sea of language. As the islands (veritable volcanoes if the metaphor will hold) accrete with new word-lava and idea-ash, there is less and less ocean between the islands, until one day, the whole language comes together as a grand (land) mass of proficiency.

What Do You Talk About in Turkish?

         In my first oral Turkish test given by the Foreign Service Institute, the interviewers started out by asking me about movies. They thought that young people, like the young person I was, loved movies. But I was a dolt on movies: I never went to movies_neither in English nor in Turkish. Then they asked me what I like to do; I said I enjoyed cooking, but alas, that didn't work as a topic of Turkish conversation either, because I never talked with anyone in Turkish about cooking--I just cooked. Then they asked me what I talked about in Turkish. A light bulb was switched on! I understood what was happening. They were asking for specific topics. At that point, we began to have a lively discussion, first about rugs, copperware, sewing materials, and illuminated manuscripts. From there it spread to museums, history, heroes, antiques, and plumbing terms. I knew a lot of Turkish, but some of the topic areas were stimulated by interest (like history) and others by need (I had to fix the plumbing in my living quarters or that of some other Peace Corps Volunteer's at least once a week; I knew the names of most of the toilet tank parts).

         Getting back to the ideas of my Russian-speaking colleague, who said that to start with, "It's like you have to figure out the predictable topics of the first hour of conversation, and get set in your own head what you are going to say_how you fit into the potential conversations." Not too far from communicative approach role-plays I thought. Perhaps one ought to add to this curriculum of conversation topics a hefty dose of maneuvering techniques such as coping strategies, ways to steer a conversation to a safe (i.e., familiar) topic. Perhaps a contrastive analysis of topics is in order.

         I asked this colleague what she thought of increasing her fluency. She interpreted my question as how to learn vocabulary in a foreign language. Perhaps the two questions are the same. Her answer, and the answer of many other language learners, boiled down to the idea that the second language learner has to develop a cultural personality or identity.

Expansive in Spanish

         I thought it wise to consult a true polyglot_someone for whom there were no pauses to search for words, someone who had well-developed and individual personalities in each language. I talked to Paul, who was born in Flagstaff; his mother is Catalan, his father Basque and Mexican. Paul speaks English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French all extremely well, as well as a native. Spanish, he says, is his best language, and he speaks it in a deep, resonant voice. He speaks with confidence, with openness. He says that the Spanish he speaks sounds fluid and beautiful to his ear_and indeed it is mellifluous. He says that swearing in Spanish is so much more satisfying_that phrases like "I shit on God's head," when he's really upset about something, have a greater internal impact on him; they are somehow more satisfying. The songs and poetry touch his soul instead of tickling his ears. He is a proud speaker of Spanish, knowing he speaks no pocho ("broken") or Chicano Spanish, but pure Castilian. He likes to go to Spain: his self-esteem is high there. He likes his Spanish self.

Philosophical in French

         In French Paul says, "I definitely feel more philosophical and intelligent. Why, I don't know. I associate the language with the loveliness of the food. Also, I feel confident, because if you're an American and you go to Paris and if you don't speak French well, they treat you like dirt." He unconsciously added one odd note: When I asked him to speak in French describing the room so that I could observe his French mannerisms, I noticed that he keeps one eyebrow cocked while he speaks_perhaps buying into the arrogance that so many perceive as part of Parisian French.

Polite in Portuguese

         Paul's Portuguese brings out yet another persona. He lived in Rio de Janeiro for several years. While there, he was an executive, the vice president of a company_with a driver, a cook, a maid, a secretary, and a "gofer," a personal assistant who "went for" things Paul needed. His Portuguese was the language of a successful businessman. About it he says, "Kindness seems to pervade this language; it sounds like baby talk with soft syllabic phrases. Maybe because the Brazilians are so tiny, and I associate language and size, I feel big but relaxed when I speak Portuguese. You can't be gruff in Portuguese _ it's totally impossible. The phonics for harshness simply don't exist."

Inhibited in English

         Paul in English is somewhat inhibited, compared to Spanish. "I studied a lot of Shakespeare," he says, "to try to get rid of a heavily Hispanic accent." Paul is a singer, and he says that English is very difficult to sing. His voice teacher told him that his English voice is an octave higher than his Spanish voice. He thinks it may have something to do with his relatively low self-esteem in English. He has no discernible Spanish accent in English. Paul also has some Central European and Far Eastern language experience. In Poland, he made no attempt to go beyond being understood. He did not attempt the grammar (which is formidable, I can add from personal experience). In Japan, however, he was a bull in a china shop: no grammar, no syntax, just nouns and verbs, and no intonation. An automaton, but he felt big and important there.

         It seems that the circumstances in which one learns a language have a great deal to do with the persona that is developed along with the language. For the language learner and the language teacher in an intensive language program, the message is clear: the situation must be supportive of the appropriate kind of language ego development. Following are some tips for developing a language ego for a new language:

         1. Figure out what is appropriate as a topic of communication in the language and develop it with ready ideas, opinions, examples, set phrases, and predictable reactions. For example, my Russian-speaking colleague said that in Russian, one discusses economic situations of oneself and others. This discussion is necessary to determine the relative importance of each individual, as status within a group is based on economic status in society. In Turkish, one goes through the family and health first and wealth next. In English one may assess the clothes, the fingernails, the shoes, the labels, and the like but one never asks questions about them.

         2. Learn some expressions used by people whom you like, expressions that avoid profanity as four-letter words sound even worse with an accent. Create a large repertoire of transitional phrases and coping strategies (e.g., pass-the- buck phrases such as "I don't know; why don't you ask Joe?", "Why don't you tell us what you think about . . .?", and "Perhaps you can explain it better than I can.") Tips for Developing a Positive Ego in Language Class

         3. Determine what personality traits you want to develop or want your students to develop and work from there.

         4. Consider the importance of conflict recognition and resolution. How can you teach these principles of peace education?

         5. Consider the language aspects of politeness and caring. Model them, teach them, use them, encourage their use.

         6. Consider the advantages of the good listener and develop good listening strategies. Teach paraphrase as an active listening technique and a language learning strategy.

         7. Consider the materials you use in your classrooms: Are the topics positive, are the messages of the texts forward-thinking and egalitarian? Is there a place in the curriculum for teaching tolerance and challenging beliefs in subtle non-confrontational ways?

         8. Consider the role of respect in your classroom. Consider the importance of modeling respectful behavior toward everyone and every idea. Play the role of devil's advocate in discussion so that your students never know exactly what you as a teacher really think and yet they all know that there is more than one side to a question.

         9. Teach the concept of relative importance, the principle of relativity. Everything exists in a state relative to someone or something else's state. And comparison of states is malignant: There is little if anything to gain by making comparison of a better/worse kind.

         10. Teach fairness in all ways: Being fair to the environment is as important as is listening to both sides of a question, giving equal time, stopping arguments and trying to reach a consensus.

         11. Teach the idea of a continuum, that the polar aspects of language are just labels for ends of continua. Between good and bad, there is a lot of ordinary. Between hot and cold, there is a lot of cool and lukewarm. Between two people, there is plenty of room for acquaintance, friendship, antagonism, and love. In every situation there is more than one possible outcome. And communication is the key that opens it all up.

         To a large extent, we have an opportunity to integrate and develop the kind of traits we might admire in others. In other words, we can choose who we want to become or want to help another person become. As teachers, we should start thinking now about what we can do to aid in this almost magical process of bringing new egos into the world.


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