As an English professional teaching in English medium private secondary schools in Kathmandu valley, I found many students having different abilities, skills, attitudes, and behaviours. Among many students, I marked Aaravi as the School Prefect (the School Head Girl) who is good at speech. She was amiable among her friends. Prayush, the next student, is a nimble person always good at writing. He often bagged one or the other title including prizes in essay/poetry writing competition. Likewise, Chetan, the other student, seems to be confident in an oratory competition. The title ‘the Best Speaker’ would be of his own. At the same time, I remembered Anurodh and Aradhana, the other students who would neither do assigned work nor would speak English in the class in spite of having strict rules of speaking English in English Medium School. Actually, they were not dull, rather were slow learners. They constructed distinct identities like Aaravi ‘the School Prefect’, Prayush ‘a good writer’, Chetan ‘the best speaker’, and Anurodh and Aradhana ‘the slow learners’ despite the same teaching approaches adopted in the EFL class. Looking at all the students having different identities, I thought that students’ identity is ‘an issue’ (MacLure, 1993) found in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) class while participating in different EFL activities (Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000). Student identity is shaped with a reference to the classroom environment where they are situated through various classroom interactions, conversations, behaviours, and actions. In this context, I situated Aaravi, Praysh, and Chetan as subconsciously legitimate members (Wenger, 1998) and Anurodh and Aradhana as incompetent members in the class (Toohey, 2000) because the first three situated their learning and later two failed to ‘situate’ according to the context.
This write-up discusses the identity construction of students in English medium secondary schools arguing the ideas of Block (2007) who says that the students have second language identities. My arguments in this article are largely informed to acknowledge how the student identities are constructed in second language learning in English Medium Secondary schools in Nepal.
Understanding student identity
Student identity is a fundamental issue that originated from the interest in the student’s subjective experience of being a self. Student identity is how the students understand their relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how they understand possibilities for the future (Norton, 2013). The identity of a student is constructed both in the formal and informal experience of becoming a student as a part of a worldwide community of professionals with shared goals, values, discourses, and practices. The students construct their identities understanding themselves, their actions, and their minds based on time and space by negotiating experience, community membership, nexus of multi-membership, and the relationship between local and global. They generate identity based on their works, social discourses, their grades, communicative power, narratives, etc., and form their existence in the class. Their mutual engagement in the classroom offers the possibilities for more personalized interaction which constructs student identity.
In the process of identity construction, language learners negotiate their sense of self in the learning process and contribute to their meaning-making process in second language learning. It is understood as a purely social construct of ‘being’ co-constructed by ‘self’ and ‘others’ to explore how they see their life based on interactional practices. According to Block (2007), student identity is an encompassing process of being active participants in their community of practice and showing their relationship among the members constitutive of and constituted by the learning environment. Shields (2015) says that the students in EFL class interlace between local culture and society and find their new existence into ‘being’. He argues that new experiences of learning English as a second/foreign language shapes individual learners and other students to construct learner identity. The students construct their identity perceiving themselves as an agency, classroom as their learning community, and learning as their mastering tool. The students do not autonomously construct their identities in a social, cultural, and political vacuum; rather socio-cultural and socio-political discourses. While participating in the class, the English learners construct multiple identities either by being a member of groups or having certain roles or being the unique biological entities that they are, and so on.
The identities of students that I have discussed in this paper are based on the analysis of narratives from seven students from English medium secondary school, anonymized as Andeela, Bishal, Deepak, Sulav, Sanjeev, Supriya, and Utsukta. The participants were the students studying in class IX and X in English medium schools. Only four English medium schools having more than 1000 students were chosen from Kathmandu and Lalitpur districts. To generate the data, I had in-depth interviews with each participant. I also had informal conversations with the participants. All the interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed in the meaning-making process. In addition, I also took field notes of events and activities that the participants took part in.
Students’ identity construction
The participants in this study reported that the students constructed their identity through the process of positioning, opportunity, and transformation. Within these three themes, the students were found constructing discourse identity, affinity identity, social identity, L1 identity, authored identity, being and becoming, student identity, and inner circle identity in the Nepalese EFL context. The students constructed their identities from their subjective experience as the learners and their extrinsic forces are the source of raw materials (Falsafi, 2010).
Positioning in students’ identity
On the basis of attitudes they possessed, behaviours they performed, actions they did, and conversations held among the friends and the teachers, the students ascribed different positions in the classroom. Sulav’s narratives gave me insight that the students construct discourse identity in the EFL classroom. This identity is constructed through the pattern of thinking, speaking, behaving, and interacting (Miller & Marsh, 2003, as cited in Clarke, 2008) with him as Sulav says:
I improved my English from sixth grade when one of my friends suggested me that I should listen to English songs, native speakers’ voice and watch English movies from YouTube. I did so and started reading novels, prose, and fiction which gradually improved my English.
I situated meaning from his discourse as a tool of inquiry (Gee, 2005) to understand his discourse positioning as a native-like fellow. Such a discourse identity was developed through English songs, listening to native speaker’s voices, and reading books. Social identity was constructed through the social position established by the students based on classroom norms, cultures, interactions, and conversations. Supriya’s expression ‘I actively take part in classroom interaction with the teacher and students’ reflected her classroom participation in the classroom context because the class was her social community of practice from where they learned trajectories of learning among the teachers and students actively participating in the classroom conversation. They constructed identity by participating in interaction actively in the social identification process involved the use of classroom resources to construct her identity. Utsukta’s claim of speaking compulsory English in the class was a claimed processor (Wenger, 1998) which gave a certain experience of participation, interaction, and communication in the classroom. Her social stance ‘the way of being in the world’ revealed her classroom world.
Sulav’s appointment as the School Head Boy, Spriya’s the School Prefect, Utskta’s the Vice-Prefect were their institution identity (Gee, 2001) proposed by their Principal considering their command over the English language. The institution empowered them to construct institution identity looking at his language propensity as Sulav recalls that ‘Principal sir chose me as the ‘School Head Boy’ thinking that my English is good.’ Andeela showed her smooth relationship with her dialogical process at both moments of expression, listening, and speaking and revealed her authored identity. Some of the students were found constructing affinity identity based on affinity group that varies on the basis of their interests, demands, age factors, and nature. This type of identity is revealed when the students perform certain types of actions in the classroom or school premises. The expression of Bishal ‘ …I always sit with Rashik and Ayush’ showed that Rashik and Ayush were his affinity members whose allegiance set him primarily a common endeavour or practice and secondarily to other students of the class in terms of shared culture or traits they possess. The affinity relation was not limited only to close circle within limited friends; it was limited to a large space with students having common cultures and norms. For instance, Sulav had a good relation with other students. Therefore, affinity identity is a focus on distinctive social practices that create and sustain group affiliation, rather than on institutions or discourse or dialogue directly. Some other students in the classroom were found constructing L1 identity; might always talking in Nepali as a crude identity marker (Block, 2007) despite strict school rules. The main reason for speaking their mother tongue was to be open up among the friends. This happened not because of lack of English proficiency but because of his L1 identity as a deep abiding pride.
Opportunity in students’ identity
Students’ equal participation in learning is an opportunity to the students of English medium secondary schools and their joint engagement in having interaction is supplementary. The statement of Supriya, Sulav, and Bishal ‘…the slow learner is given more priority in class’ revealed how the students in the class got an optimum chance of participation and how EFL teachers managed time for their students. Such opportunities provided to the students in the classroom helped them construct ‘Becoming’ and ‘Being’. The identity of the students was not found “static and one dimensional, but multiple and changing” (Norton & Toohey, 2002, p.116) when I saw hierarchical learning from their junior classes, Utsukta revealed:
I’m from Gulmi. My parents took me to Kathmandu from there and enrolled in Himalaya Higher Secondary school where I studied up to class five. In class six, I was enrolled in this school. My English is now good, yeah… good, better than others. I can speak English fluently and express my feeling better… My English teacher is supportive and he encourages me to do better in English. When I was in sixth grade, one of my friends suggested that I should listen to English songs and watch English films and so did I. I found English films and movies really original, and they helped my English in pronunciation, grammar structures, and vocabularies.
In the above excerpt, Utsukta constructed her identity as ‘becoming’. Her present condition as ‘a better learner’ is her ‘being’ or existence. Enrolling in that school and practicing English through English films and songs were her ‘becoming’.
Transformation in students’ identity
The students’ narratives clearly showed that they crossed a long gap to recognize the sense of who they were in course of time. I found the change in all my participants; especially Sulav, Supriya, Utsukta, and Deepak whose identity was changed in secondary education. Sulav’s identity as a native-like fellow, Supriya’s nimble social worker, and Utsukata’s obsessive orator was not transformed overnight, rather took a process of transformation in language capability and thinking power. Even after coming from a rural area, Deepak got mastery in the English language as a symbol of transformation to accomplish his dream of gaining an inner circle identity (Kachru, 1983). Deepak’s interpretation I am trying to make my English better to develop British-like competence was very powerful to me to construct students’ inner circle identity constructing in English medium schools in Nepal. I found that they were constructing such an identity from their complex participative experience and their overall behaviours (Wenger, 1998) to get a native-like orientation in their linguistic performance. All my participants narrated that they were trying to make native-like English. This clearly showed distinction between ‘us and them’ division with ‘inner, outer’ and expanding circle’ (Kachru, 1983) and central and periphery (Philipson, 1992). Deepak wanted to be in ‘inner circle’ (powerful Western countries where English language as a native language) from the peripheral dichotomy (Underdeveloped country where English is a second or foreign language) looking at the possibility that ‘centre’ has high stakes in maintaining his operation as he interpreted:
I want to do my higher study from Britain as Andrew suggested because of the excessive use of technology used in language learning. I need very good English, therefore, I am now practicing day and night to make my English native-like.
The excerpt above clearly illustrates Deepak’s interest in constructing inner circle identity by going to the UK, the powerful western country where English is their native language.
In this brief article, I have discussed the different processes of identity construction of students who were studying in English medium schools in Nepal. Through their lived stories, I found that the students were constructing their discourse identity, social identity, affinity identity, L1 identity, and institution identity through positioning, becoming and being and student as identified through the process of opportunity and inner circle identity by making their native-like English learning from native speaker’s voice from YouTube and English songs through transformation. The students’ perspectives as discussed in this paper show that student identity is constructed in English as a foreign/second language classroom through their active engagement. The identities were not found going parallel because the identities constructed in one field infused their identities in other fields. I found that the students are holistic social agents who have the power to construct different identities in the classroom. They actively take part in certain practices, construct identities, negotiate the meaning of their actions and take control over their learning in pursuit of their goals of learning English for which they require an extended amount of time, effort, and commitment.
About the author
Mr. Arjun Basnet is an M.Ed., M.A., and MPhil in ELE from Kathmandu University. Mr. Basnet is a teacher, teacher-educator, and freelance researcher. Mr. Basnet works as a full-time faculty at Bijeshwori Gyan Mandir Sainik Mahavidyalaya, Bijeshwori, Kathmandu. Currently, Mr. Basnet serves as a Visiting Faculty at Kathmandu University, School of Education. He is also a Life member of Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA). Mr. Basnet is interested in reading, writing, and research works.
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Can be cited as:
Basnet, A. (2021, May). Identity construction of the Nepalese EFL students. [Blog article]. ELT CHOUTARI. Available at: https://eltchoutari.com/2021/04/identity-construction-of-the-nepali-efl-students/