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Learning difficulty and learner

identity: a symbiotic relationship


Eliana Hirano

This paper reports on a longitudinal case study of an adult E F L learner who


perceived himself as having difficulty learning English. Both learning difficulty and
learner identity are viewed as being constructed in discursive interactions
throughout ones life and, hence, amenable to reconstruction. Data collected from
classroom interactions, interviews, and learner and teacherresearcher diaries
show that this learners difficulty and identity were deeply intertwined and
influenced each other. The discussion of the findings is divided into three parts: past
EF L learning experiences that shaped his identity, examples of the mutual
relationship between learning difficulty and learner identity, and pedagogical
actions that aimed at, and somewhat succeeded in, triggering the transformation
of the students identity. The results of this study are promising and offer teachers
a more empowering and optimistic way of dealing with students who present
difficulty learning English.

Introduction

In my experience teaching adult EFL in Sao Paulo, Brazil, I came across


quite a few learners who said they had difficulty learning English, despite
several attempts. It is worth noting that many of them had university
degrees and were successful in their careers. As Rajagopalan (2003: 94)
claims, the English language is a much-sought-after commodity in Brazil
and even in cases where there is no immediate need for the language it is
desirable and prestigious to speak English. This helps explain why some of
these learners persist in their efforts to learn the language despite their
difficulty and despite the fact that they do not have an immediate or tangible
need for it.
In this study, I report on a year-long investigation of one such learner. I had
already been tutoring Junior (a pseudonym chosen by the learner himself)
on a one-to-one basis for a year before the formal data collection began. The
possibility of working so closely and for an extended period of time with the
same student allowed me insights into his learning difficulty that would be
hardly possible otherwise.
I start with a brief literature review on learning difficulty and learner
identity, followed by a section on methodology. After that, I discuss the
findings of this investigation, focusing first on the construction of Juniors
identity, then on the relationship between his identity and his learning
difficulty, and, lastly, on the pedagogical actions I took with a view to
E LT Journal Volume 63/1 January 2009; doi:10.1093/elt/ccn021

The Author 2008. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
Advance Access publication May 20, 2008

33

contributing to the transformation of his identity, a first and necessary step


before dealing with his learning difficulty.

Learning difficulty

Why do some people seem to learn languages better than others? This
question has intrigued several authors and, clearly, there is no easy answer.
There is a vast portion of literature that has focused on the role played by
individual differences, defined by Dornyei (2006: 42) as the dimensions
of enduring personal characteristics such as aptitude, motivation, and
learning styles. The problem of using this perspective to look at learning
difficulty is that it assumes that people can be placed in the same category
consistently, so an unmotivated learner would not be expected to ever
become motivated. In reality, however, people are a lot more complex than
that and, as Norton (2000: 5) explains, these individual characteristics are,
in fact, frequently socially constructed, [. . .] changing over time and space,
and possibly coexisting in contradictory ways in a single individual.
Another problem in assigning the cause of learning difficulty to a stable
individual characteristic is that it often precludes pedagogical action. If
a teacher believes that a student does not learn for lack of aptitude, for
example, there seems to be little reason for the teacher to devise alternative
classroom practices to help this student. In contrast, my belief as a teacher is
that no matter how difficult it may appear to be for some people to learn
a foreign language, everyone is capable of doing so (Williams and Burden
1997: 77). In other words, learning difficulty in this paper is not seen as
intrinsic to the learner; rather, following a Vygotskian tradition (Vygotsky
1978; Daniels 2001), it is seen as socially, culturally, and historically
constructed in the interactions the learner has experienced and is, therefore,
subject to pedagogical intervention.

Learner identity

My interest in linking learning difficulty and learner identity was first


aroused after reading that the ways in which individuals view the world
and their perceptions of themselves within the world, particularly within
a learning situation, will play a major part in their learning and construction
of knowledge (Williams and Burden op. cit.: 96). Likewise, I hypothesized
that their learning difficulty would also be affected by how they perceive
themselves (i.e. their identity). The definition of identity used in this study
follows Norton (op. cit.) and it refers to:
How a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that
relationship is constructed across time and space, and how the person
understands possibilities for the future.
Moreover, identities are co-constructed, negotiated, and transformed on an
ongoing basis by means of language (Duff and Uchida 1997: 452).
Although identities can change over time, it is important to point out that
the process of transformation is quite difficult and complex. People tend to
maintain their identities in order to make their lives coherent and stable
(Bruner 1997; Pavlenko and Lantolf 2000). The notion of identity, then,
differs from concepts of individual differences in that the latter is often seen
as inherent to the individual,1 while the former attempts to bring the
relationship between the individual and the context to the fore.

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Eliana Hirano

In order to discuss learner identity, in particular, it is crucial to consider the


role schools play in its construction by providing a rich web of meanings and
expectations, precisely during the most active period of meaning and
identity construction in peoples lives (Perez Gomez 1998). These identities
built in schools, according to Barab and Duffy (2000), can be very negative
when the practices thereby provided are abstracted from the community
and aim at the production of grades.

Methodology

This study followed a collaborative ethnographic line of enquiry realized


through a longitudinal case study within an action research approach (Stake
2000; Magalhaes 2006). This methodological choice enabled me to
investigate my own context, being simultaneously a teacher and
a researcher, while, at the same time, making room for my students voice
to be heard, so that together we could work collaboratively towards an
emancipatory transformation of his learner identity, which would, one
hoped, result in actual learning.

Context

This study took place in an elementary level E F L one-to-one private tuition


context. Classes took place twice a week, for an hour and a half. Data
collection spanned one year and we had already been working for a year
before that. During that first year, I noticed Junior was not making the
progress I expected and the different approaches I tried (for example, more
holistic, more analytic, more focus on vocabulary, different materials) did
not seem to make any difference. He claimed not to have any resistance to
English-speaking cultures, which I hypothesized could be a factor in his
learning difficulty. He did not have any pressing need to speak English at
work and said he wanted to learn it because it is important in the world
nowadays and he wished to be more independent when he travelled abroad
on vacation.

Participants

The two participants in this study were Junior and me. Junior was born and
raised in the south of Brazil. He moved to Sao Paulo because of a job and had
lived there for 12 years at the time of the onset of this study. He worked as
a supervisor in an advertising agency, being the liaison between clients and
the agency. I was born and raised in Sao Paulo and had been teaching E F L
for 13 years when this study started. I undertook this research as part of my
MA dissertation in applied linguistics.

Data collection

Different instruments were used to collect data: classroom interactions,


planned and impromptu interviews, and learner and teacherresearcher
diaries. At first, I audiotaped and transcribed two entire lessons in order to
look more closely at the interaction that took place between Junior and me.
Later, however, I started to record all our classes and transcribe excerpts that
were relevant to the study. As we both became more involved with the
investigation, research-related side comments made by either of us became
more and more frequent during the lessons, so the constant recording
ensured that these moments were captured. Also, depending on what
happened in the class, we sometimes had short impromptu interviews
which served the purpose of clarifying our thoughts and impressions and
these also got recorded.

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There were two planned semi-structured interviews, which were audiotaped


and transcribed. They marked the beginning and the end of the data
collection. The first interview focused on Juniors past experiences of
learning English and aimed at identifying events that were relevant to the
construction of his learner identity. In the second interview, I presented him
with a preliminary analysis of the data so that he could corroborate, adjust,
and contribute to the interpretation I was making of our study. This is just
one example of the collaborative nature that permeated the whole research.
The second interview also focused on his learner identity and how it was
affected by the pedagogical work we had been developing in our classes for
one year.
The learner diary was written after each class and was used so that Junior
could record and keep track of his progress and perceptions. It was also used
as a reflective tool mainly to raise Juniors awareness of his learning process.
His entries in the diary were in response to prompts I would suggest, which
were, in turn, modified in response to entries he made. As such, the diary
functioned as a written dialoguea co-construction between my prompts
and his entries. As will be discussed below, as the study progressed, the way
we worked with the diary also evolved. I usually wrote my diary while Junior
was writing his, although several entries were made in between classes.
It helped me keep track of my thoughts throughout the research.
With the exception of the classroom interactions, most of the data are in
Portuguese.

Discussion
The construction of
a poor learner
identity

In an informal conversation, before the beginning of this study, Junior had


mentioned that he felt he had had difficulty learning English since sixth
grade (approximately age 12), the second year he had English classes in
school. In our first interview, I asked him to go back to that experience and
tell me more about it. Junior said that his sixth year English teacher seemed
not to care whether students were learning or not and its like everybody
had to know what she did.2 The teacher, at least from his perspective,
expected students to produce knowledge they were not able to and did not
help them in the construction of such knowledge. When I asked him how
well he did in the tests, he admitted he always cheated in order to pass. For
Junior, then, the main objective of those tests was the production of grades
(Barab and Duffy: op. cit.). The strategy he found to produce satisfactory
grades (i.e. cheating) allowed him to avoid the issue of learninga situation
Junior resented and often referred to in our conversations.
After finishing school and before starting classes with me, Junior tried to
learn English on four different occasions. In three of them, he went to
private language institutions and once he hired a private teacher. In total,
these four attempts amounted to approximately two and a half years. When
I asked him to describe each of these experiences, he referred to all of them
as a whole, saying that he felt the teachers in these courses were not truly
interested in his learning, which had a demotivating effect on him. In his
words, when you already have a barrier with English, you see that the course
is not helping you, you end up leaving.
It is interesting to notice that the identity of poor learner he started to
construct in the sixth grade followed Junior throughout his adulthood. As

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Eliana Hirano

Bruner (op. cit.) explains, people tend to maintain their identities, day after
day, throughout their lives, to create stability and coherence in their lives,
even when circumstances change.

Learning difficulty
affecting learner
identity

According to Juniors narrative, his identity as a poor English learner started


in sixth grade due to the learning difficulty he then felt. His four subsequent
unsuccessful attempts to learn English seemed to have contributed to the
consolidation of this identity. At first, his difficulty learning the language
seems to have triggered the construction of a poor learner identity. However,
it is difficult to tell at what moment his identity started affecting his learning.
In our classes, it became more and more evident to me that his learning
difficulty and his learner identity were indeed tightly related and strongly
affected each other. For the purposes of this discussion, I have tried to tease
apart moments when I felt his learning difficulty was affecting his identity
and vice versa. It is worth pointing out, however, that the relationship
between the two was definitely not a one-way road going in either one
direction or the other. Rather, it was an enmeshed relationship in which it
was often difficult to tell what was at play at any given moment.
Not surprisingly, each time we worked on an activity he struggled with,
Junior would become very anxious and it was as if his identity as a poor
learner was being reinforced. Before we started the research proper, when I
was still focusing on his individual characteristics, I kept trying to come up
with new teaching ideas to match what I thought was his learning style and
interests, in an attempt to find the one approach that would work for him
and solve our problems. I failed miserably. I tried to increase his motivation
by bringing materials that were more related to his work, then more related
to his hobbies, without success. Repeating the same type of activity hoping
that familiarity with tasks would facilitate learning produced no better
results. I then tried to focus on vocabulary learning, next on grammar, and
so forth. During our first year working together, I tried all different ways of
teaching I could think of, but progress was remarkably slow and Junior
would show tremendous difficulty remembering aspects of the language we
had dealt with in previous lessons. As one can imagine, this situation caused
a number of very frustrating moments for both of us. Focusing on
improving his learning by providing different teaching materials was not
working and I sometimes wondered whether this experience would end up
being added to the list of Juniors unsuccessful attempts at learning English.

Learner identity
affecting learning
difficulty

After I came across the concept of identity, I realized that Juniors identity as
a poor learner strongly affected his behaviour in the classroom, particularly
the way he faced the challenges inherent to learning. For example, he often
lacked the perseverance to overcome each small step, easily giving up on
a task claiming he did not know how to do it and often resorting to the excuse
that, after all, he was a poor learner. It was then that I started unveiling
a much more complex picture around his difficulty learning English. I also
noticed that somehow he seemed comfortable with his identity, which in
some ways seemed to exempt him from learning the language.
Remarkably, I started noticing that in the situations when he successfully
accomplished a task, he would tend to dismiss his accomplishment in either
of two ways. He would sometimes acknowledge some learning, but resent
Learning difficulty and learner identity

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the fact that it took him so long. In our initial interview, for example, he
refers to how much he had learnt since we had started working together, and
says that I have already learnt a lot, but this should have happened in the
sixth grade. Other times he would dismiss his accomplishment by saying
that the task was too easy or an external factor helped. For example, in an
impromptu interview Junior describes a business meeting conducted in
English which he had attended. He starts off by saying he had not
understood anything that went on in the meeting. Upon some insistence on
my part, he is able to recall portions of the meeting he did in fact understand.
Instead of being proud of what he could grasp, however, he says things
like: I could only understand because of the PowerPoint or She asked
something that nobody knew and I answered [. . .], I even knew the word for
it. It was something foolish, it was street banner. As can be seen from these
extracts, Junior was often unable to acknowledge his learning, somehow
insisting on maintaining his identity as a poor learner and his learning
difficulty. As Pavlenko and Lantolf (op. cit.:160) argue, most people try very
hard to maintain their current plot even if it means ignoring or distorting
the new happenings, which seems to be what Junior was doing.
The realization that his learning and his identity were so intertwined
allowed me to look at our teachinglearning situation from a new
perspective. Instead of focusing on alternative teaching materials and
methods to improve his learning, I decided to emphasize the
transformation of his identity in our classes.

Attempts at
reconstructing
identity

In order to help Junior transform his learner identity, I had to broaden my


understanding of pedagogic practices so as to embrace identity formation
alongside learning outcome (Daniels 2001). To that end, my role as a teacher
changed into one of mediator (Vygotsky 1978) and one of my priorities
became the development of Juniors sense of competence (Feuerstein and
Feuerstein 1991; Williams and Burden op. cit.). In order to boost his sense of
competence, however, it was also important to mediate the development of
his awareness because, as discussed above, his identity as a poor learner
often prevented him from acknowledging learning. Therefore, without him
becoming aware of his progress, it would be very difficult to help him
become more confident.
One of the most effective mediational ways I found to help him develop his
sense of competence was to focus on the context of production of the texts
we dealt with in class. In other words, I tried to help Junior realize that
language does not occur in a void. Quite the contrary, as Volosinov (1973)
claims, the immediate and the broader social situations determine what can
and is said and language can never be understood without a connection to
a concrete situation. Before we started working in this direction, each time
Junior came across a word he did not know, he seemed to be making wild
guesses at its meaning, not being aware that the context the word was in and
his knowledge of the world could help him narrow significantly the range of
possible meanings. On top of that, he was often anxious to know the exact
meaning of all the words, not realizing that, even in our mother tongue, we
often get by just by knowing what words roughly mean. A diary entry
towards the end of the study shows his learning in this respect: Just like in
Portuguese, Italian or French, etc, in English, in a text or sentence, nobody

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Eliana Hirano

needs to understand all the words [. . .] everything will make sense with the
real world; in a text on politics, for example, one is unlikely to talk about
a recipe for garlic sauce pasta. This realization made Junior aware that his
knowledge of the world could help make up for a linguistic deficit and this
certainly helped him develop a can-do attitude in the classroom.
Finding ways to help Junior develop his awareness of his learning was a long
process and the learner diary proved to be a very important mediational
means to that end for being both a locus for reflection and a record of his
ideas and work in our classes. The work with the diary evolved during the
study as I tried to find ways that would promote more engagement on his
part. His initial entries were very succinct and general, often mentioning
a grammatical aspect, perhaps as a reflection of his view of language and
also probably due to my prompts, which were also quite general: What did
you learn today? and How did you feel in this class? After a few other
attempts, the format that worked best for us was to have a brief oral
interaction at the end of each class before writing the diary. These worked as
awareness raising conversations. I would ask him questions like What did
we do in class today?, In what situations outside class can this knowledge
be useful?, Can you give me examples of how you would use this
language?, etc. After the oral exchange, I would usually write one or two of
the same questions in his diary, so he could further elaborate on and register
his answers. With this approach, his diary entries became more specific and
reflective of what we had worked on in each class. In our final interview,
Junior mentioned that the diary played a role in helping him cope with his
anxiety because, together with the short conversations we had prior to the
diary writing, it provided a moment for reflection, in which he thought about
what he had learnt, his difficulties, and also it was reassuring to look back at
the previous pages and see everything he had worked on and achieved.
As the study progressed, Juniors diary entries showed an increasing
number of instances in which he referred to himself as a person who can do
things in English. Two such examples are When I read the text about Levis,
I managed to go till the end, without being stuck in words that were not so
important and I feel much more confident when I try to speak in English.
As he started to develop a stronger sense of competence, he also gradually
started to improve his learning, possibly as a result of not getting so anxious
anymore and not giving up at the first sign of difficulty.

Conclusion

This case study has allowed me to unveil a complex relationship between


a students difficulty learning English and his identity as a learner. The
learning difficulty, I came to realize, was just the tip of an iceberg, the part
that was visible both to my student and to me. Trying to alter just the tip was
an unsuccessful energy-consuming endeavour. Instead, I started to focus on
his learner identity, the massive submerged part of the iceberg, by providing
pedagogical practices that aimed at developing a stronger sense of
competence in the student, hence contributing to the reconstruction of his
learner identity.
Even though the results reported here are, by necessity, inherently bound to
the specific context I have researched, I believe that the findings provided by
this case study can be extrapolated to different E F L/ES L situations. It is true
Learning difficulty and learner identity

39

that the fact that Junior and I shared an L1 helped us tremendously in this
process. It is also true that the one-to-one context allowed me to devote a lot
more time to this one student than if it were a group setting. Still, it seems
that regardless of the teaching situation, it may always be helpful to look
beyond the classroom when dealing with learning difficulty. I believe there
is a general tendency to consider a classroom a stand-alone unit, apart from
the world. This case study has shown, however, that explicitly bridging the
gap between the classroom and the world out there has at least two
advantages. It enables the teacher to view learning difficulty and learner
identity not as intrinsic to the student, but as constructed through the
experiences the student has had, especially, but not exclusively, learning
English. Moreover, by explicitly referring to the world out there, the teacher
also reminds students that the classroom is a microcosm of the wider world,
where they are effective participants, thus increasing the chances of them
feeling and becoming competent in the English classroom too.
Working with students who show very little, if any, progress can be
extremely challenging and frustrating for a teacher, who often reaches
a point of not knowing what to do to help them. I find that by including the
learner identity factor in the equation, particularly the development of a
sense of competence, one is better equipped to step out of a vicious circle and
look at learning difficulty with new, promising eyes.
Final version received December 2007
Notes
1 Dornyei (2006) remarks, however, that cuttingedge research in individual differences is
currently also considering the importance of
context.
2 In Juniors citations, I have translated his words
from Portuguese into English for the purposes of
this article.
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The author
Eliana Hirano is currently a PhD student in Applied
Linguistics and E SL at Georgia State University and
she completed her Masters Degree at the Catholic
University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Her research
interests include language learner identity,
sociocultural theory, and teacher education.
Email: eslelhx@langate.gsu.edu

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