—I will never forget the moment when I made an identity choice. It was probably the most important time in my life. It was a time when I had overcome a major obstacle in my life. It was a time when I had the chance to come to the US and learn English. When learning a language, certain cultural and social identity variables such as power, relationships, family literacy, and gender unduly play such an important role in the development of a foreign learner’s identity that it is often unimaginable and unforgettable. Hardly anyone would deny that English is the most important living language of the world in our time—of the 21st century. An important observation by Crystal (2003) describes why the English language is so important:
And if English is not your mother tongue, you may still have mixed feelings about it. You may be strongly motivated to learn it, because you know it will put you in touch with more people than any other language. (p. 3)
Although I was born in an environment that does not speak English, it has always been a great and yearning passion of mine to learn this language. I dreamed of learning English, speaking it, writing it, and reading it. At school, English was always my favorite subject. Walker (2009) sums up my feelings as he describes English as a common language for problem solving:
Mathematics is the language of science. Music is the language of emotions. Now English is becoming the language of problem solving. … English represents hope for a better future—a future where the world has a common language to solve its common problems. (3:43)
Whether it is mathematics, business, politics, or diplomacy, the English language is now a world cultural communication tool that represents hope, a better future, and problem solving. English is also the language of diplomacy, business, and technology among the majority of countries in this world. (However, Ricento  notes that English is mostly spoken as a second language, not as a first language.)
I have grown up now. The love of the English language has grown up with me. I always think that English is a reflection of my growth; it is literacy. It is a chance to get a job, spark development and creativity, indulge in prestige, and belong to the concept of—real or imagined—freedom in a strict culture. I discovered that the language of English was not only fun, but also an important tool for personal and professional development. During high school, I spent countless hours pursuing the task of learning English. Looking back on those days, I remember my enthusiasm for learning the English language. I would self-study, often relying on the Internet and books that were extremely difficult and confusing to read. I used to stay up late nights with native English speakers on social network sites in order to practice, sacrificing my sleep to speak English. I wanted to be, and imagined myself as, an educated woman.
There is a relationship between language and identity, and this relationship plays an important role in the cultural behavior of an individual. Schumann’s acculturation theory indicated how language learners’ identity is affected by learning a new language and that is when learners of a second language give up their own lifestyles and values in order to expose themselves to the speakers of the target language (1986). However, the modifications and the changes that a language learner performs sometimes generate stress and anxiety because of rejecting what he or she values for the sake of contact with native speakers of the target language. For example, I used to live with an American host family in hopes of practicing my English and getting to know the culture. However, the time I spent with them mostly was at the dinner table. I did not feel comfortable sitting for about an hour at the dinner table to talk with native speakers. I was not used to that in my culture because there I can leave the dinner table whenever I want. I changed my cultural pattern to communicate with the native speakers. But on the inside I regretted this, because I was not comfortable.
Using English makes me realize how Western people see the world. Using English makes people realize how we see the world. Being in the US, where I practice not just English but even more so, people’s culture, has changed the way I think. Practicing English and the culture of the people has also shaped my personality. For example, I will show how the concept of time is a cultural nuance that has shaped my personality. When it comes to deadlines, they are truly an unimportant event and are not very valuable in Saudi Arabia. However, ever since my coming to America, I have had to become more time sensitive. I have had to become more aware of the importance of being on time.
Learning English has opened the doors to not just communicate with many types of people from all over the world seeking freedoms and prosperity in America, but it is arguably much more than that. Learning English helps those who learn this awesome language the opportunity to understand the ideas of those people, their aspirations, and their culture much better. For me, learning English and being exposed to the American culture helped me to value the concepts of time and money. I changed my habits of dealing with money and spending it on unnecessary things. I became more aware of my speech and how I sound. I did not want to sound as if I was uneducated or of lower class—something frowned up on in my culture—because of pronunciation.
As studies have shown, linguistic variation correlates with socioeconomic class (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet, 1992; Labov, 1966). It is fascinating that it is not only the way I dress or the way my house looks that identify my social class, but interestingly, the way I talk also identifies my social class. Labov’s famous study indicated how certain linguistic variations, such as the presence of the sound /r/, was relevant to the social class of a speaker (1966).
Learning English gave me the opportunity to coexist with other people who are different and allowed me to identify myself in different cultures. Using English allowed me to express how I really am not what I am. Speaking English as second language had a great effect on me. It made me a better person; it helped me to see the world differently and opened my mind.
As a speaker of two languages, I feel as if I have developed two cultural identities. One identity was developed the moment I was born in Saudi Arabia and it was created by the way that I communicate with my family, friends, and the way I used to practice the norms that were expected of me—those things that Saudi society expects me to do. It also shaped how I have come to see myself within the social setting of the Saudi culture. People’s identity is constantly constructed and reconstructed in accordance to cultural models, ideologies, and practices in a way that is reflected on one’s interaction (Hermans, 2003). Furthermore, Weedon (1987) clarifies the correlation between language, social context, and identity in her conception of subjectivity by stating that:
[L]anguage is the place where actual and possible forms of social organization and their likely social and political consequences are defined and constructed. Yet, it is also the place where our sense of ourselves, our subjectivity, is constructed. (p. 21)
As for my “second” identity, it was created and reconstructed when I started practicing a second language in a totally different culture. The social practices that I perform in a social context in Saudi Arabia are different from the ones I practice in the US. For example: Women shaking hands with men is totally inappropriate in Saudi Arabia. However, to me, this social practice changed when I came to the US because if a man introduced himself to me and offered a handshake, I would feel embarrassed to refuse to shake hands because it is considered a social norm in the US and in other countries as well. Learning a new language leads one to undergo an imposed process of cultural learning. Robinson-Stuart and Nocon (1996) state:
[a] process, that is, as a way of perceiving, interpreting, feeling, being in the world, wanting to smile, wanting to scream, loving, hating, and relating to where one is and who one meets. This perspective views culture as part of the process of living and being in the world, the part that is necessary for making meaning. (p. 432)
Gender as a sociocultural issue can be described as different stereotypes of gender behavior in certain ways. Speaking two languages in two different cultures does not change my thoughts toward my gender role. The way that language use affects my gender and shapes my identity is still the same in using Arabic and English. Factors such as word choice, topic choice, and phonology show gender-based differences. For example: I use a lot of adjectives in both languages, such as cute, sweet, lovely, and I typically show praise and courtesy to others. My topic choices are the same in Arabic and English; as a female I like to talk about shopping, food, relationships, house, and hygiene. As for the phonology, the type of sound is valued in my society when I speak. For example: Women tend to say /ewah/, which means “yes” or “I agree.” However, I would sound more like men if I said /eeh/ instead of /ewah/, which both mean “yes” or “I agree.”
According to Mok and Morris (2012), “Biculturals are individuals who identify strongly with two cultures” and having a “bicultural identity” entwinement has been mostly regarded as a stable individual difference (p. 234). However, to me, as a Saudi female, the sociocultural identities that are integrated in my practices in Arabic and English contexts are most of the time conflicting and fluctuating, depending on the situations.
This exploration helped me a lot to understand how identity can be affected by learning a second language. It helped me to understand how the effect of language on one’s identity is derived from different aspects such as gender, social status, and culture. Language reflects our identity and learning a new language make us build a new identity. This is often as challenging as it is hard to do. As teaching is my future career, this has raised my awareness of what I’m going to face in the classroom. I became more aware of what students would feel as a result of being pulled out of their comfort zone where everyone understands them—also where the foreign learner is able to communicate freely without worrying what people might think of them. It is like being thrown in a society where it is hard for you to speak or express yourself and this is very hard.
Sometime it is because of pride and not wanting to be misunderstood or not wanting to be grammatically mistaken that the foreign speaker remains in his or her safety zone. As a teacher I will teach my students that it is okay to make mistakes, and it is okay if you do not speak and sound like native speakers. In addition, I will make sure to provide students with activities and projects that allow them to talk about who they are and describe their culture and their goals. I don’t want students to feel that they are outsiders or no one cares about who they are. Moreover, if it is possible I will help students get exposure to native speakers and share their thoughts, their stories, or experiences with them.
Esra Alsuhaibani is a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida with a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Esra has certification from the University of Washington in its Intensive English Program and Intensive Business English Program. She is TEFL certified from the University of Central Florida and now an English instructor at Laureate International Colleges in Saudi Arabia.
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Walker, J. (2009, February). The world’s English mania [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/jay_walker_on_the_world_s_english_mania?language=en
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