Language confidence (by Melissa J. Enns)

BILD is very happy to welcome Melissa J. Enns as our latest guest blogger. Melissa is a graduate student in McGill’s Master of Arts in Second Language Education program. Prior to entering the program, she taught ESL at an academic prep school in Saskatchewan. Her thesis research will center on bridging the gap between research and practice. She authors a language education blog, Ramblings of a Linguaphile. With an undergraduate degree in linguistics and Spanish, she is fascinated by all aspects of language, language acquisition, and language teaching.

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In her discussion of translanguaging in Kolkata, Dr. Mela Sarkar beautifully said, “If one is prepared to be linguistically adventurous, I don’t see why there would be any limit to the number of places where one can feel local.”

Interestingly, that is something I have recently been thinking about a good deal. Upon arriving in Montreal last August, my linguistic self-perceptions were promptly turned upside down, as I suddenly found myself in a place where there was no prestige associated with speaking a second language. Instead, bi- and multilingualism are so normal that it felt it would be unusual if I didn’t speak at least two languages. Moreover, I quickly discovered that Spanish seemed to be the “wrong” second language to have here. I found myself insecure about speaking better Spanish than French, particularly when my basic French was most often acknowledged with a swift “Montreal switch.”

In recent years, there has been investigation into the topic of language anxiety, especially in places like Montreal (for an exciting and informative taste of Dr. Lauren Godfrey-Smith’s recent PhD on the topic, check out this video). The links between language and identity are well-established throughout the literature in the social sciences. Grenfell (2011) and Corson (1993), for example, write extensively about the ways that the forms of language people use are both expressions of identity and social determiners that can contain them to certain niches within society (to their advantage or disadvantage). However, identity is also asserted through agentive use of language (Van Herk, 2012).

Since people are eager to place themselves within specific spheres of society, it is not surprising that, by my use of language, I project (or try to project) certain identities. Furthermore, I have every reason to feel anxious if there’s a chance that I will be unsuccessful in doing so, whether as a language teacher or a customer at a restaurant.

However, language users are agents. As a newcomer from a largely monolingual province, I quickly learned about and experienced language anxiety in conversations… and promptly began to try different strategies to overcome it. I’m going to call them strategies for language confidence. It’s no secret that my French is still quite basic, but I’ve been quite determined to use it as much as I possibly can when I’m in public. This means that most of my strategies by necessity center around avoiding “the switch.” Over the last few months, I’ve had some success in identifying a few that have helped me build confidence and improve my French a bit:

  1. Take every opportunity. Just because you know the shopkeeper speaks English doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your best shot at having the conversation in French. I’ve found that successfully negotiating my way through shorter conversations in French boosts my confidence to start taking slightly larger language risks, like asking a young couple to take my photo on my birthday and chatting about the weather, the view, and where they’re from.
  2. Silence actually can be golden. I’m a bit of a talker, at least in English. In French, however, I give my “nonnativelikeness” away very quickly after opening my mouth, so I’ve adopted a strategy of navigating French conversations by keeping my responses quite short and using a lot of non-verbal cues to signal my understanding and empathy. Shockingly, doing this has allowed me to make much longer conversational interactions without my interlocutors switching to English, and the best part is that I’ve slowly discovered that my receptive French is improving!
  3. Take creative liberties with translanguaging. Sometimes I’m on a roll with speaking but suddenly crash into a word I don’t know. At this point, I can either regress into English, or I can see if I can get away with translanguaging. In other words, sometimes I just say the word in English and continue on in French. To my surprise, sometimes it works, and the conversation carries on in French! One of the beauties of living in a city where translanguaging is a way of life is that you, too, can draw from all of your linguistic resources when interacting with people.
  4. Talk to yourself. I would rather avoid becoming a competent listener without developing my spoken French skills, and so to make up for my minimal speech in actual conversations, I often try to put my thoughts into French. Although I receive no direct feedback this way, I find that in doing this, questions about grammar and vocabulary emerge, and I can’t resist following up on them and, thus, learning new things. After all, I’m a self-identified linguaphile! I also like to write short notes and captions, which I often take to French speaker friends for feedback.

These language confidence strategies work with my limitations but still stretch my language skills. By being a bit “linguistically adventurous,” I have come to feel fairly confident in my identity as one of the many unique language users within Montreal. I’m always on the lookout for new ideas, too. What are your language confidence strategies?

References

Corson, D. (1993). Language, minority education and gender: Linking social justice and power. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Grenfell, M. (2011). Bourdieu, language and linguistics. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

VanHerk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics? Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

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6 thoughts on “Language confidence (by Melissa J. Enns)

  1. Excellent post, Melissa! In my case, French is my 3rd language and I’m still learning day by day. I mainly use strategy #3 ( translanguaging) as most people find it “normal” for someone who is still trying to master their language. Youngsters especially find it ‘cool’, as a matter of fact! I must admit, though, that sometimes my interlocutors want to “spare me the pain” and as soon as they hear my accent, they will just switch to English, and that s somewhat frustrating. Anyway, my other main strategy is #4, abosolutely!

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