Narrativa e identidade monografia

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Luiz Antônio Caldeira Andrade


(An Analysis of L2 Learning Process)

Monograph presented to the Graduation Course of Languages at the School of Languages of Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), as a final requirement for the Bachelor’s Degree.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Vera Lúcia

Menezes de Oliveira Paiva

Belo Horizonte



  1. ABSTRACT ……………………………………………………………….. 3

    1. RESUMO …………………………………………………………………. 4

2. INTRODUCTION ………………………………………………………… 5
2.1 Identity Construction …………………………………………………….. 5
2.2 Identity as a social construct …………………………………………….. 7
3. L2 and Identity Construction …………………………………………….. 8
4. Narrative as a means of identity construction …………………………… 10
5. The self as a result of social relations ……………………………………... 12
6. The Narration Concepts …………………………………………………… 13

6.1 Narratives …………………………………………………………………. 13
6.2 Autobiographies …………………………………………………………... 16
6.3. The Hero-Villain Structure ……………………………………………… 17
7. The Project ………………………………………………………………….. 18

7.1 The Development of the Study …………………………………………… 18

7.2 The Results of the Study ………………………………………………….. 18
8. Conclusion ....................................................................................................... 23
9. References …………………………………………………………………… 24


Second Language Acquisition (SLA) has been the focus of many linguists who have studied the process through different perspectives, (e.g. Ellis 1997, Lantolf 2000, and Vygotsky 1978, to cite some) so that they may be able to interpret the way learners gather information regarding a second language process. However, such foci have been limited to cognitive processes and other factors (e.g. cultural, socio-cognitive) rather than placed on the learners’ experiences themselves. This paper investigates learners’ experiences through the analysis of a group of self narratives recorded by the AMFALE (Aprendendo com memórias de falantes e de aprendizes de língua estrangeira)1 project, while, at the same time, analyzes such autobiographies in the light of Vladimir Propp’s fairy tales theory (1968) and Sirpa Leppänen and Paula Kalaja’s work on autobiographies as learners’ identities constructions (2002) among other linguists. Such linguists also claim that from the learners’ personal experiences it is possible to construct their identity and have a clear whole picture of what they face and how they feel while putting themselves forward to learn a Second Language (SL). Thus, this paper also tries to investigate the learner’s construction of identities through their L2 learning narratives.
KEY WORDS: second language acquisition, narratives, identity, fairy tales, self


A Aquisição de Segunda Língua (ASL) tem sido foco de vários linguistas que estudaram o processo através de diferentes pespectivas, (ex.: Ellis 1997, Lantolf 2000 e Vygotsky 1978, para citar alguns), de forma a poderem interpretar como os aprendizes obtêm informações sober o processo de L2. Entretanto, esse foco tem se limitado aos processos cognitivos e outros fatores (cultural e socio-cognitivo, por exemplo) em vez de focalizar as experiências dos aprendizes. O presente estudo investiga as experiências de aprendizes através da análise de um grupo de auto-narrativas registradas pelo projeto AMFALE (Aprendendo com memórias de falantes e de aprendizes de língua estrangeira) analizando-as, ao mesmo tempo, sob a luz da teoria de Vladimir Propp sobre morfologia do conto de fadas.(1968) e de Sirpa Leppänen e Paula Kalaja sobre autobiografias como construção de identidade de aprendizes (2002) dentre outros linguistas, os quais também afirmam ser possível construir as identidades dos aprendizes de L2 a partir de suas experiências pessoais, além de ser possível ter uma visão geral do que eles enfrentam e como se sentem quando propõem aprender uma Segunda lingua (L2).
PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Aquisição de segunda lingua (L2), narratives, identidade, conto de fadas, self


2.1 Identity Construction

Despite all the efforts made towards the world’s globalization and the breaking down of geographical barriers, countries all over the world increasingly try to define their own identities in order to become a global reference, whether economical, cultural or political. However, “many identities are constructed exactly in the information exchange process with other cultural groups” (Haesbaert 1999). According to Clifford2 (apud URIARTE 1999, p. 3), “identity is a process, that is, never finished. It is not inherited but, rather, a construction that is always modern. It is a process because it is relational and, as a result, negotiated: it invents itself “within” and “against” other groups or individuals”. As a matter of fact, the claim of identity being under ongoing construction is shared by both linguists and psychologists such as Rajagopalan (1998), Bamberg (1997a), and Gergen (1997), to name some. Individuals, as well, try to find ways to set up their identities in order to survive and also become a professional reference in such globalized and highly competitive market. But we search for our own identities not only for professional matters but also in order to achieve self-fulfillment and self-knowledge. Paradoxically, as the world walks towards its unification, relationships become more and more virtual and, consequently, people feel more and more lonely and away from relationships. So, in such a scenario, subjects see it as essential to their emotional and professional survival to get to know who they really are and to (re)negotiate their identities in order to be (re) inserted in this environment. Rajagopalan (2001) states that

“De todas as identidades, a do indivíduo é a mais difícil de ser pensada diferentemente, Isto é, como algo em constante processo de (re)construção. Afinal, numa cultura marcadamente Individualista como a nossa, a crença na própria individualidade é entendida, não sem razão, como a primeira garantia de sobrevivência.”3
However, this is a double-edged situation once it is important to investigate the ins and outs of identity just like mentioned by Murray (1995) when he referred to the constructionistic view of identity posed by Shotter & Gergen (1989)4 which claims that “identity is not only built up by the subject himself as a result of his outlook on the world, but it is also shaped by the world”. No matter how hard we try to be ourselves within the groups we relate with, we are somehow affected and influenced by such groups: “embora crendo que tudo é construção e que se dá no entrelaçamento confuso, imprevisível e alinear dos gestos, à revelia, muitas vezes, dos nossos mais profundos desejos […]” (Rajagopalan 2001) 5

In this sociocultural frame, our identity is constructed as a result of “our decision to select, choose, and commit to different people and idea systems in the course of their activities” (Penuel and Wertsch6 apud Gover 1996).

Our identities are, thus, reflections of the positions we assume in relation to the situations we live and the groups of people we interact with. That’s the way the others see us and construct their opinions about us. We see this clearly in the professional environment: many executives are introduced at business meetings as being Mr. X from such and such company. Subjects identify themselves with their companies in so close a way that they have their last names substituted with the companies’ names, making it impossible, many times, to dissociate the person from what (s)he does or where (s)he works. Harré7 (apud Murray, 1995) points that out referring to the problem of personal identity being difficult to a subject who gets to the point where it is hard to distinguish himself from the official social order.

Now, considering that our positions in the world are assumed also based on how we express ourselves, and having in mind that language is the most important means of such expression, as claimed by Rajagopalan’s (1998, pp. 41-42) that the subject’s identity is constructed in and through language, which, for its turn, is in constant evolution, we must turn to Bakhtin’s (1988) social function of the language’s expression. According to him, the subject’s inner world and reflection have their own well-established social audience in which the individual’s thoughts, deductions, motivation, and the like, are constructed. He further states that our expression of ourselves is determined by the social relations we get into.

2.2 Identity as a social construct

As these relations change, so do our identities. And to assume a new identity, it is most likely that we lose our old identity. That is what Silva (2000, p.82) means in “A afirmação da identidade e a marcação da diferença implicam, sempre, as operações de incluir e excluir”.8 But such a loss does not mean that we cannot get our self back whenever we need it. As Veiga-Neto (2000, p. 60).9 put it, “cada indivíduo tem várias identidades, cada uma das quais o enlaça com esse, aquele ou aqueloutro (sic) grupo (...) “.

Pavlenko & Lantolf (2000) talk of a loss of identity, subjectivities, frame of reference and the link between signifier and signified, and loss of the inner voice. This stage is followed by the recovery stage, that is, when the learner appropriates of others’ voices, recreates his voice, first in writing, reconstruct his past, and continues to grow into new positions and subjectivities. They cite the story of Helen Jakobson, a Russian-American bilingual, who went through an “Americanization” process at all levels of her existence, losing not only “her family and familiar surroundings but also her ethnic, cultural and class identity” .

3. L2 and Identity Construction

Identity as a result of social interaction and our loss of the old identity for a new one can be better evidenced when we try to use a language that is not our mother-tongue. Since we just cannot use the proper vocabulary and structure that would precisely and in a mature way express our feelings, we feel completely lost in our relations, unable to participate actively in any conversation, and ashamed of expressing ourselves childishly. This is a hindrance that prevents most people from progressing in their L2 learning. First, we do not like to be exposed and secondly, this fear assumes a greater proportion when we have to expose ourselves in an environment where we do not feel comfortable enough to act confidently. Vereza (2001) reports that in her investigation of undergraduates discourse in English at UFRJ, the Federal University in the state of Rio de Janeiro, she found out that they could not express their thoughts and feelings in the L2 wholly. She also reports that the students not only had the problem of trying to reach a native-like expression but also faced the problem of their identities constructed in their own language, that is L1. That comes as a support to Rajagopalan’s claim above that without the language it is simply impossible to have identity. According to Vereza (2001), “aprender uma língua é construir uma realidade para si mesmo, é impor alguma forma à experiência e, ao mesmo tempo, é ser construído e se construir para essa mesma realidade que só é acessível ao sujeito via língua.”10

A similar case, of a student being unable to express herself in English and interact with others, is presented by Ellis (1997) as he introduces the notions of subject to and subject of a discourse while citing Peirce’s11 view of the relationship between social context and L2. In his example, a girl named Eva was unable to recognize a celebrity on the streets pointed at by a friend who could not understand how Eva had no idea who it was. According to Ellis, Eva “was subject to a discourse which assumed an identity she did not have.” Still making reference to Peirce he argues that:

“language learners have complex social identities that can only be understood in terms of the power relations that shape social structures […] Learning is successful when learners are able to summon up or construct an identity that enables them to impose their right to be heard and thus become the subject of the discourse.”

We all want to be able to express ourselves the way that most suits us. We want to be at the steering of our lives, and expressing ourselves in an L2 requires a lot of investment and courage, in order for us to become able to construct our identities in the language. Even in our own language, identities take time to be constructed, as we move on to create our social relations. The feeling of belonging in a place and a social group strengthens our self-confidence so that we feel more comfortable to take a step toward socialization.

Stories like that of Eva’s have been under the attention of linguists so that they may better understand the factors that permeate the L2 learning process. Consequently, they have brought into focus L2 learners’ account of their own learning process through their autobiographical narratives.

4. Narrative as a means of identity construction

Since the dawn of times stories have been told as a way of recording mankind’s presence in the world. It is simply impossible to think of our life without them. They are the records of what we have been doing and who we have been since we came to existence. Whenever we communicate with others we do it through storytelling. Our own thoughts and life are organized narratively. When we talk of a person’s identity we, in fact, mean the person’s story of life, everything they lived that helped to compose their personalities. Lubeck (1998) states that story is a basic principle of our minds. He says that our thoughts, knowledge and experience are all organized as stories. According to him, we live in a narrative way, organize our mental processes, and communicate with others by means of narratives.

Murray (1995), too, points out that one of the basic functions of self-narratives is to relate the stories we live and tell to our identities, since those stories actually shape who we are. Pavlenko & Lantolf (2000) say that the same way narratives are constructed by communities so that they may make sense and provide cohesion for the community, individuals construct their own personal narratives to make their lives cohesive; in other words, to get to know who they are and where they are going.

In fact, individuals cannot do without their stories. Let’s take for example children. Since early age, children ask their parents to tell them stories for entertainment. Stories such as The Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, and The Andersen’s tales, for instance, have been part of most children’s life all over the world. They grow up listening to them and perpetuating the custom of story telling throughout the times. After all, one of the functions of narrative as an art form, according to Bruner12 (apud BROCKMEIER & HARRÉ 1990), is to make the world subjective: it opens us to the hypothetical, to an array of real and possible perspectives which make up the genuine life of the interpretive mind (BROCKMEIER, 1996). Also, in addition to entertainment, narratives are part of peoples’ cultures – they reflect one’s way of living. It is simply unconceivable to think about the American Indians, for instance, without looking at their history. Gover (1996) put it well when he affirmed that “[…] the weaving together of events (past, present, and future) for purposes of meaning-making and identity construction is ultimately a narrative pursuit.”

Without our stories, we do not have memories, culture or language. Narrative is fundamental because its elements relate to a set of human needs and concerns that must be answered before a life can go on, as defined by Lubeck (1998). And we only can go on constructing our lives when we become writers and protagonists of our own stories. On the other hand, at the same time that our narratives are constructed we are as well affected by our narratives. Ricoeur13 (apud CARVALHO, 2003) made it clear when he said that the subject is, at the same time, the writer and the reader of his own life. He argues that an individual’s story of life is constantly under reconstruction by all the stories, whether fictional or real, that he tells about himself. But narrative, although told through the narrator’s point of view, is directed to an audience and intended to reach this audience somehow. Ricoeur, when cited by Carvalho (2003) made it very clear: “it is to share with the other a new experience”.

There must be an interaction between the story teller and his/her audience in order for the narrative to be meaningful and cause the intended effect. Then, in other words, narratives come, here, as a result of the social relations involving the reader and text or the audience and the teller. The teller rewrites his identity every single time the story is told.

5. The self as a result of social relations

Therefore, it is clear to me that our self is a result of our relations with the world where we live. The individual understands himself through the other subject’s look and words (Camerini & Souza, 2003). Bakhtin (1988) expressed the same view by stating that “the words are woven together from an array of ideological threads and used as the plot to all social relations whatsoever”. Language’s ultimate goal must be the individuals’ communication and interaction. It is only when we relate to others that we begin to build our real self. That’s when who we are begins to be shaped. To make it possible, we have to use the only instrument available to make individuals socially together, the language. It must serve the purpose of communication otherwise it is dead and useless. Language is an expression of culture, and culture is "the way of life for an entire society." As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, and norms of behaviour and systems of belief.14

Harré (1983) claims that to place oneself in the world an individual needs first to find his social identity, to be inserted in the society. Also, he needs to maintain his identity, in the sense of biographical uniqueness. Harré, then, recalls the problem of migrants who cannot achieve their identities in view of the fact that they haven’t defined their place in the social order established.

That seems to be exactly the case of Eva, mentioned by Ellis. As she was not inserted in the American culture she could not recognize a character from this society.

This is also addressed by Pavlenko & Lantolf (2000) as they refer to the problem of identity construction by second language learners, whom they call “marginalized groups”. They say that those who set about to do it, are themselves marginalized, that being the reason why their learning stories would not be of much interest to those researching on the SLA process.

6. The Narration Concepts

6.1 Narratives

As it is the aim of the present study to view the L2 learning process through the analysis of the learners’ stories, it is important, at this moment, to take a close look at how narratives, and autobiographies are constructed. According to Leppänen and Kalaja (2002) “in SLA, too, narratives have been used as data in investigation the construction of self and/or language experiences learning”. They say that learners have accounted going through a loss-gain process to acquire a second language, which had also been advocated by Silva (2000, p.82) in this paper. Bruner15 (apud BROCKMEIER & HARRÉ 2003) defines narrative as a group of linguistic and psychological structures transferred culturally and historically, and which are limited by each individual’s skill level and the combination of socio-communicative techniques and linguistic abilities. They explain that narrative structures combine with a historical-cultural base of production. In other words, narratives belong in a broader cultural scenario of essential discursive orders that determine who tell the stories, when, and to whom. The authors suggest still that the stories told must be regarded as private narrative articulations, coming from private standpoints, and belonging to private voices.

In as much our stories are a result of our experiences and our view on the world, we must keep in mind that the place, time, and people involved in our experiences will surely affect our narratives. When we read somebody else’s story we see clearly all that is involved in the story telling, that is, those who cross the protagonists’ way, affecting positively or negatively his intent, his/her emotions regarding the experiences lived and the others involved, for example. Everything developed and constructed in a way so as to give us a clear picture of the woven episodes experienced.

Pavlenko & Lantolf (ibid) point out that “the events that happen to people can only make sense if fitted into an existing plot”.

In this respect, let’s begin by paraphrasing Gergen when he talks about narrative, moral identity and social accountability, and says that a story must have a goal or an endpoint, which must have a strong value (1997). When a goal is created, the sequence of events is constructed so as to achieve the goal. Only this way things will make sense, otherwise attitudes cannot be explained nor understood. Considering that narratives must fit into a established frame (Gergen 1997, Propp 1968) to be accepted, we cannot, then, escape the sequence of events, for instance. Gergen (ibid) states the importance of using the linear, temporal sequence. Surely this is not always true in real life, because things not generally happen in a linear way. So, sometimes, narratives also go stray from the above sequence. Propp’s (ibid) model of the narrative morphology, to be seen below, also takes the linear sequence as the pattern to be used. This linearity is also seen in the protagonist’s identity, that is, we don’t see the hero and the villain exchanging roles. They retain their functions until the end of the story. The events should take us to the next and be a result of the preceding one. Gergen (ibid) also identifies three kinds of narratives, namely stability narrative, when the linking of events is precisely unchanged in respect of the goal to be attained, progressive narrative, when the protagonist overcomes burdens to achieve the goal, and regressive narrative, that describes the failures. This model correspond to Propp’s model (to be seen here) of the hero that has to face challenges for the ambitioned prize. Thus, it is precisely when the protagonist sets out to achieve his/her intent that events and experiences begin to happen. And it is then that we have a picture of his/her position within the narrative frame. This is when relations are developed, emotions are exposed, and attitudes shown in relation to what is lived.

Polkinghorne16 (apud PAVLENKO & LANTOLF 2000) says that just like any other scientific research, narrative researches entail detection, selection, and interpretation of data, but unlike them, in the narrative process “intentionality is at the heart of interpretation”. And in fairy tales as well as autobiographical narratives, the intention is explicitly depicted so as the story can make sense to the reader, who, now, is part of the plot. He gets involved in it. He walks down the path with the writer, who recreates the story to the reader as he tells it.

Gergen’s (1997) and Propp’s (1968) models are very similar, though presented in different ways. Gergen (ibid) claims that “negotiating social life successfully requires that one is capable of making him/herself intelligible as an enduring, integral, or coherent identity”.

While the protagonist makes use, in basically all stories, of the progressive narrative in order to get motivated toward the goal, it is the regressive narrative that will provide such motivation for the person to achieve a positive end.

A broader view on the word goal, however, is presented by Vygotsky’s theories on semiotics (cited by PAVLENKO & LANTOLF (2000)), where he moves beyond the simple definition of something to be achieved, or a problem to be solved. He recognizes signs, mainly the linguistic one, as “a means of regulating others’ and one’s own behavior”.17

For him, signs help individuals to break away from traditional behavior and construct completely new and specific structure of behavior (ibid).

Therefore, as we saw before, the story teller reconstructs his identity every time the story is told. Emotions and experiences lived are recalled through memories. As Gergen (1997) put it “emotions do not have impact on social life; they constitute social life itself.”

The above model of hero, villain and final prize proposed by Propp (1968) and the three types of narrative proposed by Gergen (ibid) have resonance with Greimas’s (1987) model of narrative. For him, the narrative is a succession of statements whose functions linguistically simulate a goal-oriented behavior. Narrative, he says, presents a simple semantic structure in order to make sense as one meaningful unit. As to the characters in the narrative, Greimas (ibid) also makes use of the hero model though he call him and the other characters in the story performers.

Likewise, Barthes’s structural analysis of narrative does not define the protagonist as being ‘someone’ but rather a ‘participant’. Barthes (1972) points out that each character in the narrative can be the agent of the sequences of actions which pertain to themselves.

It is the hero going towards his/her goal. The sequence of events is created the moment the individual decides to act, (re)negotiate his identity so that s/he can be recognized as part of the world’s life process. This is exactly the case in autobiographies.

6.2 Autobiographies

Leppänen & Kalaja (2002) in their study of Finnish university students of EFL say that “written autobiographies can be defined as a personal, chronological story by a first person narrator of a set of experiences for a specific purpose and audience.”

As a matter of fact, such proposition just comes to reinforce what was presented in the literature review about narratives. Autobiographies are linear, they have a beginning and an ending point, as suggested by Gergen above, and the episodes take place one after the other. Besides, they are also social, since the English learner, the case here, making an account of his/her experience, gets the readers’ involvement in the process whenever the latter enters into a relationship with the story. The readers somehow become accomplices to the learner’s problems and vicissitudes.

6.3. The Hero-Villain Structure

A closer look at Propp’s theory of the folk tale (ibid) gives us the following structure: a task to be carried out by a hero (or heroes) which destabilize the initial scenario, the problems faced by the hero in the achievement of the intended result, which will lead to a prize to be given as a result of the accomplishment. However, in order to avoid a superficial analysis we must attain to some details focused by Propp (ibid). For instance, he says that although the names of the hero (or dramatis personae) can be many, his/her actions or functions do not change. As it was said before, the hero will always be the hero, never the villain. Likewise, in terms of his actions, he will be the one to solve the problem rather than cause it. As to the actions and functions, Propp (ibid) advocates that they are given to the hero regardless of who he is, and also that we must consider the actions in the course of narration, taking their meanings into account. In sum, he says that “an action is understood as an act of character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action” (ibid). These are fundamental components of a tale, without which the story would not be. Another point discussed by Propp was the sequence in which the actions are carried out. Besides being told in a chronological order, they are strictly (ibid) uniform and identical.

7. The Project

7.1 The Development of the Study

The study investigated the experiences of undergraduate students of EFL who took part in the AMFALE Project. The project was carried out at the Federal University of the state of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and comprised the analysis of narratives told by students learning a Second Language. Of all the narrative groups we chose those that referred to the English language, which consisted of eighty (80) narratives written in English regarding the students’ L2 learning process. The narratives used to illustrate the thematic sequences (Leppänen and Kalaja , 2002), which refer to the roles the students themselves play and to those they assign to others in the learning process, were chosen from a broader group for the sake of illustration only, thus not having any ranking of importance over the others in their group. The work was based on Leppänen & Kalaja’s (2002) model and Propp’s (1968) theory, as we believe it to suitably mirror what the EFL/ESL learner goes through in his/her search of a new identity in the target language. Using such model as a resource for the analysis of EFL students’ autobiographies, Leppänen & Kalaja (2002) identified five specific roles of the hero in their chronological recount of their experiences in learning a second language: (1) Acquisition without effort, (2) Learning as struggling, (3) Learning as infatuation, (4) Learning as suffering, and (5) Learning as by product.

7.2 Results of the Study and Analysis

The narratives studied, which were copied here as originally written by learners, presented all the five types above, though not in the same percentage. Table 1 below provides a summary of the typical occurrences in the narratives models:

Thematic Number of Percentage

Sequence Occurrence of Occurrence

Acquisition without effort 13 16,25%

Learning as struggling 34 42,5%

Learning as infatuation 12 15,0%

Learning as suffering 11 13,7%

Learning as by-product 6 7,5%

Table 1. Percentage of occurrence of thematic sequences reported by EFL students’ autobiographies

For example, the first type, Acquisition without effort, in which the learner performs the role of the hero/in rather easily, that is, learns the FL without much problem, can be evidenced in the following narratives chosen to illustrate this type, among others in the group:


My experience on learning English is not completed of course. But so far it’s been great. I became really interested in English around 1990, when I was 13 yrs old. You can blame it all on videogames…

My first contact with English took place when I was only five years old. At that time, I listened to the radio quite a lot and most songs were sung in English.


I´ve never been in a classroom to learn English but I had hundreds of teachers. Virtually every American or Brazilian who knew more than me and with whom I came into contact was my teacher.


I was always very fluent and had a large vocabulary compared to the other kids at my level. Not only had I started learning very early, but I was always very interested in music.

The narratives above have in common the fact that students started at an early age, and didn’t depend on classroom teaching to learn the language. In fact, all of them relied on out-of-the-classroom resources to learn English, namely video-games, music, and the like.

Type number 2, Learning as struggling, presents our hero/in working hard to achieve his/her goals. The hero/in in this case seeks something that he/she needs to restore the initial state of peacefulness, he is the seeker (Propp 1968). Here is when other characters enter the story in order to help the former achieve success, the Helpers. Performing this role are teachers, materials, everyday situations, and even other students, as some of our narratives made clear. On the other hand, opposing to the Helpers and the hero/in there are the villains, also performed by materials, teachers, and situations that might hinder or even difficult the achievement of the goal, which is acquire the targeted language. This proved to be the most common cases among the narratives studied, as shown in the examples below.


if I did not studied (sic) by myself I would not learn so much …I used to read my bilingual dictionary every time I could and also translate the lyrics of songs that I liked in order to increase my vocabulary. I decided to watch films with subtitles instead of seeing those dubbed ones


my first contact with the English language was when i was about 11 (at school)... but the classes were horrible, and i decided to look for other ways to learn...


I tried to do as much as possible studying at home, I heard lots of tapes and watched lots of films and also started to enroll on English course only at the university. I must say that I improved considerable during one year.

Students in this group, as shown above, expressed an awareness that unless they went for it, they wouldn’t learn the language. It is clear from the examples that they took responsibility for their learning process, even though such decision was made unconsciously on the basis of just reaching the cherished goal.

Though there may be a lot of effort put on towards achieving the goal, the hero/in finds pleasure in their quest. Obstacles are disregarded in favor of the language to be achieved. As remarked by Leppänen & Kalaja’s (ibid) “there is even a kind of masochistic pleasure and desire in his/her effort to master the language.”

The next type, Learning as infatuation, presents narratives that evidence the learners’ love for the language. They are illustrated as follows:


Although the classes were boring and all the same, I managed to make the most of them. I have always been a passionate language learner and I guess that this passion for learning helped me become a very autonomous learner.

I started learning English at the age of 8. Since I was a child I was fascinated about English and felt a great pleasure in studying it. During all my English lifetime I studied at an English private school, which is the place where I work nowadays as an English teacher


When I was a teenager, I loved studying English because my classes were fun! I could speak about myself, teachers gave us many topics to discuss in groups, there were many games and videos to watch , all the activities that I did not have at elementary school. I remember I felt pretty confident to speak in class, what is interesting is: I was a shy girl!

Students above used strong words to show how much they wanted to learn the language – passionate, fascinated, and love. Once again, the group showed awareness and autonomy regarding what they wanted. We can see that in all the narratives they report having achieved their goal and gained confidence as a result.

The next group of examples show the fourth type of learning sequence proposed by Leppänen & Kalaja’s (ibid), Learning as suffering. Here, the hero/in finds it extremely difficult to walk down the path to achieve his/her goal, and places himself/herself as the Victimized Hero (Propp ibid).


Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Alexandra. … Her mother, who didn’t know anything about psychology, thought that if she compared Alexandra to her sister… and Alexandra was getting more and more insecure. Alexandra wasn’t a good student at all. With the constant comparisons with her sister, Alexandra started to hate English.


The beginning was hard, because the course was not made for novices, and I felt shy among people that knew the language a lot. I had lots of problems with my grades and I thought it was impossible to learn that language.


Learn (sic) a foreign language is not an easy task and sometimes it is also traumatic. My incursion into English territory was no different.


Mistakes were punished by bad grades. I felt that I was never able to learn English. I got completely blocked and sometimes I put myself down unable to learn the stuff proposed. For several times I thought I would never learn the amount of rules presented by the teacher every week to the scared class.

These examples show the opposite feeling experienced by the previous group. Students not only felt discouraged to go on their path but also had classes, methods, parents and so forth as the villains of their quests. A student above, even gets to the point of telling her story as a fairy tale narrative, as an effort to contextualize her struggle and make it stronger and clearer to the reader.

The last type presented by Leppänen & Kalaja’s (ibid), Learning as a by-product, does not show our hero/in as seeking English as the ultimate goal. They look for something else while the language is a mere instrument used in such venture. Thus, according to Leppänen & Kalaja’s (ibid), the role performed is that of the Antihero as s/he becomes more critical, selective and aware of the learning process.


I always got interested in songs sung in English, not in Portuguese. For you to have an idea, I do not have any CDs by Brazilian artists. Mainly are by British and American artists. A lot of people find it very strange. Later on, when I was eight, I started buying international soundtracks of soap operas. I listened to them for hours.


However, the sport I have been practicing from that period so far is full of English words and expressions, what made me more interested in English. In fact skateboard has been a ‘catapult’ to my English learning process.

As the above cases show, students today are aware of what they can achieve being fluent in English. They have other goals than that of just being fluent for the sake of speaking the language well. They want to get something out of their learning process and fluency.


All the linguists mentioned in the paper, especially Bakhtin (1988), not only consider language as the starting point of identity discussion, but also that language is performed socially, though it can be mastered on an individual basis. But, undoubtedly, it is through relations that we shape who we are. Thus, those cases showed precisely how important and inherent the social environment is in the FL/SL learning process.

Identity is a natural definition of how we see the world and ourselves, and mainly how we use the artifacts available to us in order to express our views. In this respect, as shown in the present study, language is the resource we have at hand to do such a task. Language is a means of communication, interaction with ourselves and the others. Even ,as seen, when we lose our identities in order to achieve a new one in the language to be learned, we are going under a process of identity construction. This was exactly what this study observed in the narratives used by AMFALE learners to express what learning a second language meant to them.

Placing themselves like heroes in a fairy tale in their quest for the ultimate fluency in the English language, who had to overcome the most varied obstacles to get the promising reward, they tried to make us see how difficult but pleasant and rewarding the L2 process can be. In their effort to do so, students find the narrative model to be more comfortable than any other approach that might be used to report their experiences, since we all are used to hearing and telling stories since an early age. We are familiar with the fairy tale pattern. In this light, teachers, materials, classmates, and even parents can, at times, play the role of Helpers who will find a way to make the hero’s quest less struggling and Villains, at others, when, then, they will make it harder for the hero to get his/her goal reached. It is like Tolson, cited by Leppänen & Kalaja’s (ibid) put it, “formulaic narratives such as fairy tales reduce the unique or the unusual to familiar and regular patterns of expectation” 18 However, despite problems faced along the way, learners seemed to agree with Gergen (1997) and see the final goal as having great value. It is not only the process itself that appeals to them, but also what it implies. Teachers and methodologies seem to play a especially important role in the process as motivational factors who will push them into achieving their goal. Being able to reach the conversational level makes them confident enough to start expressing their ideas and feel they are understood and respected by others. For them, mastering the language meant getting the professional status they ambitioned, the place in a university, placing themselves in the world’s scenario, and also as important, a personal recognition by themselves and others as capable of meeting challenges.


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* * *

1 AMFALE(Learning with Language Learning Histories – LLLH)

2 CLIFFORD, J. Dilemas de la cultura. Antropología, literatura y arte en la perspectiva posmoderna. Barcelona, gedisa, 1995.

3 “the individual’s identity is the most difficult one to be thought of differently, that is, as something under an ongoing (re)construction process, since, in a culture remarkably individualistic as ours, the belief in our own individuality is understood, and not by chance, as our basic guarantee of survival”.

4 SHOTTER, J. & GERGEN, K. (eds.) Texts of Identity. London: Sage. IN: MURRAY, Kevin D. The construction of identity in the narratives of romance and comedy, 1989.

5 “[…] though we believe that everything is construction and that it takes place in the confusing,

unpredicted and non-linear sewing together of gestures, despite of our deepest wishes, many times […]”

6 Penuel, W.R. & Wertsch, J.V. Vygotsky and identity formation: A sociocultural approach. Educational Psychologist, 30(2), 83-92, 1995.

7 Harré, R. (1983) Personal Being Oxford: Basil Blackwell

8 “Identity reassurance and difference highlighting always imply the inclusion-exclusion exercise.”

9 “Each individual has many identities, each one of which connects him with one or another group.”

10 “learning a language is to construct one’s own reality, to give form to experience, and, at the same time, to be constructed and to construct ourselves for this same reality which is only accessible to the subject through language.”

11 Peirce, B. Social Identity, investment, and language learning. IN: TESOL Quarterly 29, 1995, pgs. 9-31.

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17 Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

18 TOLSON. Mediations: Text and Discourse in Media Studies.London: Ardold, 1996.

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