Everyone reaches a point in their life when they ask themselves who they are, whether they are at a major crossroad professionally, emotionally, spiritually, or find themselves reeling from a dramatic event that became their wake-up call. To me, this moment came a few years after I had immigrated to Canada, when my husband and I decided that it was time we went back home to Vancouver. To my surprise, once back in Vancouver, I came to the realization that home was no longer home. Time for me to push the pause button and look at how far I have come since I first set foot in Canada and ask myself who I have become.
Standard English, World Englishes, and My Languages
Sounding different in English seemed to point to my otherness, so when I came across Kachru’s (1986) model of English circles, I thought it was as good a starting point in my quest for who I am as any. He distinguishes between countries and languages that belong to the:
- (a) inner circle (e.g., the UK, the US, Canada, Australia) where English is the first language (L1);
- (b) outer circle (e.g., Singapore, India, Philippines, Kenya, etc.) where English is an official language;
- and (c) expanding circle (e.g., Brazil, China, Japan, Turkey, etc.) where English is taught as a subject in school.
When I was living in Europe, I taught English as a foreign language (EFL); in Canada, I teach English as a second language (ESL). Same subject, different names.
Standard English is represented by fixed grammar rules and formal written norms used mainly for institutional purposes (e.g., exams, business meetings, etc.), whereas non-standard or spoken English is characterized by a more flexible lexis used for communication purposes. The latter allows for varieties of the same language, which are oftentimes frowned upon because they break with the standard language. Shunning these Englishes from the standard English community does not make them vanish from thousands of worldwide second language (L2) speakers’ active vocabulary. While the need for the written form to keep its constancy to avoid linguistic chaos is understandable, the spoken form should be allowed more freedom (Brass, 2016).
Another point worth noting is the separate Englishes within L1 countries. There are definitive and obvious differences within the English language when one crosses the US or Canada. For instance, “Don’t bleve nutting ya ‘ears and only ‘alf ya sees” is a Newfoundland saying for “Don’t believe everything you hear” or “If I had my Druthers” is a southern American saying for “If I had my way.” Even single words can be a part of the regular dialect in some areas and non-existent in others. How often do you think that Manhattanites use reckon in their daily conversations? L1 countries have many different Englishes very much based on geography, socioeconomics, race, and religion.
My languages, apart from my mother tongue, can be summed up as the good, the bad, and the ugly: English, French, and Latin. I started learning French one year before taking up English. Does it mean that French is my second language and English is my third?
I preferred English, so soon I became more proficient in it than I was in French. Does this make English my second language, pushing French third?
For over a decade now I have thought in English, communicated in English, and written in English 95 % of the time. Does this mean that English has become my first language?Can a mere five percent make such a huge difference?
A friend of mine was born in England, moved to Belgium when he was just a few months old, grew up in Canada from age three to fourteen, then lived in Israel for five years, relocated back to Belgium, and now has returned to Canada. Which one is his first language: French, Flemish, Hebrew, or English? He is fluent in all four.
Having learned my L2s in a dual program relying on the audio-lingual and grammar-translation methods, code-switching played a major role in my second language acquisition (SLA). Whenever I was lost for words in L2, L1 would come to the rescue and vice versa. To this day, I constantly switch from one language to another, although I think more in English these days because I speak it at home and at work. Culturally, I feel more Romanian than Canadian, which is a deeper aspect of my personality and frame of mind.
What does that say about me, linguistically, sociologically, and psychologically? That there are two distinct languages which make up two distinct identities? That there is a split of identities or, on the contrary, a blend of multiple identities?
On Being an Immigrant in Canada
An immigrant myself, originally from Romania, I am a non-native English speaker (NNES); I made Canada my home in 2008. After having my education, work experience, language proficiency, age, funds, and adaptability assessed by a points system, I was deemed eligible for the express entry pool under the Federal Skilled Worker program (Government of Canada, 2017). Six months after submitting my application, I received the letter in the mail: I had been given the green light to live and work in Canada – to become a Canadian.
Exhilarated by the prospect of starting anew, little did I know back then what being an immigrant entailed. According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1995), immigrant refers to “someone who comes from abroad to live permanently in another country” (p. 712). A landed immigrant or permanent resident can work and study, but they cannot vote or get a Canadian passport; it is a temporary status until they become citizens. Ng and Estable (1987) point out that the term, which initially encompassed all foreign-born individuals, is now used with a different connotation: “The common-sense use of ‘immigrant women’ generally refers to women of colour, women from Third World Countries, women who do not speak English well, and women who occupy lower positions in the occupational hierarchy” (p. 29). From experience, I can attest to the fact that in everyday conversation, immigrant highlights the difference between NNESs and their native (NES) counterparts.
As far as language is concerned, the concept of non-nativeness negates rather than asserts the speaker, which brings us to the paradox of “highly educated immigrants who drive taxicabs and pizza delivery vans, bewildered at the new reality of life in Canada that falls short of its promises” (Cervatiuc, 2009, p. 255). The author attributes this situation to the lack of English proficiency; based on my personal experience, I tend to disagree. In fact, English proficiency is one of the mandatory criteria to be eligible to immigrate as a skilled worker (e.g., General IELTS examination). Once skilled worker immigrants land in Canada, they realize that due to their foreign credentials they will not be able to perform the jobs that they are qualified for. A paradox and a conundrum.
At the other end of the spectrum, the country allows non-skilled NNESs who buy considerable property to get status and yet they live on social services, which speaks to a different kind of non-nativeness. In a cosmopolitan city like Vancouver, British Columbia, where the real estate industry has been booming, allowing lots of foreigners to enter the country via buying property, new identities are being shaped and with them closed-up communities of people who do not speak English at all.
There seems to have been a shift from language to financial benefits reserved for a particular category of foreign non-Canadian investors who take full advantage of the perks Canada has to offer. Is a new fast-growing NNES category already heavily influencing the labor market? Are educational credentials becoming obsolete in major Canadian centers? Is English losing ground in Canada or is it just another language-money-power game?
On Shaping Identity as a NNES ESL Teacher in a NES World
In an attempt to figure out who I am now, I decided to take a closer look at how language and identity work for or against NNES English as a Second Language (ESL) professionals. I browsed through the extant literature that explores immigrants’ (successful) stories. A trend, a leitmotif, seems to transcend: Everyone has a story that follows a similar pattern. Whether people leave their home countries because they have to (as is the case with thousands of recent Syrian refugees fleeing to Canada and all over the world) or because they want to, hoping to make a better future for themselves and their families (as is my case), immigrants leave the familiar behind embarking on a journey into the unknown and self-discovery.
Unlike Canada, where people of various ethnicities live in close vicinity, in my home country, former communist Romania, people from other countries were kept at bay, hence everyone looked the same or at least everyone I knew. Growing up, I never thought of otherness and never questioned nor doubted my identity. Having lived in Canada for eight and a half years, the apparently innocuous question, “Where are you from?” to this day takes me by surprise.
My initial answer, “I am from Romania,” is accompanied by different explanations that start with but as if I have to explain my reasons for being here, which makes me feel guilty for not being a NES. The impostor syndrome (Cuddy, 2015). The sin of being born outside the inner circle (i.e., an English-speaking country) weighs heavy on the NNESs’ shoulders. I have learned first-hand that the stigma of being a NNES in a NES country does not vanish in time.
In Canada, the constant need to ask, “Where are you from?” is a phenomenon that has turned a simple ice breaker into an ice maker. According to Ramos (2003) and Selasi (2014), it speaks to relations of power (or lack of it). Many were the cases when my answer to “Where are you from?” generated the following, “Oh, Budapest is the capital city, isn’t it?” No, it isn’t.
Not knowing where to place someone’s country of origin on a mental map can make the person being asked feel powerless. I wholeheartedly embrace Selasi’s (2014) suggestion to ask, “Where are you a local?” instead, which shifts focus on where life occurs, not where it started. “I’m Canadian but my parents come from Romania” sounds as if I am trying to explain myself and why I am here; “I’m a local of Vancouver and Targoviste” relies on personal experiences that no one can take away or deny.
Selasi (2014) goes on to explain that, because countries appear (e.g., Timor-Leste) and disappear (e.g., Czechoslovakia), they cannot define our identity, but experiences can: “All experience is local and all identity is experience.” (Selasi, 2014).
A revelation. I was born in Romania, briefly studied in the UK and worked in the US, and I am currently residing in Canada. I do not live in Romania, the UK, or the US anymore, but I remember the experiences that I had while there; they have shaped me into who I am. While some aspects of my identity are presently dormant, others have become more prevalent these days. I constantly forge a new identity from the already existing multi-layers. Fifty shades of Laura.
Identity is a complex and complicated matter. It is my unique barcode or fingerprint. I have changed over time and so has my identity. To quote Bruce Lee (c. 1966), “When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.”
A few years after immigrating to Canada and going back home to visit family, I saw everything different; it all seemed changed: “We can never go back to a place and find it exactly where we left it, something somewhere will always have changed, most of all, ourselves” (Selasi, 2014). I found myself mixing Romanian with English words within the same sentence. Romanglish if you will. At times, I felt lost in translation and caught up in between two completely different worlds and languages, which echoes Norton and Toohey’s (2011) argument that identity is a site of struggle.
As far as my newly acquired Canadianness is concerned, I am drawn to it and distanced from it at the same time. This ambivalent sense of self has resulted from good and bad language experiences that I’ve had over the past decade.
In identifying with Vancouver, I don’t want to cut away from my past, leaving behind part of my identity to embrace a new one. My grandmother used to say that no matter how far one travels, they carry their sorrows and joys with them.
While I admit that there must have been a void that made me think relocating could fill, it is important to stay in touch with my roots. The desire to know and understand myself is fueled by the need to come to terms with my Romanian heritage and my current Canadian existence. In trying to answer Khayatt’s (2001) question, “Who is entitled to determine who we are?” (p. 79), I have come to realize that I want the freedom to be both a Canadian and a Romanian.
Little did I know when I packed my life, said goodbye to family and friends, and bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia, that being a NNES ESL immigrant female teacher in Canada was no easy feat. Looking back, it seems both brave and foolish, but if I were to do it all over again, I would not hesitate.
I have learned through trial and error to add rather than discard the newly formed layers of my Canadian identity and not feel stuck between two cultures and languages (Gardner, 2012). Now I see what Greene (1998) means when he urges us to recreate ourselves and our image rather than allow others to define us: I am more than a nationality.
I am a local of two distinct worlds, a by-product of my own experiences, a citizen of the world born in Romania, adopted by Canada, a passport holder of the European Union, a member of the Commonwealth, and a language chameleon.
Brass, L. (2016). Same person: Different languages, different identities? (Unpublished paper). Vancouver, British Columbia: University of Calgary.
Canada: Who can apply: Federal skilled workers (2017, July 14). Government of Canada. Retrieved from http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/immigrate/skilled/apply-who.asp?_ga=2.119077322.273954601.1502841759-1696982595.1500423967.
Cervatiuc, A. (2009). Identity, good language learning, and adult immigrants in Canada. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education 8(4), 254-271. doi:10.1080/15348450903130439.
Cuddy, A. (2015). Presence: Bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges. New York: Little, Brown, & Company.
Kachru, B., B. (1986). The alchemy of English: The spread, functions, and models of non-native Englishes. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Khayatt, D. (2001). Revealing moments: The voice of the one who lives with labels. In James, C. E., & Shadd, A. (Eds.), Talking about identity: Encounters in race, ethnicity, and language. (pp. 68- 83). Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines.
Lee, B. (2013, July 12). Be like water. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APx2yFA0-B4&t=6s.
Ng, R., & Estable, A. (1987). Immigrant women in the labour force: An overview of present knowledge and research gaps. Resources for Feminist Research, 16(1), 29-33.
Norton, B., & Toohey, K. (2011). Identity, language learning, and social change. Language Teaching, 44(4), 412-446. doi.org/10.1017/s0261444811000309.
Patel, H. (2013, June). Who am I? Think again. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPhHHtn8On8.
Rundell, M., Fox, C., Gillard, P., Jackson, T., O’Shea, S., & Nichols, W. (Eds.) (1995). Longman dictionary of contemporary English. Essex, England: Longman Group Ltd.
Selasi, T. (2014, October). Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/taiye_selasi_don_t_ask_where_i_m_from_ask_where_i_m_a_local#t-5969.7
Laura Brass has an MEd in TESL from the University of Calgary, Canada, a BA in Education from the University of Pitesti, Romania, and is TESL Canada and TESOL Ontario certified. With over 15 years local and international experience under her belt, she has taught English to diverse learners for varied purposes (e.g., EFL, ESL, EAP, CAE, IELTS, TOEFL, etc.) in the public and private sectors. A language learner herself, she embraces a student-centered approach that keeps the students’ needs at the forefront and focuses on fostering autonomous L2 learners. She is interested in language and identity, multilingual acquisition, ESL curricula design, digital literacies, etc. You can view samples of her teaching materials at www.laurabrass.weebly.com. Her article, “Eleven Unexpected Lessons of Research Writing,” was recently published by the Canadian Journal for Teacher Research: http://www.teacherresearch.ca/blog/article/2017/07/30/333-eleven-unexpected-lessons-of-research-writing.