Ideal L2 Self

I was reading an article recently by Yashima (2009) about the concept of an ‘ideal L2 self’. The article described the difficulties that many Japanese students in particular have in imagining an L2 Self that is separate from their L1 identities and that “Japanese students’ ideal selves are typically formed without an L2 component” (p148). Often Japanese learners want the language tools to be able to interact with members of the target community without necessarily becoming a part of it. As Yashima says, Japanese “are not particularly interested in identifying with [native speakers]” (p145). They often want merely the experience of speaking the target language for a variety of reasons but are generally unwilling, or even unable, to let go of their L1 identities and imagine an L2 self. In a globalised world, even the target language community can be hard for Japanese to identify (p.145). Students may want to learn an idealized ‘Queen’s English’ that does not exist or some vague notions of ‘for travel’.

I’m interested though in how this affects classroom language and interaction. I’ve noticed that quite a few of my students, far from L1 interference, are in fact speaking the L1 – with L2 lexical items. Here is an example. Asked to describe which the ‘classroom’ was from a set of pictures, a student produced:

Classroom is right side toilet under picture.

At first glance this seems a valid attempt by a beginner student at producing the target language but actually this student has been studying English about once a week for two years. If we look more closely, compared with the Japanese we can see that it is in fact merely a transliteration of the L2 with ‘is’ functioning as topic marker:

教室は 右側、 トイレ のした. 絵
kyoushitsu-wa migigawa toire no-shita e
Classroom-topic rightside toilet under picture

The grammar in terms of its ideational and textual features is entirely L1. It also features a distinct lack of any interpersonal features, which is entirely the point – it is a way of maintaining maximum distance between their ideal self and the L2 self. It could even be said that this student has not, in any real meaningful sense, learnt any English at all in two years but instead enough English lexical items which then can be mapped onto the L1 lexicogrammar sufficient to satisfy classroom communication. In fact, nearly all of the language produced by this student revolves around ‘is’. Another example:

Teacher: What are you doing this weekend?
Student: Weekend is play tennis

Again, the ‘is’ here is not functioning as a relational Process but as a topic marker. Similarly, ‘play tennis’ is not a material Process + Participant but is a single lexical item.

The classroom then, in the absence of any sense of an outside ideal L2 self or sense of a participation in a wider target community, becomes a language community of two – teacher and student – and, being a commercial relationship, the Vygotskian idea of Zone of Proximal Development becomes inverted and it is the teacher who must come down to the student’s level for communication to take place rather than the other way around. As nothing changes in this context from week to week, the student makes no real progress. While this particular student here might be an extreme case it is by no means unusual in a Japanese commercial EFL context. The question is how, or if, this can be overcome and help students create an L2 identity.

Yashima, T, (2009) “International Posture and the Ideal L2 Self in Japanese EFL Context” in Dornyei, E.Z & Ushioda, E (Eds.) Motivation, Language Identity, and the L2 Self, Multilingual Matters


About eflfunc

I'm an EFL teacher in Japan and this is a blog to record some thoughts on using Systemic Functional Linguistics in the foreign language classroom.
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