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Review of  Identity, Agency and the Acquisition of Professional Language and Culture

Reviewer: Prospero N Garcia
Book Title: Identity, Agency and the Acquisition of Professional Language and Culture
Book Author: Ping Deters
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 25.2351

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In the era of globalization, migration affects professionals in many fields, raising issues related to learning additional languages and cultures, or integrating in new personal and professional contexts. Through an extensive data collection involving internationally educated teachers (IET’s) working in the Ontario educational system, Deters examines the affordances and constraints of professional acculturation, and the relation between identity, agency and the acquisition of professional language and culture. This book contributes to current research on global international migration as well as second language learning by examining two prominent aspects of contemporary international migration: The professional acculturation of high-skilled immigrants, and their social and economic integration in the workplace. The book’s theoretical and practical applications make it particularly relevant for researchers and graduate students in the field of international migration studies, while its analytical nature will also benefit researchers in second language learning, acquisition, pedagogy, pragmatics, and discourse analysis.

In the first chapter (“Globalization and the Migration of Professionals”), Deters provides an overview of how social and economic transformations are affecting migration trends worldwide. Even though her study revolves mainly around the professional integration of immigrant teachers in the province of Ontario, Canada, the author successfully provides a general analysis of issues surrounding the global increase in high-skilled immigrants. Deters discusses previous literature on professional integration, focusing on the declassing of immigrant professionals, and their lack of proficiency of the country’s language as well as its culture. The author sees these and other topics, such as the existence of entry barriers, discrimination in the workplace and the process of professional acculturation as key elements in understanding the changes in migration trends of high-skilled professionals. The author concludes by linking all these issues through personal experiences and her connections to immigration issues in Canada.

In the second chapter (“Social Perspectives on Identity and Agency in SLA Research”), Deters analyzes three social approaches to the study of discourse, identity formation, and agency in Second Language Acquisition (SLA): Post-structural and dialogic theory, situated learning and social practice, and Sociocultural Theory of Mind (SCT). The author discusses the foundational principles of each paradigm, emphasizing their socially and culturally oriented perspectives, which in turn provide a theoretical framework to analyze the professional acculturation of IETs. Additionally, Deters reviews in detail previous research focused on adult immigrants learning English in naturalistic settings, since it resembles the situation of the immigrant teachers analyzed in her study. This chapter concludes with the conceptualization and tailoring of the theoretical concepts that will guide the subsequent analysis of the relationship between agency and identity in the context of professional migration.

The third chapter (“Qualitative Research in SLA”) is devoted to a discussion of the main tenets of qualitative research (QR) in connection to the investigation reported in this monograph. Deters illustrates every theoretical notion with examples from her own study, which helps the reader understand the principles of QR, and how they were operationalized here. After presenting the ontology and epistemology behind this type of research, the author discusses the strengths and limitations of using qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews, narratives, and case studies to examine the concepts of agency and identity. She then explores QR in connection to the notions of validity, reliability and generalizability. This chapter concludes with a discussion of the practical issues that arise when conducting QR in SLA, such as concerns related to design and sampling, data processing and analysis, as well as ethics in research.

While the first three chapters are more theoretical in nature, chapters four through seven are devoted to data analysis, going from an overarching, general review (chapter four) to a more detailed, in-depth analysis of some of the participants’ narratives (chapters five and six) and a longitudinal case study (chapter seven). Deters uses these different types of data collection and analysis to explore the role of agency and identity in the acquisition of professional acculturation.

In the fourth chapter (“Affordances and Constraints in the Acquisition of Professional Language and Culture”), the author discusses her findings based on a series of interviews to a group of immigrant teachers, administrators and development facilitators working in Ontario. This chapter serves as a point of departure for the discussion on the constraints (differences in language and culture; in interactions with students and parents; in beliefs and behaviors) and affordances (social support, professional development, resources, observations and practice) in IETs’ professional acculturation. Findings in this chapter underscore the importance of cultural nuances and norms in interpersonal communication, focusing on the need to reconcile conflicting beliefs and values in the process of professional acculturation.

While the data presented in chapter four was broader in nature and scope, chapter five (“The Professional Acculturation Journeys of Two Schoolteachers from Different Times and Places”) focuses on two case studies, allowing the author to examine four issues in more detail: The relationship between identity, agency, and second language learning; the affordances and constraints in the acquisition of professional acculturation and achieving professional success; the transformation in a community of practice; and the nature of identity. To do so, Deters analyzes the retrospective narratives from two IET’s, a primary school teacher originally from Venezuela (Merida) and a secondary school teacher originally from Austria (Evelyn). Both had learned and mastered English as a second language, and held permanent positions in the Ontario school system. Although the participants’ experiences learning English and adapting to a new environment could not be more different, a thorough examination of their narratives revealed the underlying importance of beliefs and attitudes in the professional acculturation of IETs, showing that agency, identity, and language learning are socially mediated.

Chapter six (“Professional Integration in Two Contexts: A Chemical Engineer in Canada and an Architect in Denmark”) is also dedicated to data analysis. In this chapter, Deters explores the retrospective narratives of two high-skilled immigrants teaching in different fields and contexts: a native from Poland teaching chemical engineering in Canada, and a Canadian architect and interior designer teaching in Denmark. The analysis identifies the relevance of the socially constructed and continuous nature of identity in communities of practice, as well as the tools used by IETs in order to achieve a successful professional integration. Deters also contrasts these narratives with those of the teachers explored in previous chapters, finding commonalities in the way that agency was socially constructed with either co-workers or mentors, underscoring the inseparability of agency from identity.

Chapter seven (“The Lived Professional Acculturation Experiences of a Teacher from Hong Kong: A Longitudinal Case Study”) is the last devoted to data analysis, and it explores the longitudinal case study (three semesters) of a teacher originally from Hong Kong working in Ontario. This chapter discusses the participant’s process of acculturation by analyzing the impediments she encountered along the way, including heavy workload and language-related issues, and the initial conflicts that arose from the situation (negative attitudes and student misbehavior). Following the structure of previous chapters, Deters not only examines the constraints, but also the affordances that helped participants, such as support from the family and the professional community, and the role of relational agency.

In the eighth and final chapter (“From Local to Global: Research Findings and Their Application to Other Contexts”), Deters discusses the empirical findings of her research, and their possible application to contexts other than those covered by her study. Previous discussions regarding the professional acculturation of IET’s are interpreted through a blend of sociocultural theory, Lave and Wenger’s (1991) communities of practice framework, and the implications of her own findings, proposing that: Identity and agency are influenced and co-constructed by social interactions that allow for individual internalization; identity mediates agency and both are influenced and co-constructed by social interactions; and professional acculturation is a mediated process between the individual and the affordances and constraints present in the environment.

Deters achieves her aim of exploring the process of professional acculturation and the relation between identity, agency and the acquisition of professional language and culture of IETs in Ontario. The book’s organization and overall clarity allow for an immediate understanding of the theoretical framework that supports the large samples of data provided by the author. I particularly enjoyed how Deters skillfully presented the implementation of qualitative research in SLA. Rather than staying within the boundaries of theory, the author explained how her data collection and analysis had been operationalized to provide practical examples of the different methods used in qualitative research.

Additionally, Deters’ conceptualization of agency as mediated by identity and socially constructed in the professional acculturation of IET’s fits nicely with the current sociocultural views of agency presented by Ahearn (2001), Lantolf (2013), or van Lier (2008). It is precisely the author’s understanding of how the acquisition of professional language and culture blends with the community of practice framework (Lave & Wenger, 2001) and sociocultural theory of mind (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006) that allows her to successfully implement a solid analysis of her extensive and varied sets of data, which could have been otherwise too diffuse.

The quality of the extensive sets of data presented is one of the book’s biggest strengths. It is through them that Deters is able to explore the socially constructed nature of agency and identity as well as the complexity of the relationships established between groups and individuals. Perhaps this monograph would have benefited from a more in-depth linguistic analysis of the participants’ narratives to clarify some of the acquisitional assumptions made by the author (i.e. “Kerry’s and Peter’s persistence and determination contributed to their acquisition of a high proficiency in an additional language” (2012: 180)).

Notwithstanding that, by focusing on adult immigrants and providing readers with a better understanding of the affordances and constraints of professional acculturation, Deters’ pioneering study fills a gap in the SLA literature. Indeed, what makes the present volume truly interesting is the fact that it provides researchers in second language acquisition with a global and unique perspective on agency, identity and professional acculturation that blends together theory and practice. In addition, this book benefits current and future IETs providing them with the tools to successfully integrate in a foreign educational system. All in all, this is a thoroughly absorbing book that fills many gaps in the fields of international migration studies and applied linguistics.

Ahearn, L. 2001. Language and agency. Annual Review of Anthropology 30, 109-137.

Lantolf, J. P. 2013. Sociocultural theory and the dialectics of L2 learner autonomy/agency. In P. Benson and L. Cooker (eds.) The applied linguistic individual: Sociocultural approaches to autonomy, agency and identity (pp. 17-31). London: Equinox.

Lantolf, J. P. & Thorne, S. L. 2006. Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Learning through Communities of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

van Lier, L. 2008. Agency in the classroom. In J. P. Lantolf and M. E. Poehner (eds.) Sociocultural Theory and the Teaching of Second Languages (pp. 163-188). London: Equinox.
Próspero N. García (Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, Amherst) is an assistant professor of Spanish and applied linguistics at Rutgers University, Camden. His research interests lie in the fields of Spanish second language acquisition and pedagogy, sociocultural theory and second language learning, technology enhanced language learning, and second language evaluation and assessment. His most recent research explores the role of agency and verbalizing in the internalization of grammatical categories, and the operationalization of Concept-based Instruction in the Second Language Classroom.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 162356574X
ISBN-13: 9781623565749
Pages: 272
Prices: U.K. £ 27.99