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Review of  Second Language Identity in Narratives of Study Abroad

Reviewer: Mercia Santana Flannery
Book Title: Second Language Identity in Narratives of Study Abroad
Book Author: Philip Benson Gary Barkhuizen Dr Peter Bodycott Dr Jill Brown
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 25.3754

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Review's editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Those currently involved with the teaching of foreign languages can attest to the increased popularity of study abroad programs. In the United States alone, and despite the decline that immediately followed the events of September 11, 2001, there has been a consistent uptick in the number of students seeking the experience of studying abroad. Some world events, including shifts in the economic balance caused by the disastrous effects of the real estate market crash of 2008, and the birth of new business zones, such as those represented by the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and now South Africa), have resulted in continuous demand for the teaching/learning of the so called less commonly taught languages. Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese and Chinese have become very desirable foreign languages, and there has been a considerable number of students seeking opportunities to study in the countries where these languages are spoken, some of the new sites for study abroad programs.

Among the countries with the highest number of students participating in such programs are the United States and countries in Asia. China alone sent 235.000 students to the United States between 2012­ and 2013, a 21.4% increase in a one year period, according to the website And between the years of 2009 and 2010, Benson et al. write, “75,000 students below the age of 25 from Hong Kong were attending courses of one year or longer overseas” (p. 6), which makes this region an “ideal site for research on study abroad” (p. 7). These statistics are part of the justification for the writing of “Second Language and Identity in Narratives of Study Abroad”, which considers the narratives written by students from Hong Kong who embarked in study abroad programs in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, and the United States, among a few others, to improve their linguistic skills in the target language, in their case, English. This context of increased interest in experiences, as well as the current emphasis on globalization (culturally and economically) makes this book a timely read for all those involved with, or interested in, the implementation of such programs, particularly teachers, directors and students.

The book is organized in three parts, and ten chapters. In the first part, “Second Language Identity and the Study Abroad”, a thorough review of the literature on narrative, identity and study abroad programs is presented. Narrative is discussed both as a methodological tool to collect material for analysis, and as data, i.e., the material upon which the analysis/comments will be based. Justifying their position, the authors cite Polkinghone (1995), for whom there is a “narrative analysis” and the “analysis of narratives” (p. 11). The authors claim to do both, relying on the written narratives of the participants of study abroad programs as a means to collect the information that foregrounds their discussion, and as a way to convey their results. As the authors state, “[t]he idea of narrative is central to this book as it informs both the methodology of the research on which it is based and the way in which we report its findings” (p.7). More will be said about this below.

Chapter 2, “Second Language Identity”, introduces several facets of identity, what it is, how it is achieved. The chapter also attempts to draw connections between narrative and identity, and the experience of studying abroad. The authors assume that second language identity is the “aspect of a person’s identity related to their knowledge of a second language” (p. 17) as their working concept. Second language identity, as the authors show, involves “a specific set of identity issues that arise from having expanded the categories and resources available to people who speak only one language” (p. 29). Chapter 3, “Study abroad”, offers a discussion of the experience of study abroad and its impact on the formation of one’s identity. After a review of the relevant literature on the topic, the authors comment on the several benefits associated with the exposure afforded by the immersion in another culture, from managing one’s own “living arrangements” (p. 48), to “transition to another stage of education” (p. 49).

The second part, “Dimensions of Second Language Identity”, offers more details about the notion of identity in its relationship with the acquisition of second language competence. This part consists of the practical application of the principles and theories reviewed in the previous section. Each one of the three chapters in this part focuses on one aspect of the development of students’ identity, as they recount their experiences abroad. In chapter 4, “Identity­Related Second Language Competence”, the narratives of two students are presented, and the authors discuss the ways whereby these experiences of study abroad did or did not contribute to fostering sociolinguistic competence, how the students dealt with challenges, and how this was seen as an effective achievement of their higher goal of appropriating the use of the target language. Chapter 5, “Linguistic Self Concept”, introduces two other narratives, which serve as the basis for the authors’ discussion of students’ views of themselves as users of another language, in addition to how they believed themselves to be perceived by others because of their use of the target language.

The third part, “Programmes and People” is organized in three chapters, each detailing a different aspect of the study abroad experience in its relationship with individual and personal differences, and the type of program. Chapter 7, “Study Abroad Programs”, looks at two narratives detailing the experiences of one undergraduate and one secondary student. The chapter concludes with a discussion on the advantages of each program, combined with the expectations of, and specific positive outcomes for, the students, revealing “the complex interplay between programme features and the individual student’s second language identity” (p. 127). Chapter 8, “Individual Identities”, discusses how a student’s own identity in its several facets i.e., previous experiences with the target language, or travel and study abroad, the goals and expectations may impact their acquisition of a new identity through their second language learning experience.


All these conclusions are derived from the paraphrases of students written narratives about their experiences abroad. This aspect of the methodology also contributed to one of the book’s weaknesses, in my view, which is the repetitive commentary of the reports throughout all the analytical chapters. In addition, this organization of the narratives also poses a problem from the point of view of the analytical process per se, considering that a layer of meaning may be lost, to some extent, when we ignore the very act of telling a story, its narration, relying on the content of the accounts for their face value. In this case, it would have been helpful to have an explanation as to why, from the 48 case study narratives collected over a period of three years, only ten were selected.

In different linguistic approaches to the study of narrative, it is customary to include the text in its entirety, or excerpts, along with the discussion. This methodological approach to the study of narratives allows the readership to become acquainted with several contextual elements pertaining to where the narratives emerged. As a student and an analyst of narratives, someone who enjoys reading and listening to other’s stories (perhaps partly why we become narrative analysts), after reading each one of the paraphrases of the students written accounts, I yearned to know more about their authors, who they were, how old, or to what extent the narratives that they write are a reaction to the demands of the situation, i.e., a response to a research question. Also, considering the phenomenal interest in, and widespread reach of, technological tools of communication, it would be fitting to include a comment on the impact, or lack thereof, in the development of second language identity. Indeed, this need for more contextualizing information goes beyond mere curiosity, as it would allow understanding the circumstances surrounding the process of narration itself. I also wondered why we, as readers, weren’t shown the original accounts, even if in an appendix section.

Further, narratives are such an ideal site for the consideration of issues pertaining to identity because, as Schiffrin (1996: 42) appositely indicated, they provide a “sociolinguistic self­-portrait” or “a linguistic lens” through which individuals offer a view of themselves, both “through an ongoing interaction and as part of a larger social structure”. Thus, shouldn’t attention be given to the very enactment performed when students write down their experiences? It is precisely because context plays such an important role in the shape that a narrative may assume that so much attention has been dedicated to the detailed presentation of its several facets, including the circumstances of data collection, and social categories, such as age of the participants/contributors, as well as what they knew about the project, if anything, and in what language each one of the accounts was written (we are told in the first chapters that a combination of Cantonese and English was used for data collection, but to know when the students used English while reflecting about their second language acquisition could be a very relevant piece of information).

The book is relevant for all those interested in second language acquisition, including directors of study abroad program, as well as teachers and students alike. The contributions of the volume are many, not least of which is the application of narrative as a methodological tool to the study of second language acquisition, attempting to call attention to the impact that such experiences may have for second language identity construction. There are many ways in which the ideas discussed in this book can be further developed, including the application of similar principles to the research of second language identity for languages other than English, and the variety of participants from different parts of the world. In addition, there are home immersion programs that could be good research sites for similar projects; these programs seek to implement a target­-language­-only approach as a way to emulate some aspects of the abroad experience. The book also raises interesting questions that can be addressed in ethnographic research. Specifically, this new context created by the intense and rapid development of study abroad programs posits several challenges pertaining to how individuals of so many different backgrounds interact and attempt to forge news ideas of self, in part dictated by the new demands of our ever, and fast, changing, interconnected societies.


Edden, Elizabeth. International Study Up. Nov. 2013­find-s­increases-­international-enrollments-study-­abroad

Schiffrin, Deborah. 1996. ''Narrative as Self­-Portrait: Sociolinguistic. Constructions of Identity'' Language in Society 25(2): 167­-201.
Mércia Santana Flannery is a Senior Lecturer in Foreign Languages and the Director of the Portuguese Language Program of the Romance Languages Department at the University of Pennsylvania. She has earned a PhD in Linguistics from Georgetown University. Her research interests include narrative, race and identity, and the teaching of Portuguese as a second language. Her publications cover a range of topics within narrative analysis and Portuguese.

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