The Ideal L2 Self, detained at the airport

Part 3 of an informal series on L2 motivation.

Folks in Japan are fond of saying that Japanese is a hard language to learn.  It is, but not for the reasons most people think.  Yes, kanji present a kind of challenge, but are not all that different from learning spelling in English when it comes down to it.  Subject-less or otherwise ambiguous sentences can be confusing, but are a reasonable tradeoff for the mess of subject-verb agreement rules that one would need to master for another European language.  Actually, in my view the hardest part about learning Japanese is overcoming the constant impression that you can’t and shouldn’t.

I was reading a few chapters of Zoltán Dörnyei and Ema Ushioda’s Motivation, Language Identity, and the L2 Self, mostly composed of articles in support of the new Ideal L2 Self/Ought-to L2 Self/L2 Learning Experience motivational system, which has been proposed to replace the older integrative/instrumental dichtomy.  My interest in this book was spurred by reading this post by Scott Thornbury (taken to task by Geoff Jordan for being too uncritical, but what isn’t?) and reading it has led to some theorizing on my part about my own Japanese learning experience, as well as the English learning experiences of some of my students.

Basically, my contribution is that your ideal L2 self may be easier to visualize as you get farther from contexts where you actually use your L2, because L2-heavy contexts are full of evidence that stymies your ability to imagine yourself as fluent, capable, or successful.  In Japan’s case this means you may be most motivated to learn Japanese when you interact with people less or even leave the country.

Dörnyei describes the psychological theory of possible selves thus:

According to this theory, possible selves represent individuals’ ideas of ‘what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming’

He calls these possible selves, ideal selves, and feared selves (actually the psychologists he cites do; Dörnyei has carved out a niche for himself paraphrasing psychology for SLA folks).  He distills these in his L2 Motivational System down to:

  • The ideal L2 self, the person we would like to become,
  • The ought-to L2 self, the person we feel we should be, based on
    “more extrinsic (i.e. less internalised) types of instrumental motives” and the versions of ourselves free from possible negative outcomes,
  • The L2 learning experience,  which doesn’t get to be a self.

My first thought on reading this was that an ought-to L2 self was a construct built out of a need for symmetry rather than one with explanatory power.  The way Dörnyei defines it:

[The ought-to L2 self] concerns the attributes one ought to possess to meet expectations and to avoid possible negative outcomes.

The problem is that learning a second language is itself a matter of meeting expectations, because language more than most skills is a skill whose success is determined in interactions with other skilled people.  I can’t speak for every learner, but when I imagine myself speaking fluent Japanese, there’s always at least one person listening, nodding, smiling, acknowledging my ideas.  Some learners may just picture themselves speaking (or reading, writing, etc.) fluently alone but I (research pending) doubt it.  I realize now that Dörnyei means “meeting expectations” for the ought-to self in a more immediate way, and this has led to some fruitful realizations I’ll explain below, but I also believe the definition of an ideal L2 self has to include some notion of meeting expectations, simply because of the particularly socially constructed nature of the skill being imagined.  I should really read the psychology articles that form the basis of the ideal self/ought-to self distinction so I know a bit more about what “meeting expectations” means in the context of possible selves.

In any case, there is every reason to assume the character and visibility of any of a learners’ possible selves to change as they enter and leave different learning milieux.  My students tend to react upon studying abroad as if their ideal L2 self has come into existence for the very first time and act proactively to reduce the discrepancy between their current selves and that imagined self (an observation supported by the Japan-specific chapters of the book).  In my experience, when students come back to Japan that ideal self remains visible but the steps to reach that self become more remote, and it is a rare student in Japan who has an ideal English self before they’ve ever left the country – in most cases what we’d call an ideal L2-speaking version of that student would be a feared self to them, or rather every step between not speaking at all and complete fluency would be, a stranger and a threat to their Japanese identities.  Some students who have a clear ideal L2 self need more work than others at building the bridge between their lives in Japan and the version of themselves that they saw while living among English speakers – in a lot of my work with kikokushijo “returnees”, the portion of their identities that remained in the other culture, i.e. the degree to which they continued to see themselves as Americans or Canadians living in Japan, was a big indicator of success.

Dörnyei correctly emphasizes the importance for motivation of visible steps between current selves and ideal selves:

…possible selves are only effective insomuch as the individual does indeed perceive them as possible, that is, realistic within the person’s individual circumstances.

And here we come to my own learning experience.  I have the opposite experience to most of my students.  My palette of possible selves, both good and bad, changes when I’m in or out of Japan, but my ideal L2 self gets farther and farther from my mind as I fly westward over the Pacific, while my completely inept feared self is like a uniform I unwillingly wear every day.  The person I imagine meeting people’s expectations as a fluent speaker of Japanese, my ideal self, is in conflict with the ought-to self I can see meeting people’s expectations right now that I move out of their way so they can talk to my wife instead.

In most of the circumstances I’m in in Japan, existing as a fluent Japanese speaker is very difficult to visualize.  It’s quite easy, on the other hand, to imagine what it would be like not to know Japanese at all – it is in fact what people assume about me in every new interaction.  I’ve lived here for 12 years, but I’m still very well acquainted with what it is like to be fresh off the plane.  If I didn’t speak Japanese at all, my expectations would be in line with those of most people I meet.

In order to convince people of my hard-won language skill, I have to do a lot of imposing.  I have to impose my will to be taken on my own terms over the neighbor’s will to make the very fact that can speak the topic of every conversation.  I have to impose my confidence that I will make sense over the ticket-taker’s expectation that I will not.  I have to impose my self-respect over the convenience that would come from playing dumb.  Sometimes this results in a successful interaction; other times it just seems to annoy people that I’m insisting on a selfish need for esteem.  Often I take the expedient route and just play along with the scenario in my interlocutor’s head, because all this imposing is hard work.

On the other hand, when I go for a while without the experience of being treated like a novice, i.e. when either I’m not in Japan or I have a long period of time where I don’t meet anyone new, my ideal L2 self comes back into view.  I start reading again, make an effort to speak grammatically and with my full vocabulary, and even try to improve my handwriting.  It’s easier without all the countervailing evidence of people ignoring my hard-won skills to imagine myself having smooth conversations or writing kanji to communicate, not to elicit compliments on how I can have conversations or write kanji.

My ideal L2 self is like my dad.  He’s ostensibly from this place, and to many people this is the place he should feel the most at home, but he actually prefers to stay on the far side of the Pacific and I think he generally finds interacting with people in Japan awkward and full of unmet expectations.  The last time usually I see both my dad and my ideal Japanese-speaking self is at the airport a little after Christmas.  Same time next year!

The most motivated I’ve ever been was back before I moved here, but after a few good vacations – one with family and two by myself, visiting friends and acquaintances – which made me think that with hard work I could become a functioning and even respected member of Japanese society.  I listened to J-pop (Judy and Mary and Shiina Ringo, X-Japan too), tried to enjoy anime and made hundreds of kanji flash cards.


My handwriting has improved since then.
Here, on the other hand, I only catch the occasional glimpse of my possible Japanese-speaking self, usually when I’m:

  1. at home, or
  2. talking with someone I’ve known long enough where the fact that I speak Japanese has long since stopped being an interesting topic

These aren’t most situations.  In most situations “meeting expectations” as my ought-to self says I should means I have to deny my ideal L2 self and put him on the ideal L2 shelf until my next break from Japan.

4 thoughts on “The Ideal L2 Self, detained at the airport

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s