ESL Students’ Feared Selves

Part 3 of a 3-part series on possible selves (scroll down for parts 1 and 2).

If I’m being honest, these were the most fun to read, although as I stated before I can’t share any of them with you.

It’s not some kind of sadism that prompts me to say that: The descriptions in students’ responses to this final question were much more affective in content than the first two. Rather than lists of future colleges and jobs, here we had responses more along the lines of “I have no friends and I have a SAD SAD life”. Again, you can’t see them, but you can see what types of complaints were the most common, which should be just as fun. As in my last 2 posts, I combed over each entry looking for mentions of specific subjects. Because emotions were much more commonly mentioned for the feared self than for the other 2 selves, I tried sub-categorizing types of negative affect as well.

Below was the prompt, answered by my 2 multi-skill intermediate classes and 2 advanced academic writing classes over the past 2 semesters.

Imagine the worst version of you in 5 years (the opposite of the first). What happened to your English, and why didn’t you succeed? Give details. What is different in your life because you can’t use English?

Blue = multi-skill, Green = writing


This was the least-answered prompt of the 3 possible selves. Several students said out loud when I announced the assignment that they found it demoralizing and were willing to lose points by not completing it. 71 answered (compared to 84 for the ideal self and 75 for the ought-to self), 44 from multi-skill and 27 from writing classes. The average response was 72.3 words long (compared to 77.3 for the ideal self and 60.9 for the ought-to self), possibly indicating a bit more interest than the ought-to self.

For the rest of this post, I will write response rates average (multi-skill class average/writing class average) to save space. So the word counts are 72.3 (60.5/91.5), indicating again that the writing classes wrote more.


60.5% (47.7%/81.5%) of responses overall made reference to study or studying. 35.2% (13.6%/70.4%) specifically mentioned something about formal schooling, including not being able to graduate, having graduation delayed, or not being admitted to their ideal school. Clearly, transfer and graduation figured much larger in the fears of writing students than multi-skill students (who don’t all embrace the official role of the course as preparing students for transfer after about 3 more years of credit ESL). When it came to mentioning studying outside of formal education, numbers were much more even: 45.1% (43.2%/48.1%). Students in all classes were likely to see “quitting trying to learn” as either a result or a cause of other parts of their feared selves.


Work did not figure as largely in some students’ visions of themselves after 5 years of failure as it did in their 5-years-hence ideal selves. 57.7% (43.1%/81.5%) mentioned some work-related problem in their descriptions of their feared selves – higher than in their descriptions of their ideal selves for writing students, but much lower for multi-skill students, which as mentioned 2 posts ago was 70.2% (65.3%/78.1%). Of the problems, 21.1% (20.5%/22.2%) mentioned unemployment, and 36.6% (20.5%/63.0%) mentioned having low-status or otherwise disagreeable jobs. I am not sure what accounts for the wide gap in frequency of mentions between the multi-skill and writing classes, but the relative proximity of writing classes to transfer-level English, and therefore also graduation and the beginning of employment may be related. Wal-Mart, CVS and Target were mentioned by name as undesirable places to be working at in 5 years, but many other responses discussed being stuck working in L1-speaking enclaves or in positions that didn’t require certain English skills. Understanding workplace English was mentioned fairly often as well, at 9.9% (4.5%/18.5%), with inability to understand bosses’ requests a common feature of students’ feared selves.


Non-work and non-school (but not specifically emotional) parts of their feared selves were mentioned by 77.5% (68.2%/92.6%) of respondents. Of these, inability to carry on normal daily conversations were a feature of 36.6% (38.6%/33.3%), family or friends of 28.2% (25.0%/33.3%), and L1 use of 28.2% (25.0%/33.3%) (that these last 2 have exactly the same numbers is a coincidence; they only correlate at 0.02). Of the 67.6% (50.0%/96.2%) who specified which country their feared self lived in, roughly equal amounts of the multi-skill and writing students lived in the USA: 72.9% (68.2%/76.9%). Some reasons that students gave for returning to their home countries were unemployment, aging parents, military duty, and simply an end to their student visas. Some of these are clearly not conditional on any kind of personal failure, so it is interesting seeing them mentioned in response to a prompt that specifically mentioned failure in language learning. As a reminder, 83.8% (89.4%/75.0%) of students’ ideal selves lived in the USA (and I didn’t mention this, but this is of the 61.9% who specified the country in their responses). Clearly, students in the multi-skill classes were more likely to have ideal selves that still resided in the USA but feared selves that did not. This pattern is not seen in the writing students’ ideal selves and feared selves, possibly because they are more likely to be international students whose terms of stay are assumed to be limited and partly because so many more students specified the country their feared selves would be living in than their ideal selves.

Something that came up quite often in descriptions of the feared self that was hardly mentioned at all for the other possible selves was L1 use. 28.2% (25.0%/33.3%) of responses mentioned L1 use, mostly as a negative outcome of lack of English skill, as a feature of their feared selves. Typical answers mentioned being stuck in an enclave (a blessing and a curse for ESL students in Southern California), relying on translation (ditto, but of the smartphone age), or continuing to have the same conversations about Persian food. I particularly enjoyed the irony of the last one.

Negative Affect

Pink = multi-skill, Purple = writing

Some kind of negative emotion besides bare facts of study, work, or other aspects of life were mentioned by 78.9% (72.7%/88.9%) of respondents. The categories of negative affect can be found in the chart above, and required quite a bit of revising on my part as I was reading and re-reading the responses. For example, “I feel bad because I never listened to my professors” might fall under regretful, but “I didn’t achieve my dreams because I never worked hard” might be both regretful and unsuccessful. As you can probably guess, unsuccessful became something of a bucket into which all kinds of responses that weren’t clearly any of the other emotions were placed. For the others, some (paraphrased) examples might be:

dependent: “I still ask my children to help me at PTA meetings”

regretful: “I didn’t make a plan, so I didn’t know what to do.”

unconfident: “I cannot pick up the phone when people call because I am afraid.”

isolated: “I sit in the corner when other people are talking.”

sad: “I am not happy with my life.”

This last section has made me want to look more rigorously at the kinds of negative affect that are common in students’ feared selves. In particular, I wonder which areas of negative affect affect (pronunciation challenge!) high-level ESL students more than their native-speaking college counterparts.


If you have been reading these posts (and thanks to WordPress statistics, I know exactly how many of you have), you know my writing students, partly as an extension of their longer and more detailed responses overall, were more likely to mention every topic (generally school, work, and life) than my multi-skill students, who, again, are about 2 years lower in the curriculum and often have goals that don’t include graduation or transfer. There has been only 1 exception: multi-skill students were more likely to talk about their lives outside of school and work in their descriptions of their ideal selves.

Sub-categories which multi-skill students were much more likely to mention than writing students included using friends as a means to improve their English (as part of their ought-to selves). Continuing with this theme, multi-skill students were more likely to see failure to communicate with members of the general native-speaking population as part of their feared selves. The negative emotions of loneliness and sadness were also more likely to be mentioned by multi-skill students.

Because my ability to do statistics remains at a sadly mid-MA level (what I knew when I graduated minus several years of mid-30s general neural degradation), I am limited in my ability to “statistically control” for things. The best I could come up with in order to “control” for the tendency of writing students to write more about everything was to come up with a ratio of average mentions of all topics, x=writing students average mentions/multi-skill students average mentions, and then increase all the multi-skill mention rates by that ratio. I did this for mention rates in all 3 possible selves (using different ratios for each type of self), yielding this final chart, only consisting of mention rates which differ between the two class types by 2:1 or more:

Blue = multi-skill, Green = writing

The safest thing you can say is that school- and job-related issues play a larger role in writings students’ ideal and feared selves, while life- and community-related issues do so for multi-skill students.

With that, it’s time to start planning my next semester

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