Language is Identity

This week, I pondered hard about the value of language when describing someones identity. As the cultural centre was built and the global cafe was established the importance of having confidence and pride in ones first language was so prominent for my students. However, as a second language teacher I also see learning a second language as a difficult path for an adolescent when trying to form who they are because of the struggles and hardship that come along with language learning.

As I spoke to previously, having books in the cultural centre that are multilingual and are available in languages we find in our school has been one of the greatest successes thus far. Initially, I thought that having games and a ‘chill’ space would be the grab for students, and don’t get me wrong it definitely is for some students, but mostly I find students wanting to come to share their language with the books.

As I was reflecting this week, it became obvious why…

because supporting ones “native language sends a message that their identity is valued”.

I found this quote floating along my twitter feed from the lovely Valentina Gonzalez and I could not agree more. By showing my students that I valued having them share their first language, I supported their identity as a English speaking Canadian, and a person who had another component to them as well.

As we know as teachers, along with wins there are also struggles and losses.

On the flip side of this, I had another experience this week dealing with student identity that gave me a different perspective.

Being a Ukrainian as a Second Language teacher, I find that incorporating a new language and culture with my students is an amazing gift that I give to them but, it can also be a struggle. As my students are nearing an age where constructing who they are is an important part of their social life, speaking a second language and being a part of something ‘different’ isn’t always the most appealing thing

this week the struggle was real. 

This week when my grade 7 and 8 students were required to participate in a Winter Concert with the Ukrainian Bilingual students at my school. Through the whole week I felt like I was convincing them it was a cool and amazing thing, I felt like I was struggling to motivate them and encourage them to be their best on stage and through the whole process I was feeling like a failure as a teacher. I struggled with trying to understand why they could not see and understand the same amazing value that I saw, or realize the brilliance of knowing and owning a second language.

Now, as I was counting my wins from my EL’s, I was trying to figure out how my second language learners of Ukrainian were going to buy into the fact that embracing their identity as second language learners and speakers was something that was going to shape their identities positively.

Here are some strategies that I moved through to help my students understand:

  1. I gave my grade 8 students a leadership role with the concert. They each had an organizational component to complete which included creating programs, tickets, order of the show, prop committee, and supervisors of younger classes. 

    This worked and was awesome. It made them accountable for the whole thing!


  2. Instead of getting my older students to do a play like the other classes, I delegated each student an EMCEE part that incorporated language and research of a component of culture. This made the concert seem more sophisticated- in their eyes. 
  3. I incorporated cooking! My grade 8 students cooked a traditional Ukrainian dish called Kutia (a wheat berry pudding with honey and poppy seed) to distribute to the 200 concert goers after the show. They love to cook, and we incorporated a component they could be proud of by sharing it with everyone.


  4. I stressed the value and importance of a second language. 

    Now,  if you are a second language teacher reading this you’re probably thinking “ya I do that all the time”, and I of course do as well BUT this week was unique in that I had a hurdle to jump.- I spent a whole class on this. 

    I started my showing them a youtube video on the values of a second language from the world economic forum. Check out video: 


    Then I showed them the academic path that taking Ukrainian through their education could offer. For example, I stressed the importance for University entrance. 

    I then shared my own story and how a second language could be transforming. 

  5. I followed through with allowing them to be leaders at the night of the concert.


It worked.

My students blew me away with the amount of accountability and pride that they had throughout the whole evening. They were leaders and were mature and were everything that I envisioned them being from the beginning. Their parents loved it and the feedback was tremendous.

I was even proud at the way they carried on throughout the rest of the week. They congregated together in the cultural centre at lunch time and were more focused in class time. They made me proud to be a part of their development as language took on a component of their identity.

I learned lots this week in terms of how language can be integral into the shaping of someones identity. Whether it be my English learners being able to preserve their first language and share it in my cultural centre, or my second language learners finding how being different fits into themselves.

One thing to me remains obvious: learning a second language is hard work, and there is limited immediate gratification.

In sports, you win and find immediate gratification and pay off and you learn quickly what is required of you to win again. In languages, harder work is required and for students a lot of the time, hard work is difficult to do. But in the long run, the gratitude and satisfaction that was accompany knowing and preserving language is a gift that no one will be able to comprehend.

As a teacher, second language teachers have a harder job trying to engage students constantly and help them understand the payoff. But I can tell you as I am living it, that the work is worth it because…

the payoff is eternal.

I hope you have a great week,

Miss Rylance


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