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From theory to practice: Challenging “ESL” and “international student” identity labels (Vander Tavares, York University, Canada)

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4:00 PM, Jeudi 29 Avr 2021 EDT (30 minutes)
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Vander Tavares, York University, Canada

Title: From theory to practice: Challenging “ESL” and “international student” identity labels

Keywords: identity; international students; multilingualism; ESL; case study


The number of international students studying in English-medium colleges and universities worldwide has grown exponentially over the last decade. In Canada, the number of international students had not only surpassed 370,000 in the 2016/17 academic year, but also increased at a higher rate than that of domestic students (CBIE, 2018; Statistics Canada, 2018). According to CBIE (2018), the vast majority of these students are multilingual speakers for whom English is an additional language, who continue to be categorised as English as a second language (ESL) students by their institutions, despite continuous critique of this institutional label in relation to its impact on multilingual students’ identities (Marshall, 2009). In response, critical applied linguists have proposed an approach to conceptualising identity that considers multilingual students’ multiple positions, experiences, roles, and skills in order to better reflect not only the whole individual, but also the influence of these on one’s L2 acquisition and sociocultural experiences (Duff, 2012; Kinginger, 2013; Pavlenko, 2002). This presentation shares findings from case studies which holistically explored, through interviews, observations, and participant-taken photographs, the identity-related experiences of two multilingual international students at a university in Toronto. Data were collected during the winter term of 2019, and analysed through thematic and visual semiotic approaches (van Leeuwen, 2004). Findings aim to demonstrate the complexity of and diversity in multilingual international students’ identities, which were, however, largely obscured by the “international student” and “ESL” institutional labels assigned to these students by their academic communities. These findings add to the literature on identity in applied linguistics from a higher education perspective, and highlight the importance of a critical, emic approach to identity that goes beyond facile sociological representations based on students’ national or linguistic backgrounds.

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