The (one)self learning self, the one that lets itself go.

A reflection on the process of language learning from the perspective of one’s self

The identity of the learner-self is shaped at the moment – and even before – when the process of acquiring a new language begins. Thus, our self as a speaker of a single language will never be the same once we begin the process of learning any other language.

Mari Mar Boíllos and Alberto Rodríguez-Lifante
Key words
Identity, ethnolinguistics, learner-self, second languages
Recommended readings

De Costa, P.I. y Norton, B. (2017). Introduction: Identity, Transdisciplinarity, and the Good Language Teacher. Modern Language, 101 (supplement), 3-14.

Miccoli, L. (2013). Aproximando teoria e pratica para professores de linguas estrangeiras. Brasil. Belo Horizonte, MG: Fino Traco Editora.

Jullien, F. (2017). La identidad cultural no existe. Madrid: Taurus.

Follow us
RSS Feed.

Identity and related concepts

Identity has become an increasingly important variable of study in the field of language acquisition. Identity implies talking about me, about my self, about that entity that learns a new language, lives it, suffers it, looks at it without leaving aside the rest of the selves present in a process throughout life. And the fact is that the experiences with each of the languages that enter our lives end up being part of that paradoxical system that each one of us is. However, referring to this concept requires considering the terms used in the bibliography (ego, identity, auto-, self, among others): do they speak of the same thing despite using different concepts?

Identity can be a puzzle, a set of pieces shaped by lived experiences. From a post-structuralist approach, identity is an ever-changing construct determined by society and, therefore, by the languages in which that society interacts. From a social perspective, this concept is no longer defined by factors such as origin, but is understood as a construction in constant negotiation based on all the interactions in which we participate. Thus, everything we are exposed to is variable, shaping the self that gives us a false appearance of stability.

The self, my self as a learner – to distinguish it from the learner-self – ceases to be a flat character to become the protagonist of the novel of learning. It is a polyhedral self that changes according to reality and survives it.

Languages, feelings, and identities

Language shapes and defines what might be called ethno-linguistic identity. Hamers and Blanc (2000) speak of this as a feeling of belonging to a new group that is identified by sharing a spoken and written language. However, at the L2 level, the speaker is not only part of one group, but lives in different identities which make their models undergo a continuous process of restructuring. If we think of our world today, it is difficult not to wonder how a language can be associated with a single identity and how that language should be understood as part of these boundaries between different linguistic and cultural worlds.

It is interesting to recall in these lines Block’s (2013) view of what is known as the “silent period” in which the speaker undergoes an internal struggle in the face of abandoning an omnipresent mother tongue to make way for something unknown. The silent period, therefore, is no longer just a phase that occurs in early acquisition, but could be interpreted as a phase that every new speaker undergoes in which they lose their identity, they feel that their speaking-self is being disrupted and they look, sometimes with fear, at this new multilingual speaking-self that they have just been introduced to.

If speaking of identity in the process of learning a language is also to speak of that silent period, shouldn’t we be interested in the value of silence in language learning? (Gattegno, 1963; King, 2013; Bao, 2014; Cremades López, 2019).

It is not just about learning to interact in new contexts or developing linguistic skills that challenge all the linguistic models learned so far. It is about being different and assuming that the self that knows another language will never again be the self that only spoke its mother tongue. It is about understanding that the new self will question everything it has done and said so far and will look at its daily life from a new point of view.

The construction of identity in the L2 teaching-learning process

And I, as a language teacher, cannot remain oblivious to this process. Although the current trends in second languages have championed the importance of focusing the teaching-learning process on the learner, after this reflection, there is a question that becomes even more important: is it possible to teach knowing that my student will no longer be the same in each session? In the model of key competences for language teachers presented by the Cervantes Institute (Moreno-Fernández, 2018), there is a reference to the need to involve students in the control of their own learning and, perhaps, this dimension should reflect on identity, not only intercultural identity, but also the identity of the learner-self.


Bao, D. (2014). Understanding Silence and Reticence. Ways of Participating in Second Language Acquisition. UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Block, D. (2013). Issues in language and identity research in applied linguistics. Estudios de lingüística inglesa aplicada, 13, 11-46.

Cremades López, L. (2019). El silencio en el aula: actitudes y experiencias de un grupo de futuros profesores de idiomas [Trabajo de Máster], Repositorio de la Universidad de Alicante: Universidad de Alicante. Recuperado de

Gattegno, C. (1963). The silent way. Teaching foreign languages in schools (5ªed.). Nueva York, EE.UU.: Educational Solutions Worldwide Inc.

Hamers, J. y Blanc, M. (2000). Bilinguality and Bilingualism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

King, J. (2013). Silence in the second language classroom. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moreno-Fernández, F. (dir.) (2018). Las competencias clave del profesorado de lenguas segundas y extranjeras. Madrid: Instituto Cervantes. Recuperado de:

Back to Top