Understanding transnational identities of ELL students through the creation of digital stories (by Dr Jacqueline Ng)

Jacqueline Ng, our guest blogger this week, is an associate professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics and the director of the Open Learning Center at York University, Canada. She has extensive teaching and research experience in the EAP context. She is interested in exploring effective pedagogical practices to support ELL learners to improve academic literacy skills by investing their linguistic, cultural, and intellectual knowledge and identity through multimodal practices and experiential educational learning opportunities.

I used to experience this on the first day of my class: When I entered the classroom, most students were looking at me with their curious eyes and whispering with their blathering voices which seemed to express their doubt of having a non-native English instructor teaching an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) course in a Canadian university.

Taking their possible worries into consideration, I immediately introduced myself as a Chinese-Canadian, born and raised in British colonial Hong Kong with relevant educational and work experience in the EAP context. I intentionally highlighted that I myself was an English language learner (ELL) which would enable me to better understand the learning needs and expectations of my ELL students. I was even more excited to exchange perspectives of constructing transnational identities across geographic, cultural, social, and national borders with my students in order to help them unfold their dual or multiple identities (Zhang & Guo, 2015) and explore new possibilities of positioning themselves in a multicultural society.

While I thought my students were gradually relieved by listening to my language learning story, their anxiety level became manifest again when they were asked to greet each other and introduce themselves. The most widely used greeting I found in class was still the age-old question: ‘Where are you from?’. In this ice-breaking activity, most of the students simply told us their name and their home country or hometown, rather than sharing any distinctive cultural knowledge, life experience, and sense of belonging and solidarity in the new environment.  

The majority of these ELL students self-identified as international students or immigrants to Canada; yet none of them talked about their experience of being a social member or a resident in the new country. They believed that they were ineligible to enter the mainstream — despite the fact that they had been living in Canada for years, completed an acculturation process, or received their Canadian citizenship — because they could never be a “real” Canadian whose typical image has been portrayed and stereotyped in peoples’ mind. They would always be identified as visible minorities, “sojourners”, or “foreigners living in Canada” (Leong, 2019, p.175) who are expected to stay within the ELL restricted zone, as they could hardly succeed in a mainstream classroom or in the wider society.

No one was willing to express his/her apprehensive concerns about acceptance in the new culture until we discussed an autobiographical text, An immigrant’s split personality (Yi, 2002). The author, Sun-Kyung Yi, identifies herself as a Korean-Canadian when she narrates her experience as a “hyphenated” immigrant in Canada. On the one hand, Yi is not fully accepted by Canadians; she is “not Canadian enough,” as she appears, acts, thinks and speaks differently (with the accent of her first language) from the majority of Canadians, regardless that she has received her education in Canada and is able to speak fluent English. On the other hand, she is not totally accepted by the Korean community; she is “not Korean enough,” for she has close connections with her local Canadian friends and is “having too much power” as a working woman which seems to violate the traditional Confucian values and ancient codes of behavior rooted in her home culture.

In a similar vein, the ELL students in my class were originally passive and reluctant to talk about their cultural practices and values, which were usually regarded as unimportant or even suppressed involuntarily, in the school context. Although many of them claimed they had “hyphenated identities”, they did not actually enjoy the privileges of their dual identities that people often exaggerate or misinterpret. For these students, their hyphenated identities have made them outsiders in both cultures and put them in a cultural dilemma in which they could neither recognize their cultural attachment nor find their cultural roots.

To support these struggling students in the process of language learning and social acceptance, I invited them to share their interesting cultural and language experience, as well as their turning point of moving to Canada, by creating a digital story on Padlet, which is a virtual bulletin board where teachers and students can upload texts, pictures, and/or video links. Following discussions of a course reading, My language autobiography and critical reflections (Pan, 2014), and the example of my own digital language autobiography, the students produced their own story by reflecting on their bi/multilingual learning and development, cultural and family heritage, culture shock and adjustment experience, naming practice (Lau, 2019)and transnational identities in a new community. They were guided (but not limited) by such questions as: What can you tell us about your own background and your journey to Canada? Do you find your cultural practices or beliefs are similar to or different from the Canadian culture? What cultural traditions and rituals would you like to maintain and disseminate and why? What does it mean to be a Canadian? Have you encountered any challenges adapting to the new culture? Have you made any effort to make yourself a Canadian?

Padlet creations of ELL students’ digital stories

The practice of digital story creation effectively engages ELL students in a “narrative space” in which they were able to tell their personal story in their first, second or any language they felt comfortable with, and in a “reflective space” (Zaidi, Z., Verstegen, D., Naqvi, R., Dornan, T., & Morahan, P., 2016) where they could critically reflect on their identity negotiation by recognizing the values of their home language and cultural knowledge. Showcasing their digital stories in a dynamic learning space, the ELL students demonstrated positive learning outcomes through expressions like: “I am pleased to see how people are interested in knowing more about my language and culture”, “I feel the welcoming power of my story creation”, and “I’m so glad to include and hear my own voice in my digital story”. In their process of transnationalism empowered by their home language, prior cultural experience, adjustment and acceptance in the new culture, these ELL students were able to overcome the initial discomfort and anxieties and finally feel proud of the uniqueness in their identities. When the students completed their digital stories, they were asked to re-introduce themselves in class. They all claimed and reaffirmed that they have developed vibrant, integrated transnational identities enabling them to reshape and reposition themselves in new ways.

Digital story showcase: My journey from Syria to Canada


Lau, S.M.C. (Dec 16, 2019) “But what is your real name?”: Honoring transnational students’ complex agentive acts of identity negotiations in (re)naming practices.  Belonging, Identity, Language, Diversity Research Group (BILD) Academic Blog.  http://bild-lida.ca/blog/uncategorized/but-what-is-your-real-name-honoring-transnational-students-complex-agentive-acts-of-identity-negotiations-in-renaming-practices-by-dr-sunny-man-chu-lau/

Leong, J. H. (2020) The Dynamics of Cultural Identity of Chinese in Toronto, 1960s-2010s. In J. Li (Ed.), The Transcultural Streams of Chinese Canadian Identities. (pp. 174-184). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Pan, C. (2014). My Language Autobiography and Critical Reflections. SFU Educational Review7.

Yi, S.K. (2002).  An immigrant’s split personality.  In E.C. Karpinski, Pens of many colours: A Canadian Reader.  Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada, pp.406-409.

Zaidi, Z., Verstegen, D., Naqvi, R., Dornan, T., & Morahan, P. (2016). Identity text: An educational intervention to foster cultural interaction. Medical education online21(1), 33135.

Zhang, Y., & Guo, Y. (2015). Becoming transnational: Exploring multiple identities of students in a Mandarin-English bilingual programme in Canada. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 13(2), 210-229.

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