Negotiating Language Learner Identities: Students with Disabilities in the Foreign Language Learning Environment
Wight, Mary Caitlin Scanlan
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Language acquisition presents a learning opportunity unlike what can be found in many other subject areas. It provides students with the chance to investigate their native language, acquire communication skills in other languages, and critically think about the world they live in. However, numerous students with disabilities are being designated as Languages Other Than English (LOTE) exempt on their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). This means that many students with disabilities are losing out on this educational opportunity, which would seem contradictory to inclusive beliefs. Sparks (2009) called for advocates of students with disabilities to be "consistent with their inclusion philosophy and insist that students classified as LD be enrolled in foreign language courses" (p. 18). The absence of an inclusive learning environment for students learning another language "points to oppression of the minority population...It is problematic...to exclude a subset of the population from the learning experience because those in power fail to change the situation" (Arnett & Mady, 2010, p. 28). Rather than acceptance of this practice, foreign language education needs to change. In an attempt to further the conversation regarding the practice of foreign language exemption in the K-12 environment, the data collection for this work occurred over a six month period during the 2013-2014 school year, involving observations, journal entries, and interviews, and followed the research tradition of a case study in order to describe the language learner identities developed by five students with disabilities enrolled in their first year of foreign language study. The analysis was informed by theories of learner identities, context in language education, language ideologies, discourse, and positioning. It is argued that the students in the focal classroom were constrained by the social constructs, metapragmatic models, and language ideologies within this learning environment to negotiate identities as either engaged or disengaged language learners. These identity categorizations were not reflective of actual student ability. Rather, because of the constraints of the learning environment, these students encountered limited options. Within this learning environment, engaged language learners were those students who were able to meet the requirements of the privileged curriculum through work completion, through demonstrated strengths in the language skills within the valued domains of grammar and vocabulary retention, and through behaviors which fit within the constraints of a traditional learning environment. Students who came to take up positions and to be seen by others as disengaged language learners were those who did not complete the work required by the privileged curriculum or demonstrate strength in the valued skills of grammar and vocabulary retention as well as those students whose behaviors did not fit within the expected actions of personal responsibility and respect. It is important to recall throughout this work that the positions and identities negotiated by the five participants had little to do with desire to acquire a language or abilities in language learning, rather they were constraints imposed by the practices and beliefs of this language learning environment. The varying language learner identities of the five participants point to changes necessary in the foreign language learning environment in order to foster a more inclusive setting for all students; where student needs are valued above the curriculum and where the practices of memorization and vocabulary retention are not privileged over developing communicative and cultural competences. It is recommended from this work that policy makers take an in-depth look at the LOTE exemption and discuss why the practice exists in a historical and practical manner. If policy and research support inclusive educational environments, then a discussion of exclusive education from a particular academic area, especially one with many documented benefits, needs to occur. In order to benefit these discussions, this work calls for further research by educational researchers. Teacher educators and teachers in all content areas must work to create language learning environments based on inclusive frameworks to benefit all students, rather than those which relegate students to a narrow range of possible identities. Finally, this work demonstrates its significance through filling a research gap and by furthering a conversation regarding exclusive educational practices that need to be changed. All students have the right to develop language learner identities and access the advantages and benefits of language learning demonstrated through the research as well as through student understanding in this work.