How does Language Shape Identity?

If you have been following this blog, you know that I have been using the the fictional character Kelly to discuss learning disabilities.  This discussion continues as we start to look at how language shapes identity. Remember to go back through other posts if a new post is difficult to follow. 

As Kelly grew up, Barbara (her mother) taught her what it means to “understand”. However, their current disconnect implies that there is an internal process that is preventing Kelly from applying a specific and stable meaning to the word ‘understanding’ that would help her express her thoughts to her mother, in a way that helps her mother to fully comprehend what she is attempting to relate (Chomsky, 1988). According to Derrida (1977) the meaning of a sign is relative to its present (temporal) or historical (diachronic) foundation. He makes a very interesting turn when he acknowledges that, if the system or the history of the word has an alternate context, then the word and its meaning are different (Derrida, 1997). Did Kelly somehow stumble upon a new meaning for the term “understanding” or did Kelly never learn the word as Barbara had intended (Chomsky, 1988)?

Soja (1996) determined that “space”, in this case, the learner’s identity, is always a culturally-constructed entity that lies between the lived space, the perceived space and the conceived space (See Figure 1.2. Soja’s Learner Identity). In review of Kelly’s history her lived, perceived, and conceived location are as follows:

  • Lived Location: When Kelly uses the word ‘understanding’, she has a historical reference for the word, maybe her mother or her schoolteachers asked her to repeat a specific instruction over the years and followed those instructions with the sentence, “Do you understand?” (Derrida, 1997). This type of connection to the word would constitute her lived experience (Derrida, 1997). Kelly is living with and using the language as a way to fit into the society that is around her.
  • Perceived Location: Since the term ‘understanding’ can be hard to conceptualize for the next example, let us use the term ‘peanut’. Kelly has a current connection with the word “peanut” as it is used with other words, like “jelly”, “sandwich”, or “celery”, which would be her perceived experience with this term. Her perceived experience might also happen during a social circle at school where other kids might talk about what the word ‘peanut’ means to them. Kelly perceives how other students use language in the community she resides/lives with.
  • Conceived space: The third concept is more complicated. What Kelly is struggling to intellectualize to her mother is her conceived experience. Kelly is trying to convey to her mother that, while she does take in the information that she is taught about how to use the language; she then sees how others use and maintain that same information and that the differences between her and her peers has created the conception of herself that she is not successful.

Past research has documented that a struggle exists for the LD student and the question of “why” is still unresolved (Cooper, 2007; Cortilla, 2011; LDA, 2008; NCLB and Other Elementary/Secondary Policy Documents, 2008; National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1991). Chomsky (1988) called language a species problem (p.2). He labeled it a shared “biological endowment” that carried with it a system of knowledge that humans use to perceive information and produce responses (p. 2). This is a very generalized interpretation.

Kelly cannot access past information due to her learning-difference (LD), and struggles to pronounce the correct semantic interpretation that would aid her in her home and educational experiences, making it difficult for Kelly to become fully self-directed.  In a speech, Chomsky (2011) responds to the question, “What is special about language?” He acknowledges that only the prominent copy of the thought of a sentence is pronounced and that finding the correct semantic interpretation was often difficult (Chomsky, 2011). At some point later, he asked how a child might know the intended meaning if the child has nothing else to use for interpretation (Chomsky, 2011). What researchers must discover is how a person like Kelly compensates for not remembering what they have learned, and how to teach those compensations skills to other students with LD.

Discovering the properties of language and the ways those properties interact with learning is not as simplistic as it is written on paper or as easy as the theorists make it appear in their speeches (Chomsky, 1988). Derrida (1997) said that all perceptions, as outlined in Soja’s (1996) space theories, presuppose signs and language. He said that there is nothing outside the text, referring to “context”. He also said that we ascribe some form of meaning to something (like the word “peanut”) and we then attempt to communicate to others about the word (Derrida, 1997). He did not mean to say that there is no thought process outside of the word; he just means that we needed the word in that context to address the thing that was (in this case a peanut). Thus, when educators struggled to define the term “curriculum”, they began to outline how they plan to practice the various aspects of it instead (Oliva, 2006). Similarly, Kelly and her mother miscommunicated with one another, as the word “understanding” took on two different meanings.

Current practices are designed around one type of learner and one description of the social and cultural funtions required to train that specific learner to be both self-directed (Knowles, 1980) and ready to learn (Banks, 1993; Cortilla, 2011). Looking back, the hidden elements in the curriculum that have been established to reside in all curricula noted that students need connection and culture (Jensen, 2005; Levine, 2002; Nelson et al., 2007). Gardner (1991) noted that we understand the world through our connection with our environment. Shaw (1990) outlined the link between spacial reasoning, behavior and the senses. Some researchers equated learning to social functions where learners built new ideas from past understanding (Vygotsky, 1978). Even Bloom’s taxonomy of education was a building block that required a foundation for advancement (Eisner, 2000).  What this means is that for the LD student to become successful in current educational settings, those students need to have their own culture brought into the curriculum in order to feel as if they belong and can ultimately be successful (complete to graduation) for them to desire to continue. They need to learn in a context they understand.

By combining education theory and Edward Soja’s Trialectical Relationship Model, it is clear that there is a relationship between the following groups: see Table 2.1, Spatial/ Perceived/ Conceived Location.

Table 2.1, Spacial/ Perceived/ Conceived Processes (Soja Model)

Triangle Corner Lived Location Perceived Location Conceived Location
A= Policy, Curriculum, and Teaching The College and its curriculum. US current Day What does this school desire to teach their students?
R= Students Students in an undergraduate program. US current Day What will the student know once (if) they complete their degrees plan?
T= Knowledge obtained at school Documents, books, lecture, notes Classroom or online Will the student keep this information or will it be forgotten?
Student (Kelly) Ready to Learn: I made it through high school, can I learn at this level? Self-Direction: Can I do this without continual help? Barriers: Failing, forgetting, and/ or misunderstanding.
  • The Author (or in this case the teacher or text writer).
  • The Reader (or student).
  • Text (the curriculum or College structure).

These individual relationships have differing impacts on mastery, connectedness, sustainability, engagement, and culture (Jensen, 2005; Levine, 2002; Pace & Schwartz, 2008). Research also shows that:

  • if a student believes that they do not deserve to be in a college setting and that they do not think they are ready or able to learn,
  • that they will not be able to obtain anything from this setting and become self-directed learners, and if
  • they feel that they do not desire to remain in this setting (which is their greatest barrier), and then they will leave this setting (Cortiella, 2011, Soja, 1996).

Kelly’s feelings are further complicated by the fact that Kelly lacks any cultural, political, social, emotional, moral, ethical, ideological, or historic connection to what is being taught (Banks, 1993; Cortilla, 2011; Enfield, 2010; Jensen, 2005; Oliva, 2006; Opp, 1994). This means that Kelly does not see people like herself on the college campus. They do not experience learning in the same way. The curriculum is not designed in a way that is conducive for Kelly to slide easily into the educational process. The classroom is not automatically set up for Kelly and she must add to the environment to participate.

When the culture or background of the student is different then the understanding that is perpetuated in the curriculum (or by the teacher), the end result will be that the student understands something other than what the teacher is attempting to teach. See Figure 2.2. Social Connections to Texts and People (Levine, 2002). The smaller figure is telescoped into the larger one. This figure is included because it illustrates how people connect to what they read, write and learn.

Figure 2.2.Social Connections to Texts and People

Soja’s (1996) model is in the upper right corner (also Figure 2.2 Soja’s Learner Identity). The pyramid has been created to show how author, text, and reader bring their own individual cultures/ perceptions to what they read, write, speak and think. Those perceptions are subconsciously incorporated into the work of each person on the triangle. Unfortunately, this often leads to the inclusion of one culture and the exclusion of another.

In Figure 2.2., Social Connections to Texts and People, Soja’s Model (1996) is pointed out at the top of the pyramid, but it actually exists at each of the three triangle corners. Each corner represents the Author (Teacher/Text Writer), the Reader (Student) or the Text (Instruction/Curriculum). The center of the triangle shows the various sociocultural connections that each person in the triangle deals with on a daily basis. These sociocultural connections can be economical, ideological, social, cultural, political, physical, emotional, moral, ethical, historical or gendered. The figure outlines the dynamic between the individual perception of Students, Teachers and Text to the sociocultural environment that is internal to the individual and/or artificially created in the classroom.


Full Text Citation:

Richmond, R. C.L. (2013). Perceptions of Learning-Difference (LD) Students on How their Specific LD Characteristics Impact the Post-secondary Education Experience. Argosy University.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s