How we see ourselves

Motivational theories are busy discussing the power of our self-image on whatever we try to achieve or learn. It’s then only a matter of common-sense to accept that this self-image is crucial when we learn another language – as language IS itself such a sensitive channel to communicate who we are. 

I recently wrote elsewhere about the wonder-progress one of my students made years ago. No, he was not some smart teenager. No, his mother had not talked to him in English as a toddler. No, he hadn’t done any expensive – and intensive – private courses. He was a sales manager in his late thirties, an engineer by profession, who had no special inclination for philology. Analysing the factors accounting for his speedy progress beyond the intermediate level I found two things to be crucial. One is related to the conceptual power I discussed here in the last 2 posts – competence / knowledge within his communication domain + the conceptual ability to make the most of his experience. The other was his self-image. 

He explained to me that he had always seen himself as a winner, and that was why he enjoyed challenges, anticipating the satisfaction of winning. His “winner” self-image motivated him when playing tennis, when negotiating a contract, when delivering a presentation in front of an international audience in his MBA programme – and yes, indeed, when learning English for his professional development. Learning English was for him yet another task that he knew positively he was going to accomplish and for this goal he had activated his typical protocols (strategies and tactics) leading him to task achievement: planning, strict and regular self-study sessions, personal involvement (“being there”) and so on. 

Now this is a very neat supporting example for the motivational theories concerned with the self-image. Everything would be lovely if it was that easy to categorize. 

I can’t help thinking, however, about two other students I had. Neither of them had learnt English in school. One of them kept labelling herself as an “idiot”, she said, hating her pronunciation, calling her English “blabbering and stuttering”, sceptical when I reminded her she was an upper-intermediate language user. She was anything but an idiot: a very appreciated, demanding and rigorous project manager, later country manager in a certain industry that is well-known for its highly-qualified people. Her pronunciation: I’d heard much more terrifying consonants in politicians’ attempts to use English. Her speaking: helped a great deal by her conceptual ability (yes, again!), she would only search for words in a natural way, as one usually does when one is aware that the message they are trying to communicate is not trivial. 

The other case was a very successful HR manager. She would label herself “hopeless” with regard to English, “impossible to listen to” when having to present and the list of self-reproaching attributes could go on. Again, this was an upper-intermediate-to-advanced user. 

So how had they learned the English they did know? If their self-image, at least regarding their use of English, was so negative, how is it possible that their learning efforts had nevertheless proved so effective? As I said, neither had learnt the language in school; if they had, one could at least have speculated that they had learnt without knowing. Without being aware, that is.

Approached logically, this problem leaves two possibilities. 

1. Their self-image as English speakers was disastrous, but their self-image as professionals overrode their inhibitions. In this case, self-image is a concept that needs to be further detailed, as does the concept of influencing, affecting or boosting: which self-image exactly might influence language learning?

2. Their declared self-image was poor, but their innermost self-image was the opposite. Maybe in a partly unconscious way, some people prefer to denigrate themselves as a means of face-saving (for their own face) or face-preserving (for the others’ faces). In transactional analysis terms, they might simply be stroking themselves or their interlocutor. This is not to mean that they are hypocritical. Such stroking strategies, if that is what they are, are often not conscious and are deployed with no cheating purposes. Whether or not they signal insecurity on the part of such people, I’m not sure. Both cases of managers above were, at least professionally, not just extremely competent, but also appreciated and successful within the corporate world, which proves that insecurity might play, if at all in their cases, an insignificant role. 

To sum up, it could be that there are several “selves” within us. The key to success, whatever we undertake, could simply be which self we are betting on.

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