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(Re)conceptualising Time and Space in Multilingual Identity Research: A Comparative Study of Public and International High School LOTE Learners in China



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Wu, Xinran 


Prompted by the recent expansion of school-based language-other-than-English (LOTE) programmes in China, this study gives a holistic and multileveled account of the opportunities and challenges faced by Chinese high school LOTE learners in different school contexts through investigating the dynamic construction of their multilingual identity (MI) over one academic year. In this study, MI refers to one’s self-perception as a multilingual and awareness of one’s multilingual repertoire, reflecting an affinity to being or becoming multilingual. MI consists of three sub-components: Experience, Evaluation and Emotion (the 3 Es), and is in constant interaction with the Environment. Developing a greater understanding of how learners negotiate their identities through time and space is crucial for empowering foreign language learning. By examining the non-linearity of MI development, this study therefore aims to address this need by answering the following research questions: 1. How do LOTE-learning students’ multilingual identity evolve during one academic year in the international and public high schools in China? 2.What factors influence their multilingual identity development?

Framed by complex dynamic systems theory, the research consisted of a longitudinal study with qualitative orientation. Data were collected in parallel fashion in an international school (n=35) and a public school (n=24) over the course of one academic year. Participants (L1 Chinese, L2 English, L3 Japanese) were high school students (15-17 yrs) who were in their first year of Japanese learning. Multiple methods were adopted to reveal the patterns of their MI development at differing levels of granularity: the students’ mono/multilingual self-ratings and three rounds of Q sorting activities demonstrated group-level patterns while the interviews (six rounds) and study logs (20 entries per student) from the focus cases (International school n=9; public school n=7) revealed the idiosyncrasies in learners’ subjectivities. Furthermore, cross-case and cross-school comparisons gave rise to recurrent themes and factors that shaped the students’ MI.

Analysis revealed unique opportunities and struggles faced by the participants as emerging multilinguals and Japanese-as-L3 learners. The findings demonstrated the adjustment, progression and enrichment of learners’ MI, analysing the convergences and divergences in their MI development at both the individual and group levels. It was found that MI was constantly shaped by multileveled internal and external factors functioning on various timescales. Spaces, including the wider society, the school and family provided resources for learners’ on-going MI construction, which were then taken up by the learners, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly. Meanwhile, interpretations of past experience and expectations for the future also served as essential parameters for the on-going recalibration of MI. Three sets of tensions emerged as decisive for the participants’ MI development, which were the tensions between students’ own and others’ beliefs, their lived pride and prejudices as well as those between ideals and realities. Those tensions, reified and concretised by time and space, had different manifestations and impacts on the individuals, who were not just passive ‘products’ of the contexts, but also ‘producers’, showing agency and ingenuity in self-identification as multilingual learners and users.

The findings revealed that both time and space have subjective and intersubjective aspects and one’s construal of time and space is constantly being reframed through the lens of current MI. The two dimensions are entangled and multileveled, synergistically forming an organic site for MI negotiation. I argue that the tempo-spatial context is not only crucial to our understanding of the developmental history, the on-going negotiation and the future tendencies of a person’s MI, but also offers insights regarding how to cultivate a more centralised, durable and resilient MI by providing the identity resources needed through the environment. The Tempo-Spatial Model of Multilingual Identity Development, proposed in this study, can be a useful tool in providing a dynamic, holistic and contextualised view of MI construction by integrating the time and space, which are framed as subjective, relative and interrelated, into the MI construction process. The implications of such theorisation and potential applications of my findings will be discussed.





Forbes, Karen


language education, language learner identity, LOTE learning, multilingual identity, Q methodology


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge