“I can express myself, but not my self” – Investigating the English language identity of Polish migrants in Scotland
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Poles comprise the largest group of migrants in Scotland. The Scottish Government’s plan has been to attract and retain them to counter the issues of Scotland’s aging population and insufficient labour force, as well as to promote cultural diversity and tolerance (Scottish Government, 2013). However, research on Polish migrants’ experiences suggests that there is a discrepancy between the rhetoric of retaining migrants in a tolerant and inclusive society and the reality, in which Poles tend not to integrate with the local communities and to work below their skill-set and education level (Kobialka, 2016). This is clearly detrimental to the aforementioned government goal of ensuring their emotional and financial well-being and sense of belonging. The existing, and predominantly sociolinguistic, research attributes these issues almost exclusively to the migrants’ “little knowledge of English” (Weishaar, 2008: 1252), whilst overlooking findings from social psychology that suggest that there is more to a person’s ‘relationship’ with the language than just proficiency. These findings suggest that one’s self-concept, or the sum of beliefs about him/herself, is strongly connected to language and may influence his/her everyday decisions and behaviour (Rubio, 2014). Thus, this current study investigated the experiences of Polish migrants in Scotland from this under-researched perspective, focusing on the relationship between the migrants’ self-concept and the English language, referred to as English Language Identity (ELI), as a concept potentially playing a central part in the migrants’ experiences. Gaining an understanding of the migrants’ ELI was believed to be crucial, in order to determine ways of preparing future learners of English to face their potential migration experience with confidence and high self-esteem. In this longitudinal mixed methods study, 20 Polish migrants were interviewed twice and they each submitted electronic journals, in which they reflected on their language-related experiences. Additionally, the findings were validated through a structured questionnaire completed by 378 respondents in the final stage of the study. The data analysis revealed that the participants’ ELI was a dynamic relationship manifested during social encounters in which they made evaluations of how successfully they managed to express their ‘desired self’, or self-concept, and based these evaluations on their perceptions of the ‘ascribed selves’. The perceived communication failure or success, resulting respectively from discrepancy or match between these selves, influenced the participants’ self-esteem, which, in turn, had an impact on their future behaviour and a range of decisions, including the decision of whether or not to remain in Scotland. This dynamic interplay between the desired and ascribed selves that essentially defined the participants’ ELI was influenced by their self-assessed English competence, beliefs about other people’s perceptions of migrants and their general beliefs about the language and its speakers. The latter, based on the assumption that Native English Speakers (NESs) are linguistic experts and ‘owners’ of the language, influenced the participants’ understanding of communication success/failure and of linguistic ‘correctness’, as well as their self-assessed English competence. These findings, coupled with findings from the fields of social psychology, sociolinguistics and English Language Teaching (ELT), were used to make suggestions for English language classrooms and for general pedagogy in Poland and Scotland to reconsider its content, in order to foster the learners’ self-growth, build their self-esteem and prepare them to recognise and address various forms of prejudice and stereotyping.