Other research

Research samples

Beyond a language boundary: Encounters with silence and L1 Spanish-speakers’ willingness to communicate in English

Analysis of a speech sample, “Gabriela” from Veracruz, México

Origins of research interest

My research at Northern Illinois University is in second-language acquisition and specifically regards the intersection of second-language-learner status, willingness to communicate in English, and silence.

Linguistic adaptability has long been a feature of human existence, with phonemic borrowing the topic of recent database studies that show “connection between historic human dispersals and patterns of linguistic variation” (Carey 2015; Creanza, Ruhlen, and Pemberton et al. 2015). Humans possess a talent for second-language acquisition that can be influenced by age, cognitive, environmental, cross-linguistic, affective, and sociocultural factors (Ortega 2009).

For much of human history, including the modern day, second languages have been learned naturalistically; linguistic systems and discourses abut and rub against each other; combinations and variations occur outside political control. Most children grow up in multilingual households and learn multiple languages “relatively simultaneously” before they are four (Ortega 2009, 4). Naturalistic language use contrasts with formal instruction, represented historically by Czech educator Comenius’s Opera didactica omnia (The great didactic), published in 1657, which develops theories of teaching language in an established sequence. Comenius’s Orbis pictus, a children’s learner, aimed to present “an ordered view of an ordered universe,” although leavened by an overriding ethos: Omnia sponte fluant, absit violentia rebus (“Let all things flow with spontaneity and let violence be absent from human affairs”) (Smith and McLelland 2014, 12–13).

Tension remains between transmission of language in the classroom and the varieties, often perceived as having less prestige, that occur in everyday life. Anzaldúa in her multigenre memoir writes extensively about the free-form use of English and Spanish dialects near the Texas border with México; furthermore, she reflects on the self-consciousness that results from linguistic ranking imposed by dominant institutions such as school, church, and family: “In childhood we are told that our language is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. The attacks continue throughout our lives” ([1987] 2012, 80).

Anzaldúa’s observations help lead to my research interest. Persistent human mobility now intersects with the reach of the bureaucratic nation-state, lending an overlay to contemporary language learning that introduces shame and marginalization into the equation. Not to dismiss the potentially transformative internal and external impacts of beginning to learn and to live with different languages, nor the anxiety that facilitates achievement (Ortega 2009, 202), my research asks questions about the challenging and perhaps unjust circumstances that add additional uncertainty to L2 acquisition. Specifically, these questions are: (1) How do marginalized social conditions – particularly, the stigmas of clandestine border-crossing, undocumented residence, statelessness, asylum-seeking, refugee status, and other conditions of forced migration and displacement – affect willingness to communicate (WTC) in the L2? (2) What socialization factors push displaced, “low-status” L2 learners into the terrain of debilitating anxiety and, especially, silence? These questions are asked primarily within the setting of Latin American migration to the United States, both authorized and unauthorized, and evolving discourses on U.S. immigration policy.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. (1987) 2012. Borderlands La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 25th anniversary 4th ed. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Carey, Bjorn. 2015. “Human Dispersal and the Evolution of Languages Show Strong Link, Stanford Biologists Find.” Stanford News, 30 January. http://news.stanford.edu/2015/01/30/language-genes-compare-012915/.

Creanza, Nicole, Merritt Ruhlen, and Trevor J. Pemberton et al. 2015. “A Comparison of Worldwide Phonemic and Genetic Variation in Human Populations.” Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences 112, no. 5 (3 February): 1265–72.

Ortega, Lourdes. 2009. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Understanding Language series, ed. Bernard Comrie and Greville Corbett. London: Hodder Education.

Smith, Richard, and Nicola McLelland. 2014. “An Interview with John Trim (1924–2013) on the History of Modern Language Learning and Teaching.” Language and History 57, no. 1 (May): 10–25.

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