Using near-peer role models for language learning

Jade Blue

Teacher Trainer, Jade Blue, advocates the importance of near-peer role models when it comes to language acquisition, as evidenced by current research and personal experience, and shares some ways teachers can encourage this in the classroom.

Language role models: Bettina and Izzy

Some years ago I started going to evening classes to learn German. In the early stages of my studies, I frequently thought of two German speakers who I aspired to be like in my language ability. The first, Bettina, is a native German speaker in her fifties whose English level at the time was only elementary. She was always patient and generous in her efforts to converse with me in German, and despite my low level of German, our conversations were largely very rewarding. But I longed to have the language resources that she did as a native speaker. You’d think this might have motivated me to invest more in my German language studies, but sadly not.

The second person I aspired to be like was Izzy, a fellow student in the evening class I was attending. While grouped at the same level, Izzy’s vocabulary range and language knowledge were a little more advanced than mine. I always chose to sit next to her in the lessons, worked hard to keep up, and outside of class would invest extra time into studying. In this sense, although a lower level learner like myself, Izzy had far more of a practical influence on my engagement with both the language and, perhaps more importantly, my learning.

The ‘ideal L2 self’

The mental image I had of myself successfully communicating in German was in part inspired by Bettina and Izzy as role models. This mental image is referred to as the ‘ideal L2 self’, which relates to a learner’s sense of identity in the second language and refers to a “desirable self-image of the kind of L2 user that one would ideally like to be in the future” (Dörnyei & Ryan 2015:87). Dörnyei’s theory of motivation describes the ideal L2 self as a powerful motivator in learning.

In creating visions of their ideal L2 selves, learners may identify other speakers as a source of inspiration and as linguistic role models – in my case Bettina and Izzy. In observing these others speakers, learners may then incorporate aspects of their performance into their own desired ideal L2 selves. However, in order for them to become successful motivational tools, the ideal L2 self must be plausible. What the learner hopes to achieve in terms of language development must be realistic in order to be of practical use.

What makes a ‘near-peer’ role model?

My interactions with Bettina certainly inspired me to be more creative in my attempts to explain what I wanted to say, and so had a very positive impact on my communicative competence, but in aspiring to be like her as a language speaker, I was setting myself an unrealistic target. Although I enjoyed our conversations, I often tired quickly, and felt daunted by how far I was from where I wanted to be, linguistically. The gap between where I was at and my perception of her was so great, it was barely worth trying to close it.

Izzy, however, proved a more plausible model. A non-native speaker like myself, she inspired more confidence in me, and it wasn’t unrealistic to suppose that my linguistic capabilities could become more like hers. As well as language ability and nationality, Izzy was also closer to me than Bettina in terms of age and interests. I saw her more regularly, and she lived closer (in the same city as opposed to another country). While my respect and admiration for Izzy made her a role-model, it is these other factors in common that made Izzy a ‘near-peer’ role model.

As researcher Leigh Clarke states, in language learning, “near-peer role models can provide tangible examples of successful second language (L2) speakers for learners with similar backgrounds. They can represent more realistic, achievable and believable targets than native speakers who speak a learner’s target language as their first language (L1) or mother tongue.

Encouraging near-peer models in the classroom

So what are the implications of this for classroom practice? As teachers, encouraging learners to identify near-peer role models has the potential to both empower the learner and to contribute to more effective acquisition of language. Things we can do in the classroom:

  • Talk to our learners about the principles of near-peer role models
  • Encourage learners to think about their peers as role models
  • Ask learners to describe their peers and aspects of their language ability that they admire
  • Discuss how learners could go about developing these aspects themselves

Further Reading
Dörnyei, Z. & Ryan, S. (2015). The Psychology of the Language Learner Revisited. Oxon: Routledge. p93.
Dörnyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. eds., (2009). Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (Vol. 36). Multilingual Matters.
Murphey, T., (1998). Motivating with near peer role models. On JALT97: Trends & Transitions, pp.201-205.

If you’ve enjoyed this article from Jade Blue, you might also like her article on supporting learners with specific learning difficulties.

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