January 2016
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Nikki Ashcraft, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri, USA

Most TESOL teacher education programs contain a module or course on second language acquisition (SLA) theories. Important theories covered in this component of the teacher education program include those related to individual learner differences. These individual differences encompass the effects of the learner’s age at the time of language acquisition, level of language learning aptitude, motivation for learning the second language (L2), attitudes toward the L2 and the L2-speaking community, personality characteristics, social identity, learning styles, as well as the use of language learning strategies (Lightbown & Spada, 2013; Gass, Behney, & Plonsky 2013).

As a teacher educator, I want the teachers in my SLA course to engage with these theories about individual learner differences and to apply them to better understand the experiences of real learners. A common learning task for teachers in such courses, then, is to ask them to read a memoir written by a person who has learned a second/foreign language and to write a paper analyzing the effects of individual differences on the learner’s second language acquisition process. Here, I will briefly review four memoirs that are suitable for such a project.

In Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (Rodriguez, 2004), the author recounts growing up in a Latino immigrant family in California during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. He describes his educational experiences, from his first day in first grade through his graduate studies. A substantial portion of the narrative addresses his language, literacy, and identity development and conflicts. Interspersed with the narrative is Rodriquez’s commentary on bilingual education (i.e., he is against it) and the role of education in assimilation and social mobility.

In 1959, a then 13-year-old Eva Hoffman emigrated with her family from Soviet-era Poland to Canada. In Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, Hoffman (1990) describes her struggles to learn the language and to fit in with her teenage peers. Cultural adaptation and the immigrant identity are dominant themes.

Rich’s (2009) language learning narrative, Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language, is more contemporary. She began studying Hindi as an adult, first as a foreign language in the United States and then as a second language during an immersion experience in India. Thus the book highlights the differences between learning in foreign and second language environments. Rich also interviewed many experts on second language acquisition, cites a number of academic articles and books, and connects the theories presented therein to her own language learning experience.

The edited volume How I Learned English: 55 Accomplished Latinos Recall Lessons in Language and Life (Miller, 2007) contains short narratives from 55 Latino authors who learned English under a variety of conditions. Some began learning English as children, others as adults. Some began learning English while still in their home countries; others learned once they had arrived in the United States. The authors also represent a broad range of motivations for learning English and describe the multitude of language learning strategies they employed. The variation among the experiences represented in this volume wonderfully illustrates the effects of individual differences in the second language acquisition process.

In my own graduate TESOL studies (back in the day!), we were asked to read Hunger of Memory (Rodriguez, 2004) and Lost in Translation (Hoffman, 1990) and to write a paper comparing/contrasting the experiences of the two learners, using an individual differences framework. In the graduate TESOL course on SLA that I teach now, I give a similar assignment. However, I assign How I Learned English (Miller, 2007) as these narratives focus specifically on language learning. Also, since the narratives are shorter, and the book contains 55 of them, teachers can engage with a wider variety of learner experiences.

Have you used language learning memoirs in your teacher education courses on SLA? Please share titles that you recommend on our TEIS community discussion list!


Gass, S. M., Behney, J., & Plonsky, L. (2013). Second language acquisition: An introductory course (4th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hoffman, E. (1990). Lost in translation: A life in a new language. New York, NY: Penguin.

Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2013). How languages are learned (4th ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Miller, T. (Ed.). (2007). How I learned English: 55 accomplished Latinos recall lessons in language and life. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society.

Rodriguez, R. (2004). Hunger of memory: The education of Richard Rodriguez. New York, NY: Dial Press.

Rich, K. R. (2009). Dreaming in Hindi: Coming awake in another language. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Nikki Ashcraft is an assistant teaching professor in the TESOL program at the University of Missouri. She is past chair of the Teacher Education Interest Section.

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