Using narrative to learn about people

Professor Gary Barkhuizen collects and studies stories, to learn about why and how we teach and learn languages.

"When I first came to New Zealand from South Africa in 2001, I went around the country from Invercargill to Whangarei, interviewing Afrikaans speakers about their new language practices and identities in New Zealand. People talked passionately about how they missed speaking Afrikaans in the supermarket and the bank; how they missed particular kinds of humour and church hymns and what one of them called 'the whole Afrikaans feeling'.

"I noticed that what happened in those interviews was a sharing of stories — of social encounters, of emotions — and those stories were powerful. So that's part of why I started becoming more interested in narrative research. This is not the study of narrative itself. Instead it is about using narrative, inviting stories, to learn about people. Researchers not only collect stories but construct stories — theoretically informed stories — from the data that we have.

"What I have been doing for the past 15 years is looking at different ways we can use narrative in our field of language teacher education, to learn about the experiences and identities of teachers and language learners. I use a number of different approaches — for example, analysing 'short stories' extracted from interviews. I have devised writing templates that I call 'narrative frames' which help to scaffold stories by offering participants a story outline to complete. A larger number of participants can be involved in research that uses narrative frames than in research that only uses one-on-one interviews."

Becoming a language teacher is about knowing who you are. It's not just developing a set of skills.

Professor Gary Barkhuizen

"Teacher identity is a strong focus for me. Becoming a language teacher is about knowing who you are. It's not just developing a set of skills. In the 1980s, language teachers were seen as technicians; they were told what to do and how to assess, how to set lesson plans. But of course, teachers are individuals who can think and make decisions, so over the last 25 years or so, teacher cognition has grown as a field. Who the teachers are — their identities — will change how they're educated, how the curriculum is designed, and so on.

"Stories are important to our identities. Through the stories we tell, particularly of our own experiences, we not only perform and display our identities, we also construct them. Identities are forever developing, depending on the places we find ourselves, the people we interact with, what we think and do. Our stories capture not only what happened but also our reflections and evaluations of those experiences.

"We also tell stories about the future. Imagining our futures and what we do in the future relates very much to how we conduct our lives now. In applied linguistics, it's used in motivation theory: language learners imagine themselves being fluent speakers in a job in the future — and that motivates them to engage more in language learning in the present.

"And of course, life might turn out differently from what we imagine. A masters student who collaborated in a narrative inquiry project with me told a story about how she'd never become a high school teacher; she imagined herself teaching English as a second language to adults in her immigrant community. But nearly a decade later she is now a high school teacher; her stories have changed, and so has her identity. Which is what happens with us all."