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Claiming legitimacy, constructing difference: exploring the identity negotiation of “heritage” learners in Japanese language classes

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posted on 08.02.2017, 00:54 authored by Koshiba, Kenta
A steady rise in the Japanese population in Australia has been contributing to an increase in the number of heritage learners enrolling in Japanese language classrooms. However, past studies on this group of students, especially in Australia, have typically focused on examining these learners’ experiences and identities in connection to particular communities or ethnic groups. In contrast, this case study explores the language learning experiences of individual Japanese heritage learners, focusing on the local as well as trans-local factors influencing the construction and negotiation of their identities. This study is based on qualitative data derived from semi-structured interviews conducted with seven secondary and tertiary level heritage learners who were recruited from a subject for Japanese heritage learners that was offered by an Australian university. In addition, week-long language use diaries, recordings of classroom activities and stimulated recall interviews, which were conducted in relation to translation and interpreting tasks, were also collected. The data was then analysed utilising a poststructuralist framework that recognises how power relations and discourses influence the negotiation of identities across various social fields. This study has revealed significant heterogeneity within this group of Japanese heritage learners in terms of their educational and family backgrounds as well as in the ways they present their language and ethnic identities. Indeed, these students were not inheritors of fixed identities as a Japanese, but rather were constructing complex senses of belonging through life trajectories and linguistic practices that spanned multiple nations and communities. It was also found that the participants of this study were strategically managing their identities in Japanese language classes in order to claim legitimacy as speakers of Japanese. However, this was not equated with an investment in a Japanese identity. Instead, they seemed to be pursuing the acquisition of cultural capital that such legitimacy facilitated access to (for example, high tertiary entrance scores, friendship groups and entrance into desired universities), or what the legitimacy allowed them to index (for example, the quality of one’s linguistic capital, transnational mobility, academic competence and the plurality of one’s identity). As such, for this group of heritage learners, the function of the Japanese language as a marker of ethnicity was downplayed for a view of the language as capital in itself for obtaining a wide range of interests and for constructing difference vis-à-vis monolingual peers and less competent bilinguals. In addition, a detailed analysis of the students’ engagement in translation and interpreting tasks revealed that the bilingual nature of these tasks not only provided the students with an opportunity to reflect and compare their Japanese and English, but also prompted them to contemplate and attempt to mediate between multiple social, historical and political discourses. Given the above-mentioned findings, this study thus argues for the importance of considering the transnational nature of these students’ identities and calls for a pedagogical approach that takes into account and fosters the bilingual repertoire of this group of heritage learners.


Principal supervisor

Helen Marriott

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Cultures and Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts