Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Third Language Learning Experience Of Chinese Ethnic Minority Bilinguals: An Exploration From The Perspective Of Identity Construction

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posted on 2022-09-12, 21:23 authored by Jianfeng Cheng

China is a multi-ethnic society comprising of the dominant group (Han) and 55 ethnic minority groups. Besides the mother language of Han—Putonghua (modern standard Chinese), there are over 80 languages spoken by ethnic minorities. To comply with the national language educational policy, like every student in the country, ethnic minority bilingual students must also study a foreign language which is usually English.

Since the 1960s, researchers have argued for the cognitive advantages of bilinguals in learning a third language (Cummins, 1977; Jacobsen & Imhoof, 1974; Saif & Sheldon, 1969; Vildomec, 1963), and most Third Language Acquisition (TLA) models up to now have been theorized from a psycho-cognitive point of view. However, given the distinctive social and educational backgrounds of minority bilingual students may have a profound influence on third language learning. Therefore, my study aims to add a socio-cultural perspective to research on TLA by exploring the language learning experiences and identity construction of nine Chinese Ethnic Minority Bilingual (CEMB) students at a Chinese university established for ethnic minority students.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, language learning identity is multifaceted, changing and a site of struggle. In Darvin and Norton (2015)’s revised model of investment in language learning, identity is further elucidated as a struggle of competing ideologies and imagined identities. Drawing on this model, my study explores the changing identities of this group of bilingual speakers as they learn additional languages in different social settings.

By combining narrative analysis with thematic analysis, this qualitative case study not only offers thick description of the social contexts, but also examines how these minority bilingual speakers position themselves and how are they positioned in the task of learning another language, and how they perceive affordances and constraints to their third language learning experience.

This study found that participants’ identity construction was influenced by their proficiency in their home language (L1), their physical appearance, their commitment to the dominant social ideologies, and their experiences of different educational settings. How they positioned themselves at the time as well as how they saw themselves in the future influenced their motivation and what they perceived to be their strengths and weaknesses in learning a third language.

These findings bring insight into the significance of identity in TLA in social contexts and suggest practical implications for language education. The fostering of the identities available to learners from minority backgrounds is likely to support their L3 competence and optimise cultural and linguistic diversity within multilingual China.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

3 Applied research

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



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Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Gleeson, Margaret; Crabbe, David