I met Dean and Emma and their then-two-year-old daughter Liz (not their real names) in 1992 and we’ve been good friends ever since. When I first started socializing with them, I was struck by how comfortable they were as parents and how well they integrated their young child into their social life, making her a part of conversations and effortlessly balancing the child’s needs with everyone else’s. I was so impressed with their parenting that I decided if I ever had kids, I’d like my family dynamic to be like theirs. Ten years later, when I had a daughter of my own, I thought often of Dean and Emma and in some important ways adopted their approach to family life. I didn’t ever consciously consider that they were role models, I just saw something in them that I admired and then to some extent tried to adopt it as my own.
Recent research suggests that English-language learners can benefit greatly from the influence of role models, including people they meet in daily life, public figures such as athletes, political or business leaders, and even characters in films and books. Role models can shape learners’ values as global citizens, their attitudes to communicate their beliefs about themselves, and their identity as English users.
Muir, Dörnyei and Adolphs (2021) identify four key four key dimensions for English-language role models:
• overall command of English, including size of vocabulary, grammatical accuracy, spoken fluency, and so on
• paralinguistic features such as body language, gestures, tone, and pitch of voice
• personal attributes such as skills, abilities, confidence, and sense of humor
• accent/variety of English
They point out that role models enable “vicarious learning”: watching others’ behavior and its results for the purpose of guiding and motiving personal development. In other words, role models can assist with the creation of ‘an ideal L2 self’ and provide a vision for the future. Those found in fiction and storytelling are especially good at allowing us “try on” different identities and to develop concepts of ourselves in different roles.
It’s important to note that some of the best role models for language learners are people who are themselves users of English as a second language. Other people from a student’s own first language have often been identified as especially good, relatable role models and teachers who are not L1 English users have been shown to be powerfully positive role models for learners.
Here are a few tips for helping your learners find and make use of English-language role models:
• Bring a wide variety of real first- and second-language English voices into the classroom using online audio and video or through published teaching materials.
• Get students to notice features of speakers’ use of English that they find especially effective or attractive.
• Help learners understand which of their role models’ characteristics are plausible targets for the learners themselves and which aren’t. For example, speaking with Hugh Grant’s specific accent may not be realistic, but learning to speak clearly almost certainly is.
• Give learners a clear road map for achieving their goals.
Voices, the new seven-level young adult and adult course from National Geographic Learning provides all four of the above. The course features National Geographic Explorers from all around the world, with a focus on their everyday lives: getting around town, socializing with friends, planning for the future and so on. Students make connections between their own lives and the Explorers’, notice features of effective communication and practice grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation based on the Explorers’ input.
And what of Dean, Emma and Liz? I’ve kept an eye on my good friends as Liz has grown up, left home and made her own way in the world. As my own family prepares for my daughter to go away to university, knowing someone who’s already successfully navigated those waters gives me a good model to aim for.
Muir, C., Z. Dörnyei and S Adolphs. 2021. ‘Role Models in Language Learning: Results of a Large-Scale International Survey’.Applied Linguistics, Volume 42, Issue 1, February 2021, Pages 1–23.