Discourse on a Language-Learning Trajectory: An Undergraduate’s Progress Beyond Becoming a User of English to Developing an English-Speaking Identity

Yuta Homma, Kanda University of International Studies

Huw Davies, Kanda University of International Studies

Homma, Y., & Davis, H. (2022). Discourse on a language-learning trajectory: An undergraduate’s progress beyond becoming a user of English to developing an English-speaking identity. Relay Journal, 5(1),31-52. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/050104

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An undergraduate student evaluates his four-year self-directed language learning journey at a university in Japan, and—together with the learning advisor he shared his learning journals with—puts forward a proposition about how the process of transformational learner development works. The paper begins with a year-by-year autoethnographic account of self-directed study, through analysis of journal entries. Next, the authors draw on Kato and Mynard’s (2015) Learning Trajectory in Transformational Advising to develop a revised model. This model hypothesizes that following a transformational experience, learners need to rebuild their worldview, which can be a draining process. This reconceptualization of what happens after a transformational learning experience is of use to educators and course designers, in order to ensure learners are given appropriate support, and to students in assisting them to understand their current situations.

Keywords: undergraduate experience, self-directed learning, reflection, language advising, transformational learning

Whenever I (Yuta) look back on my language learning, I cannot help being impressed at how far I have walked along the path of English since entering university and how many unexpected processes I have been through without realizing it. On the path, I have encountered various difficulties and struggled to overcome them. While many struggles did not always bear fruit overnight, the experiences gradually enabled me to consider myself with objectivity and depth and helped me discover new perspectives into my English learning. On this journey, I have become a reflective and autonomous language learner (Davies & Homma, 2021). Over the past 4 years of my undergraduate studies, I have taken the Effective Learning Modules offered by Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS) six times (see Self-Access Learning Center, 2016). As part of these modules, I have kept reflective journals, co-constructed with a learning advisor, which detail my weekly thoughts and feelings about my priorities, learning style, and English skill over a 4-year period. 

We will draw upon Kato and Mynard’s Learning Trajectory in Transformational Advising (Kato & Mynard, 2015, pp. 13-15) as a framework to help us understand my development. This framework suggests that a language learner goes through four stages as their depth of reflection and autonomy increases: getting started, going deeper, becoming aware, and transformation (see Figure 1). We noticed that I went through this process when observing the feelings and the growing awareness I expressed in my journal entries from year to year.


Figure 1. The Learning Trajectory in Transformational Advising (adapted from Kato & Mynard, 2015, p. 13)

In this paper, we begin by presenting my (Yuta’s) year-by-year analysis of the language use, linguistic structures, and feelings I expressed within my reflective journals, in order to give an autoethnographic account of my learning journey. We then use the themes emerging from this account to expand on the Kato and Mynard model and create a visual representation of my learning trajectory over 4 years, before considering the process of learner development in general and offering ideas on when students might need support in their own learning journeys.

Year 1: Ambiguous Clarity

During the first year in university, students generally are able to engage with new ideas and develop fresh thoughts. In my case, my major was English, so thoughts such as an eagerness to speak the language fluently and listen perfectly always revolved in my mind. Simultaneously, another important focus point of my learning was getting a high score in the TOEFL exam. In fact, in the first year of my journal, I tended to write about using learning strategies focusing on the development of listening and speaking skills (e.g., shadowing the scripts of listening sections of TOEFL and watching TED videos with subtitles). 

However, as the title of this section, “Ambiguous Clarity,” suggests, any specific goals other than achieving a high score cannot be observed in my journal entries, so, in short, despite my eagerness, my reason for learning English was vague. Thus, in this section, I investigate this gap between the lack of specific aims and the eagerness for language learning from the descriptions in my journal, based on two aspects: linguistic features and feelings.

Linguistic features: Fact-centered descriptions

The language people use often reflects their lived experience and social history (Hall, 2012); therefore, it is worth exploring the grammar and vocabulary I use in my journals. Through this language analysis, I aim to reveal the connection between a learner’s identity and a target language: how the language is related to the process of thinking and what changes can be observed as the connection develops. In the descriptions written during my first year, both grammar and vocabulary were much simpler, and the length of each sentence was short. This tendency showed that there was a distance between the English language and my identity as a learner and that I was wandering around the field of the language; I did not have any clear strategies, so I tried whatever I thought was good.

Vocabulary. In my experience, command of vocabulary is key to convey ideas and thoughts. Therefore, as one’s productive vocabulary develops, more complex and deeper written expression is possible (Qian & Lin, 2020). However, in looking back at the entries in my first-year journal, the range of vocabulary was limited: Adjectives for depicting detailed emotions and situations I was in were scarce, and nouns and verbs tended to be used just to convey the weekly plan and what I did, or did not do, in a particular week. Also, the same expressions were repeated often, for example, words such as “could” or “can,” “couldn’t” or “can’t,” and “achieve” appeared in almost every journal entry.

Grammar. Another element related to the reflection on the learner’s self and finding new aspects is grammar. Although complex sentences do not necessarily indicate deep reflection, the variety of sentences can enrich the range of expressions, which gives a more accurate picture of thought processes. Observing the journals written in my first year, my grammar use was limited, and in most cases, the contents I could convey at that time were minimal. Examples include, “In this week, I could achieve my goals” (July 9, 2018) and “I tried dealing with a little bit difficult video” (July 16, 2018). One common grammatical feature was simplicity, with similar sentence patterns and little variety throughout. 

Contents. Combining these two features, vocabulary and grammar, enables me to analyze the contents of my journal more deeply. As mentioned above, the linguistic characteristics from my first year had a high level of simplicity, meaning both the word usage and the range of grammar were limited and each entry was repetitive. This linguistic simplicity also influenced the contents of the journal in that the descriptions were prone to be fact-centered: Depictions merely showed what I did (or could do) and what I did not (or could not) do, while seldom mentioning my thinking process and affect (i.e., feelings). In other words, when getting started on my language-learning journey, my reflective journal was merely a tool to convey minimal information, so at this point, the connection between English and my identity remained hidden.

Feelings: Illusion of clarity

Behind this fact-centered information, I had an optimistic but vague idea that I could improve my English by getting a high score on the TOEFL test. In addition, my ideal self as an English user at that time was closely related to the ambiguous idea of speaking with confidence and understanding without any misunderstandings. Following this future image of myself, I focused mainly on enhancing my listening skill, so some descriptions showed this preference, for example, “The video which I chose was very appropriate for me” (July 5, 2018) and “Listening is very suitable for me because I can address this goal (vocabulary and TOEFL) between whiles” (June 25, 2018). In these sentences, one notable point is that there were many descriptions of the weekly learning plans, but detailed accounts of my thoughts or feelings were largely absent. Essentially, my early writing style depicted the cognitive gap in my language learning where I did not have any obvious images about why I was learning English, despite thinking I had a clear aim for my language learning.

Year 2: Wandering Around Language Learning

In essence, the second year was when I felt directionless. The fresh feelings and eagerness I had towards my language learning during the first year had ebbed away, and my language learning began to be filled with a feeling of indecisiveness. Although my language competency had increased and my TOEFL score had improved, I felt dissatisfaction and uncertainty about my language learning. While I had achieved my goals from the first year (improving my speaking ability and increasing my test score), I felt things had become monotonous. However, looking from a different angle, these feelings imply greater awareness of the ambiguity of my ideal image of an English user, and my second-year journal entries demonstrate a deeper introspection in contrast to the matter-of-fact descriptions I had written during the first year. In a sense, the second year was the ignition point of changing my learner identity, and I started to establish a more concrete motivation towards learning.

The following section inspects the changes in my language learning through the second-year journal, and I aim to illustrate that a sense of desire for reading influenced my learning self linguistically and psychologically.

Linguistic features: Connecting descriptions and facing discord

As outlined above, one noteworthy change in the second-year journal is that I came to write about my feelings along with descriptions of my weekly language learning. In the first year I seemed to focus on linguistic gains. Thus, many of the reflections lacked continuity. In contrast, I started to pay attention to the learning process from my second year, and as a result, this made my reflections logical and connected. Observing the linguistic choices which I made in the second year, the vocabulary functioned to express my feelings and thoughts, with an increase in adjectives and adverbs. The grammar was more expressive and had more variety, and accordingly the contents were increasingly analytical of how I learned. 

Vocabulary. During my second year in the university, I was provided with a number of opportunities to consider what learning English meant to me. Yet, during this time I had many difficulties to deal with, such as demotivation, aimlessness, and a sense of stagnation in my English proficiency. The vocabulary I used reflected these struggles, and words with negative connotations appeared often––words such as “demotivation,” “frustrating,” “lazy” (or “laziness”), “couldn’t,” and “difficult.” However, I expressed my situation with a more varied range of vocabulary, especially using adjectives and adverbs (e.g., “demotivated,” “difficult,” “comfortable,” “unstable,” “satisfied”). Furthermore, I can now see that the negative expressions indicated a latent frustration that my learning plan was not working as I had expected.

Grammar. Along with the change in vocabulary, I began to use more grammatical variety and more complex structures. While the entire grammatical style in my first-year journal was simple, with disjointed sentences conveying divergent and momentary content, the grammar in my second-year journal allowed connections between sentences and clauses, for instance, “This week, I faced less motivation, but compared with the week when I faced it, I could deal with [less motivation] well” (June 25, 2019), and “This week, I succeed in sustaining my learning plan and keeping better motivation than last week” (June 4, 2019). As seen in these examples, it is clear that each clause had a connection with one another and became more complex. One effect of the more advanced grammatical structures was that the contents became more chronological. In other words, in contrast to the momentariness of the entries in my first year, the second-year journal showed that my language learning developed step by step, and my reflections acquired multidimensionality and a diverse perspective. 

Contents. The linguistic development described above is connected to the more detailed descriptions, including feelings, chronological comparisons, and thoughts that I included in my journal. Examples include: “This week was also good for two weeks running I reviewed the topic of [BBC] 6 Minutes English, and I could deepen my understanding more than the first week of the topic” (June 23, 2019) and “So far, although I have faced with obstacles, especially laziness, I can continue to deal with the habit, so I would like to keep it until the [second] semester ends” (June 16, 2019). Each example shows that in addition to what I had learned, I described my thoughts and plans, and my language learning proceeded with wider possibilities and connections. 

However, the second year was the transitional stage in my language learning because the descriptions increasingly showed struggles to find a better way to study English and negative feelings followed by failures. At this point, I was at the stage of development Kato and Mynard (2015) call “going deeper” (p. 14). I was beginning to question the effectiveness of my existing learning processes, and I found myself to be increasingly uncertain and incredibly uncomfortable because of the unsteadiness of my language learning. My discomfort is described in my journal entries, as the following examples show: “I think this new learning plan will expand my expressions and lead to the improvement of English skills, especially listening skill” (September 25, 2019). This extract shows that I was highly motivated to learn English with new material at first. However, as the weeks progressed, the entries began to contain negative expressions: “My learning recently has been unstable” (October 30, 2019), “This week, I got less motivated” (January 10, 2020), and “I could not concentrate on my learning habit…” (December 20, 2019). This illustrates that I had tried improving my learning style, but I still could not picture myself as a user of English and did not feel that English was a part of my identity. Looking back, I can now observe a surprising phenomenon within these journal entries: My thought process became more logical, but my motivation decreased. The linguistic features in the journal showed my process of thinking becoming chronologically connected, but there remained a discrepancy between my ideas about the English language and my identity. My learning style was not well-established, and I lost some of my desire.

Feelings: Becoming less reliant on English competency

My journal entries came to focus on the process of learning, utilizing an expanded vocabulary and more complex grammar. However, at this stage in my development, there was still an instability in my language learning. This section examines my thoughts behind going deeper, especially focusing on uncertainties in my language learning. One conversation between two students I overheard during my second year comes to mind:

A: How much do you want to improve your English skill by the time you graduate?
B: I’ll be just fine if I can get my English up to a conversational level.

This short talk led me to inquire, “What does it mean to speak English fluently?” Since entering university, a high score on the TOEFL test and fluent English conversation had always been the goals in my language learning. However, these criteria of English competency have two problems: externality and ambiguity. My motivation for the TOEFL test was externally organized. The university offers a scholarship for students who get a score of more than 600 on the TOEFL test, so one of my reasons for studying English was to get that scholarship. In a sense, this shows that the scholarship came before my interests in the language itself, which also indicates that motivation came from an external factor. Concerning ambiguity, while high marks on that kind of test suggest competency in a language, and tests can be of benefit to language learning, high scores do not necessarily guarantee that learners can use their target language with ease, because the topics in tests are restricted. For example, the TOEFL ITP test is designed to measure English skills focusing on academic topics (ETS, 2021), which shows that there is a limitation in its evaluation of overall language proficiency. Learners can become motivated by visualizing their level according to the test, but it is also noted that no test can include all elements to measure all aspects of a language. Therefore, a cognitive gap can arise between learners’ ideal images and their actual usage outside the measured topics, and this ends up leaving learners with ambiguities. 

The two problems, externality and ambiguity, were also relevant to my goal of speaking English fluently. First of all, my motivation towards fluent conversational English, in retrospect, partly came from the external belief that high proficiency meant speaking the language fluently. While speaking is one of the important factors in evaluating the level of learners, I overly connected it to my image of highly proficient users. In particular, my initial learning style focusing on shadowing reflected this belief, but this way of learning never increased my motivation due to its obscurity. I was eager to develop speaking and listening skills, but I did not know my interests or what I wanted to do in English. This made my shadowing strategy aimless. In other words, speaking skills are opposite to the TOEFL, where the scope is limited. While the TOEFL test has a strict limitation because its measurable topics are mainly academic, speaking skills, in contrast, have no actual border, and this breadth gave me difficulty in keeping track of my progress. I aimed to be able to speak about as many topics as possible, and I practiced shadowing on various topics without any particular strategy. However, I gradually felt that this unmethodical approach made it impossible for me to develop because conversation in any language is fluid and changes its form and usage depending on the situation. In summary, a sense of the instability in my language learning arose from externality and ambiguity in the TOEFL test and speaking skills. In the case of the TOEFL, my motivation came from an external factor, the scholarship, and this was limited by the fact that the test cannot cover all areas of English proficiency in its measurement. This prolonged my state of ambiguity, in that I was not aware of my actual proficiency other than the test score. With regard to speaking, it was external in that it was my belief, which came from what was taught to me at school, that language competency excessively depended on speaking skill, but its ambiguity was due to the absence of milestones I could evaluate.

Year 3: Constructing Desires

The transformation I experienced in the second year led to remarkable differences in my attitude, and it triggered the construction of a more tangible aim, a desire to read in English. This shift started from the middle of my second year and was accelerated through the entire third year. During this period, it can be observed that linguistically, my journal entries evolved in their richness and depth in vocabulary, grammar, and content, and also, through exploring aspects of myself other than language, I gradually became active in my attitude towards language learning, unlike my passiveness during the second year.

Therefore, in this section, I aim to analyze the writing of my third-year journal, focusing on linguistic features and feelings. Also, I will show that desire played an important role to galvanize an active attitude towards my learning and make its quality possess internality and clarity. Namely, during my third year, I became more aware and noticed my first “transformational shift” on my language learning journey (Kato & Mynard, 2015, p. 14).

Linguistic features: Depth, richness, and integration

Compared to the previous journals from the first year to the second year, the third-year journal contained more variety of expression, and its entries were much longer. Also, the descriptions themselves came to deepen the introspection of my learning. Looking at the big picture, transitions in my module are clearly observable; while the first-year journal entries only described facts about what happened to my language learning with simple vocabulary and grammar, the second year showed a progression through more diverse expressions and complex structures. Furthermore, one significant development in the third year was integration, where the target language began serving a function to delineate inner parts of myself and led me to weave new aspects. Therefore, the following linguistic observation below focuses on word and grammatical choices and illustrates that I became more aware of self-development and gradually recognized my shift from being a language learner to a language user. 

Vocabulary. I used a greater variety of vocabulary in my journal entries, which suggests a deepening of my understanding and recognition towards my development. At a glance, the range of the vocabulary in the third-year journal did not change as drastically as the periods between the first and second year. However, in this period, not just negative words but also more words with positive tones tended to be used to explain my learning process, for example, “successful,” “sustain,” “motivated (or motivational),” “improve,” or “could.” What can be seen here is that unlike the previous two years, I came to analyze the process of my English learning from an objective perspective and tried establishing a connection to my next ways of learning, while the journal entries written in the first year only featured shallow aspects and in the second year were pessimistic on the whole. 

Grammar. With more diverse word usage, the development of grammatical structures contributes depth and objectivity to the contents of analysis. The key difference is that I explored things from various perspectives. For instance, the reflection on June 15, 2020, states: 

Although the total time of my learning this week was lower than last week, I think the quality of learning itself improved because, until last week, my learning style still had been a little bit confusing, but this week I could integrate what to do in my learning more compactly and this integrity prevented me from losing motivation toward language learning.

This sentence includes a number of components such as what happened, improvements, positive points, reasons, and chronological comparisons. Although longer sentences do not always mean that reflections are deep, this extract demonstrates consideration of several details using longer and more complex grammar. The ability to use a wider range of grammar enabled me to consider aspects of my language learning more deeply, including facts, feelings, time, incentives, and reasons. 

Contents. The descriptions written in the third-year journals reflected more facets of my learning process. One essential phenomenon not previously present in my journals was “integration.” As opposed to the second-year journal featuring the discord between language learning and myself, through the third year, the distance was gradually shortened, and accordingly my learning changed into a more unified style. One reflection from my third-year journal shows this integration process in detail: “I think that my learning style seems like not how to learn English but rather how to read books effectively” (June 21, 2020). This short sentence implies one change, where I was gradually shifting from merely a learner into a user of the language. When analyzing this transformation, it can be seen that English changed into a language for speculating about myself and constructing new thoughts. For example, these sentences written on July 20, 2020, demonstrate how I came to think in English more and use English not only to understand one text at a time:

This week, apart from usual Mishima’s book, I started to read new “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings” and I thought that changing books is a better way to keep me motivated toward reading. As I said, I, as possible, would not like to leave books which I once began to read unread, but I came to think changing books sometimes can lead me to reading as many books as possible after all rather than just focusing on one book per week when considering my motivation.

As shown in the above descriptions, I utilized language not just to write down what I did but to develop my ideas or thoughts further. In conclusion, the contents of the third-year journal indicated an integration between English and myself, where I started using the language for deepening and widening my mind.

Feelings: Propelling myself forwards

The previous sections describe the process where I started becoming an English user, and this transformation also caused English to turn into a language for me to use for speculation. My transition cannot be discussed without taking into account the drive for learning, so I will scrutinize the establishment of this concept and show that the integration process was triggered by the desire to read. The concept originated in the middle of the second year. At that time, the externality and ambiguity had always followed my studying and impaired my motivation as mentioned in the previous analyses. One day, however, I encountered a book about learning grammar through the works of Hemingway and began to wonder whether the development of my listening skills would be possible through reading activities. When I asked Huw about the effects of reading on listening skills, he explained the mutuality between each language skill and encouraged me to try a new learning style––reading books for listening. Thanks to this change, my motivation gradually returned, although it did not change overnight. My desire to read in English evolved gradually. This experience was evident in my learning plan. From the fall semester of the second year, reading became a part of my study strategy in addition to using the TOEFL test materials. Week by week, my new reading strategy replaced studying for the test, and by the end of the second year, my studying had completely changed from being test-focused to reading what I enjoyed. 

In my third year, I selected books on themes close to my interests such as psychology, literature, and philosophy, and my learning became centered on how to read books accurately and what I could learn from them. The important finding here is that learning the language itself was no longer the aim of my language learning, indicating that my interests and language learning were fully integrated. The reason for this dramatic alteration was the combination of my preference to read and learn other subjects with language learning, and this consistency had led to further motivation and development as a language user. At the root of this phenomenon, the awareness of my enjoyment of reading played a significant role. Reading gave me a sense of using the language with an active attitude, unlike studying for the TOEFL test, where I mechanically memorized vocabulary and learned how to read faster. Although there is no denying that studying for the tests laid the basic structure of my English skills to read books that are in line with my interests, my process of reading consisted of thinking about the contents and weaving new perspectives, and these sequences were central to my language learning as further motivation, or in other words, “desire.” In sum, it can be observed that my being active in the process of reading formed desire, which became the source to drive my language learning with higher motivation, and it caused this shift that propelled me to shift from a language learner into an English user 

Year 4: Heightening Resolution

Throughout my third year, the aim of my learning became gradually clearer, and as an ignition point, focusing on desires increased my incentive towards studying the language. At this point, as a user of the language, my learning strategy started to become established, and English came to serve a purpose for me beyond tests. In the fourth year, the connection of my interests with English became firmer, and here the language became a way to explore myself with more profundity. My study style benefitted from having a clearer image about why I would like to learn English. In short, my desire to use English increased, but at the same time, this high aspiration gave rise to two seemingly antithetical feelings: increased self-confidence and inferiority to other English users.

The struggle I experienced between my increasing self-confidence and a greater sense of inferiority suggests that beyond an experience of transformation as a learner, the direction of progress is not necessarily upward (Kato & Mynard, 2015; Figure 1, above). In fact, in order to rebuild my understanding of the language-learning process post-transformation, I was forced to challenge my values in a similar way to my second year. In fact, my continuous advising sessions with Huw early in the semester became longer than usual and started to resemble the sessions described by Kato and Mynard for “going deeper,” rather than “transformation” (Kato & Mynard, 2015, p. 14). 

In this final part of journal analysis, I contemplate the background of my acquisition of a clearer image about studying English and explain that the seemingly binary feelings that I experienced, self-confidence and an inferiority complex, are structurally connected with each other. I focus on two areas, linguistic features and feelings.

Linguistic features: Reinterpreting the language-learning process

Compared to the third year, the language I used in the fourth-year journal features more meditational descriptions, where I tried exploring my feelings to pursue the reasons for my actions analytically. While the diversification of word choice or the complexity of grammatical structure were not noticeably different to the other years, the length of entries increased, and the content gave an impression that each sentence described internal processes rather than describing the facts. Until the end of the third year, my motivation had been unstable, and my studying ended up unsustainable without my knowing the cause. However, the fourth-year journal had more analysis of the catalyst of my feelings and possible solutions. I will now explore these journal entries, focusing on language choice and content, and reveal their descriptive patterns. 

Vocabulary. The change in my vocabulary choice was a mixture of positive and negative expressions, and what this inclination meant was that, in the current fourth year, I had become more aware of the multiple aspects of learning. Previously, if a plan did not work, I would regard it as a failure without analyzing the reasons for it. Concerning negative words, instances include the words such as “demotivated” (or “demotivation”), “could not,” “(did) not go well,” “dilemma,” and “a sense of rush” on the one hand. With regard to positive ones, on the other hand, what can be seen are expressions such as “improvement,” “could,” “enable,” “recover,” “keep,” “work well,” and “realize.” As these instances show, the fourth-year journal increasingly used both negative and positive language, and also, it is clear that the interpretations about my studying became more objective and tried seizing upon both improvements and achievements. 

Contents. The change in the vocabulary choice and the length of the descriptions influenced the contents as well, and as mentioned in the outline and vocabulary analysis above, the journal became more introspective. I carefully investigated my feelings and thoughts as objectively as possible, keeping my perspective broader. One instance of objectification is seen in the following descriptions in an extract from my fourth-year journal: 

Regarding what I acquired this week, I found that I could write more opinions or thoughts about the usage of the words in the sentence and its structure. Before establishing this style of learning, I focused on reading aloud longer texts and seizing the entire context of the texts, but I often outlooked the meanings of each sentence and this prevented me from deeply understanding the texts. In contrast, this learning strategy inevitably makes me think about texts sentence by sentence, so I can clearly seize detailed contexts of texts. (July 18, 2021)

In this context, I reconstructed my learning strategy and tried a new one that week because I could not have continued my existing plan from the previous week. As a result, this new strategy was successful, and the journal entry detailed this experience clearly. From here, it can be observed that the journal focused on factors for the success of the new learning plan in detail, such as the comparison with previous entries and the characteristics of the strategies and methods used. In the other years, especially from the first year to the second year, the journals lacked the analysis of reasons for achievement and further advancement. Moreover, there are depictions of improvements from the same entry: 

Concerning improvements, I still need to make my plan more concise to deal with learning even if I haven’t enough time due to things I have to do. Therefore, I will consider room for making it simpler. Also, it’s about time to read longer texts.

Even though the learning plan that week ended with a positive result, I tried critically analyzing the improvements for possible future situations and constructing measures against the learning strategy’s weakness: in this case, its complicated procedure. As a whole, each description on the same date pays attention to positive elements and improvements with as few biases as possible, and in this sense, it can be said that the analysis in my journal becomes more objective. Another point was that the deepening of the introspection and the resolution towards my feelings drastically heightened, which caused two conflicting feelings. Looking back on the previous years, my journals tended to touch the surface of feelings, not access the source of them. For example, if negative feelings such as demotivation and stagnation emerged, I had no difficulty writing about those feelings as they were, but my entries always overlooked what made me feel that way. This ignorance of the source of feelings impaired my studying because, without knowing the reasons, I was unable to realize my interests to better my learning strategy, and moreover I felt forced to learn.

However, as I wrote about my emotions in the fourth-year journal, descriptions gradually explored the origins of my feelings and brought forth their ambiguity and complexity. An instance of this change includes the below descriptions: 

One of the problems that I have been faced with since the beginning of this semester is uneasiness. I am in the fourth year and I haven’t much time to spend on learning, but at the same time, I am facing with job hunting and have to struggle with it. However, only after I became the fourth year could I get a clear image about why I would like to learn English and what I want to learn in the university, so I am in a dilemma between learning and things I have to do. (July 6, 2021)

As seen from the above description, this journal started with the mention of the negative feeling, uneasiness, and by degrees traces its roots. Following specific situations behind the emotion, I eventually realized that uneasiness was tightly connected to a dilemma. In other words, the journal had become a tool for self-analysis, illuminating the complex structure of my feelings. In my fourth-year journal, I developed the quality of analysis and became better able to understand specific reasons or causes in both my learning and feelings.

Feelings: Discord between self-confidence and inferiority complex

The previous section shows my tendency in my journals towards pursuing my learning and feelings from broader and deeper perspectives. Along with this increase of depth, two emotions, self-confidence and an inferiority complex, became evident in my fourth-year journal, so this part explores the roots of the two feelings and the connection between them. 

Through the first semester of the fourth year, my self-confidence built up, and I believed the reason this happened was the clarification of my interests and their connection with my language learning. The clarification had already started in the third year, as explained above, where my studying formed its specific shape and linked to my beliefs about language learning. In the fourth year, this relationship between my interests and the language stabilized. My English proficiency, particularly my reading skill, steadily developed, and my interest in subjects such as philosophy, literature, and linguistics grew. Subsequently, my language learning and interests became integrated, and I transformed from a learner into an English user. My study style had clearer aims, and motivation came from personal interest and desire. Until the fourth year, I had often adjusted my learning strategies as soon as something went wrong, so in a sense, I had spent those years wandering around the vast field of language learning to discover my own style. From the fourth year, in contrast, my strategies started stabilizing and becoming more established. By keeping the same strategies, many small traces of development or refinement slowly accumulated into something bigger, which provided me with the self-confidence that I could develop my learning autonomously. In short, my sense of self-confidence was rooted in the ongoing process of continuation and development, and furthermore, under this structure was the integration process triggered by the consistency in my interests and language learning. 

However, I also developed an inferiority complex. While I analyzed my feelings and clarified my learning style, thereby strengthening my self-confidence, the same thought process brought a feeling of inferiority. As my clear aims helped me sculpt my language learning into its own shape, I became increasingly aware of the necessary language proficiency or knowledge to achieve my goals. For example, as my interest was to read books on philosophy, literature, art, and psychology, the required language skills such as vocabulary, grammar, and also knowledge were being limited to these subjects. This interest-based focus moved my language learning with autonomy unlike my TOEFL study, but, at the same time, I became aware of people whose English proficiency in similar areas was much higher than mine. The awareness of this caused me to feel a serious inferiority complex at first, as described in the journal: 

I felt inferior to other universities’ students, while I should not compare myself with them, in English competency. Sometimes, I tend to think that I should’ve found or had any focus in my language learning before entering this university, and if so, I could avoid feeling a complex and put my heart into learning. (July 6, 2021)

This journal description shows that comparison with other people brought about an inferiority complex, and the regrets started to revolve around in my mind. The analysis of this inferiority in my journal entry, however, clarified the other components forming the complex, which were the awareness of my inadequacy and eagerness towards my learning. The same journal entry mentions this feeling: “However, these feelings mean that I am conscious that I still would like to learn English more and more, and it may be able to ignite my motivation in a positive way, depending on my outlook.” The description shows that my inferiority complex negatively influenced my feelings. However, when looking into my inferiority complex’s causes, a passion for English existed. In other words, it can be said that my inferiority complex was a mixture of various sentiments. This suggests a connection between my self-confidence and inferiority complex, and at the root of both was the same concept, “integration and desires.” Both emotions derived from clarifying my reasons for learning English, which simultaneously created a cycle of development and refinement to nurture my self-confidence and made me realize that there was a long distance between other people and me in terms of English proficiency.


In this section, I will summarize the findings from the four years of my journals, before considering the trajectory I took and what others can learn from my experience. To start with, my first-year journal features are simple and ambiguous; the descriptions in the journal at that time only focus on momentary facts and rarely mention feelings. Concerning actual learning, my aim for language learning was to get a high score on the TOEFL test and improve my speaking skills, so my motivation was supported by external and ambiguous factors. Analysis of my journal reveals that there was a cognitive gap between my ideal images about language learning and the actual studying in that my concept of my learning process was vague, although I felt it was clear and approachable at the time. 

From the second year, this ambiguity about language learning started to lessen, which pushed me to consider the meaning of English proficiency and, more essentially, learning the language. The second-year journal reflects this wandering attitude, and linguistically, both vocabulary and grammar became more diverse and complicated. In response to this linguistic development, the journal entries became able to investigate my studying from various perspectives such as chronological comparison, its process, and thoughts, unlike the first year. Focusing on my thoughts then, I became aware that the instability of my learning was caused by the externality of the TOEFL and the ambiguity of speaking English, providing me with an opportunity to rethink my reasons for studying English in the first place. 

In the middle of the second year, however, I tried reading a novel as a learning strategy by chance, and this experience sowed the seeds of my interest in reading books in English, which later evolved into a strong motivation to propel my language learning further. In the latter period of the second year, I was gradually shifting my learning style towards a reading focus, and from the end of the second year, a reading-centered strategy replaced my previous learning plan focusing on both the TOEFL test and speaking. Therefore, the third year started with a drastic alteration, not only in my learning but also in the journal and my feelings expressed there, namely the increase in positive expressions. In the fields of both vocabulary and grammar, my range grew, and I began to connect my development to what I was learning each week. Expanding my analytical perspective enabled me to look into my thoughts and feelings with depth, and this change shows that the language began functioning as self-reflection, not just describing facts, and I was transitioning from a learner to a user of the language. Critically reflecting on my feelings then, the reading activity further grew my specific desire to read books and learn various subjects in English gradually, and my desire consistently propelled my language learning throughout the year. 

In the fourth year, my learning desires became more specific, and my views on language learning gradually became clearer, affecting the way I expressed myself in my journal. As regards linguistic change, my vocabulary choice diversified in that both positive and negative expressions were equally utilized, indicating more objective journal entries, and I noticed deeper analysis of my studying and feelings. With the analysis of the journal gradually deepening, two contradictory feelings, self-confidence and an inferiority complex, come to light. My increased self-confidence derived from greater awareness of autonomy in my language learning caused by the circular process of development and modification. On the other hand, greater inferiority came from comparison with others in English proficiency, a sense of being rushed, and my eagerness to learn more deeply about the language. However, these two emotions have the same root, which is greater self-awareness. By understanding what English meant to me, and recognizing my development, I had become aware of my limitations.

We will now consider how this development of language learning style and depth of written reflections in my journal fits into Kato and Mynard’s (2015) trajectory of language learning. In Kato and Mynard’s interpretation of learner development through deepening reflection, the four segments (getting started, going deeper, becoming aware, and transformation) are not separated, the implication being that there is a certain fluidity of movement between the different levels. While we could notice crossover and closeness between the “becoming aware” and “transformation” stages in both my third- and fourth-year journal entries, we contend that the four segments are separate, which is why in our adaptation of Kato and Mynard’s trajectory the segments are boxed off (see Figure 1, above). The distinctness of the “going deeper” stage that I experienced in both my second and fourth year from my other learning experiences is our justification for splitting the four segments.

When I was experiencing “going deeper,” I was having to rebuild my value system and reestablish the foundations of my relationship with the English language (see Figure 2). On both occasions it happened, I felt exhausted. When I had to deal with this phenomenon for the first time during my second year, I experienced a loss of my purpose for language learning and felt demotivated as I struggled with my own criteria of ideal English proficiency. Later on, as I reestablished my learning style during the fourth year, a perceived inferiority in my English competency became my main obstacle to learning. In the first case, I struggled to understand my reasons for learning English, and in the second case, I had a clear purpose and the desire but felt shortcomings. Both times, I needed support to reach self-awareness and transformation. During the “going deeper” stages, Huw used markedly different techniques to support me to reflect deeper than he did when I was close to “transformation.” He actively encouraged me to reevaluate my goals and purposes and asked me “what if” questions, rather than calmly listening to my thoughts and offering gentle encouragement.


Figure 2. Yuta’s Four-Year Trajectory as an Undergraduate English Learner

Figure 2 is a visual representation of my four-year journey from an optimistic but somewhat naive first-year undergraduate to a self-confident user of English on the cusp of graduation. It differs most from Kato and Mynard’s (2015) trajectory in what it shows after a transformational learning experience. By the end of my third year, I had developed “aware[ness] of [my] learning processes” (Kato & Mynard, 2015, p. 14), found strategies that worked for me, and become comfortable with the metalanguage of reflection. However, this was not the end of my trajectory. Following the elation of transformation, I had to rebuild. Transformation is not the end of the learning process; it is a new beginning.

We maintain that my experience is not unique and that other learners are likely to have to go through a period of overhaul or “going deeper” after a transformational learning experience. Figure 3 shows how we conceptualize the process of learner development: Following transformation, a learner moves to a new plane of knowledge and reflection and needs to go through a period of reimagining their processes and questioning their values in order to progress to further transformation. We argue that this conceptualization will help learners to better understand their journeys and prepare themselves for instability after an achievement. This will enable educators to understand their students’ situations and appropriately adjust the type of support they offer.


Figure 3. A Multi-Layered Trajectory of Transformational Learner Development


In this paper, we have presented a year-by-year autoethnography of my development as a language learner, reflecting on my journal entries. We have then used the findings to build on Kato and Mynard’s (2015) model of the trajectory of autonomous language learners, focusing on what happens after a transformational learning experience. 

In undertaking an autoethnographic analysis of my four-year development as a university student, I noticed the importance of desire as a catalyst to my growth. Through desire came significance and a crystallization of the meaning of learning languages for me. As the meaning of learning became clearer, my language use in my learning journal developed; the vocabulary and grammar used became more complex, and I started to express my feelings more. Every one of these changes indicates a milestone in my development, and on the way, numerous factors have brought me opportunities to grow as both a learner and user of the language. One limitation of analyzing only my journals is that elements such as interactions with others, development through the medium of Japanese, and changes in my interests are largely ignored. However, without the opportunity to journal my self-directed learning, my relationship with the English language would have been very different, and I cherish the experiences I recorded and the opportunity to revisit them through this paper.

Kato and Mynard’s (2015) description of how language learners’ self-reflections become increasingly deep had many parallels to the themes that I extracted from analyzing my journals. Their trajectory (see Figure 1) was therefore an ideal starting point for us to move from the microcosm of my journal entries to take a macro-level view on learner development. We extended Kato and Mynard’s trajectory into a multi-level trajectory, which requires a reinterpretation of one’s values after a transformational experience (Figure 3). We contend that the post-transformation stage is a critical and vulnerable moment in which even very adept and experienced learners need support. We recommend that advisors ask learners to review their plans and goals at this stage. The advisor needs to help the learner to see the bigger picture instead of focusing on feelings of uncertainty, so asking “what if” questions might be appropriate. This encourages the learner to think about how to move forward and progress to the next level of their development.

We welcome further inquiry into understanding how learners develop and become more reflective over time, in order to discover whether other cases correspond to the experiences described in this paper. In addition, we advocate for further research into what happens to learners after a transformational experience or a success, in order that student support might be tailored to assist with rebuilding confidence and purpose when “going deeper” again. Finally, we hope that educators and students will find our visual representation of the multilayered trajectory of transformational learner development useful in understanding their teaching and learning contexts.

Notes on the Contributors

Yuta Homma is a fourth-year student at Kanda University of International Studies, where he is majoring in English language. He mainly studies linguistics but is also interested in other areas of study such as philosophy and psychology to broaden his perspectives of knowledge. 

Huw Davies is a learning advisor at Kanda University of International Studies and a PhD candidate at Lancaster University. He holds a MEd in Applied Linguistics from the Open University. He has previously published papers concerning learner autonomy, advising and self-access.


Davies, H., & Homma, Y. (2021, June 25). The importance of journaling in self-access learning: Encouraging a learner’s transformative and critical reflections [Description of practice]. Landmarks in SALC Contexts: Thinking Back, Moving Forward. Chiba, Japan. https://tinyurl.com/kkmk4xvd 

ETS. (2021). Test content. https://www.ets.org/toefl_itp/content

Hall, J. K. (2012). Teaching and researching language and culture (2nd ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315833712

Kato, S., & Mynard, J. (2015). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315739649

Qian, D. D., & Lin, L. H. F. (2020). The relationship between vocabulary knowledge and language proficiency. In S. Webb (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of vocabulary studies (pp. 66⁠–80). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429291586-5

Self-Access Learning Center. (2016). Modules and courses. KUIS 8 Online for KUIS Students. https://kuis8.com/modules

2 thoughts on “Discourse on a Language-Learning Trajectory: An Undergraduate’s Progress Beyond Becoming a User of English to Developing an English-Speaking Identity”

  1. Dear Yuta and Huw,

    Congratulations on your epic multi-transformational learning journey and informative publication. A significant takeaway that I can apply to self-directed language learning is that Kato and Mynard’s (2015) learning trajectory in transformational advising of getting started, going deeper, becoming aware, and transforming is not finite at the fourth tier, but the model can create the trajectory of going deeper once again. As you suggested in the discussion section in paragraph 7, “Transformation is not the end of the learning process; it is a new beginning.” In other words, as our language learning evolves on a transformational journey (Kato & Mynard, 2015), it can shape our identity that springboards into a future virtuous cycle of going deeper in the learning process, becoming aware of new insights, then a transformation can occur again.

    Yuta’s thorough and careful analysis of his linguistic features of grammar, vocabulary, and contents, as well as his feelings in his four-year journal, not only offered support for students, but also for advisors. What stood out to me each year in the journal analysis is as follows. In year one, in Yuta’s ambiguous clarity phase, he reminded me that it is vital for language learners to give themselves self-permission, not to feel the need to speak the target language fluently in a short amount of time, but instead reflect on what is occurring. During year two, I deeply identified with wandering around language learning in the paradox of studying for the TOEFL test that is topic-based is incongruent with developing conversational language proficiency because language is fluid and everchanging during the moment. This self-proclaimed unmethodical approach to learning a language is indeed demotivating, which Yuta discovered through negative self-talk. Then, in year three, the constructing desires phase inspired me as being transformational because Yuta shifted from a language learner to a language user, which became an integral fusion of English language use and his identity. Finally, in year four, there was a heightening resolution of a new virtuous cycle of going deeper with the realization that Yuta noticed an inferiority complex when he compared his English to others, creating a new discord to explore. He also found a post-transformational stage critical for his evolving development through Huw’s what-if questions.

    Perhaps my query is not part of the study as the content may not appear in Yuta’s journal that was analyzed, yet I am curious to learn more about Yuta’s perception of Huw’s use of apparently different techniques in both stages of going deeper that supported Yuta for further reflections. These details could help advisors in the going deeper stages with their advisees. For example, I learned that Huw asked Yuta what-if questions instead of calmly listening. However, if time permits, I would love to know some examples of the questions since Yuta’s language journey was profoundly transformative into a virtuous cycle. Thank you for publishing this transformational study!


    Kato, S., & Mynard, J. (2015). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315739649

    1. Dear Professor Vye,

      I appreciate your in-depth review of our paper and an interesting question about the adviser’s techniques in my language learning.

      Although this first example is not a what-if question, one of the most influential suggestions from Huw was that four language skills, listening, writing, reading, and speaking, are correlated with each other, and I remember that I received this idea when I was a second-year student. I think what this advice gave me was really a turning point in my language learning history. In short, this idea gave me more flexible thoughts about my learning strategy and in retrospect, allowed me to shape my own learning style focusing on what I would like to do, not what I should do. In detail, this Huw’s advice gave me a certainty that a reading-focused strategy was worth trying and it was more beneficial than continuing to study for TOEFL. Before his advice, I had a vague thought that reading was fun and could be added to my learning plan, but I hesitated to try because I aimed to develop my listening skill and get a high score on the TOEFL test. Therefore, I thought that reading was completely different from my needs and didn’t have high priority. However, his advice above made me turn over this entrenched thought and change my learning style. The advice itself came from my question about whether reading could improve my listening skill, and he answered as mentioned above. When looking back, this interaction was just a coincidence because I asked him the question out of idle curiosity, but Huw kindly explained it to me and successfully drew a good idea from me as a result.
      Second, what-if questions played an important role to make my new reading-focused strategy specific. Although the reading strategy fitted me, I had almost no experience in how to develop my learning with this new style, so I had to reconstruct my learning from scratch, and helped me make a better learning plan for the next. For example, he gave me questions that made me think about possible plans or problems like “If I am going to do this, what should I care about?” or “If this happens, how will I deal with it?”. The point is that his what-if questions encouraged me to predict what to do or how to do in advance and these contributed efficient development to my new strategy. In my case, when I encountered some problem, I tended to have a narrow outlook on how
      to solve it, so those questions were helpful. Moreover, I sometimes overlooked key perspectives that might better my learning, and Huw’s what-if questions gave me a great opportunity to realise them. To sum up, Huw’s techniques in my going deeper stages can be summarised into two; one is that he made me realise what I actually would like to do, and the second is that what-if questions gave me both wider perspectives on my learning plan and specific development.

      Again, I appreciate your review and I hope that you find this answer helpful.

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