Research in Science Education

, Volume 47, Issue 2, pp 353–371 | Cite as

Confidence in the Knowledge Base of English Language Learners Studying Science: Using Agency to Compensate for the Lack of Adequate Linguistic Identity

  • Aneta L. Hayes
  • Nasser Mansour


Changes in the cultural and linguistic environments of learners are often associated with identity shifts. The aim of this study was to explore what identity shifts occur when science students from Bahraini national schools transition to an international university. The role of two aspects of learner identity—that is, English proficiency and science background knowledge, was examined in this study. Focus groups and semi-structured interviews were conducted with students and with university lecturers. The analysis suggested three conceptual themes of (1) reliance on science knowledge, (2) the auxiliary role of professional language and (3) adequacy of student learning strategies, demonstrating what subjective meanings the participants ascribe to the interplay between science knowledge and linguistic ability. The findings suggest that despite the lack of adequate linguistic attributes, the students are still able to successfully learn science in the context of language change. It is also implied that through strategically utilising their academic background in science, students preserve their identity as successful learners from school through to university. We conclude that agency plays a separate role in transition and is not a sole function of identity. We also contest the idea of language as a necessary attribute of one’s identity as it was perceived by our participants to be an advantage and an auxiliary tool rather than a requirement.


Science background knowledge English language proficiency Identity and agency Culture change Transition 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors have no conflict of interests to declare.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social Science and Public PolicyKeele UniversityKeeleUK
  2. 2.Graduate School of Education, UK & Faculty of EducationTanta University, EgyptExeterUK

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