What is Resilience and How is it Relevant to Second Language Learning and Development?

What is Resilience and How is it Relevant to Second Language Learning and Development?

By: Akiko Kiyota

Have you ever felt like this?

The language barrier is a kind of adversity for you. With limited proficiency, you feel frustrated because you cannot express yourself fully. You feel disappointed, and your identity gets hurt, because you get misunderstood. You feel excluded because you cannot follow the conversation. You feel inferior, because you cannot participate in the activity as fully as you could have if it was done in your first language.

Many Japanese study-abroad students struggle with language barriers, failing to mix with the local or other study-abroad students, only mingling with students who share the same language. I also have seen Japanese expatriate wives outside Japan who made their own capsule-community circle, and some never even attempted to learn the local language. Living away from home itself is stressful, and the frustration which a language barrier brings is just too painful to withstand. If there are people who share the same language, why not stick with them?—It is much easier and more fun to interact with them.

What if there is no other student who shares the same language? I have a friend who is an elementary school teacher in a suburban area of Japan. In his classroom, there is a Japanese-as-a-second-language (JSL) student, Phi (pseudonym). She is the only Thai-speaking student in the classroom (the language name is altered for identity protection). Since she was three, she has been in Japan, and now she is eleven, but her Japanese is still quite limited. My friend-teacher describes that Phi can respond yes, no, and with very short phrases, like “I don’t know.” In group activities, she cannot participate. During the lunch break, she does not spend time with her classmates but prefers to go to the library and read Doraemon, a Japanese manga. For Phi, the library may be a safe place for her. The pain, the embarrassment, the frustration, and the boredom that the language barrier brings are just too painful to withstand. Distancing herself from interactions in an incomprehensible language in exchange for being alone may give her more tranquility, and reading Doraemon may be more rewarding. My friend-teacher often found her sitting in the library during lunch break over a period of many years, reading Doraemon. And there are only a limited number of volumes of the Doraemon series. She must have repeated the same manga many times. This is happening not only with Phi but with many other immigrant children worldwide, as we read in other stories.

My story of resilience

Have you experienced this situation yourself? How did you approach it? I have experienced very similar problems. In the following, I share with you my story of resilience. By resilience, I refer to “the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances” (Masten et al., 1990, p. 426).

I also was a minority student, just like Phi, in an American elementary school in a very small town, a two-hour drive from Seattle, Washington, a long time ago. As the only Japanese-speaking student in the classroom, with zero knowledge of English, how did I survive such a circumstance? With no mobile phone back then in the 80s, I was truly alone and vulnerable (I could not even phone my parents if I were in danger!). It was like I was sent out alone floating into space, from a meaningful world, disconnected from everything around me as the people around me were all incomprehensible to me. The only lifeline was my small dictionary. Fortunately, I could make it through in the first semester. I could survive at school because kind American kids always gathered around me and praised my drawing techniques and math ability. There was always someone next to me (Dear friend, Lenny Taylor—I want to put your name here). I was resilient, even in this scary situation for an eleven-year-old. I even enjoyed staying over-night at my American friends’ places. (How could I do this with my limited proficiency?)

However, I became less resilient in the second semester, when I had to change schools. The people at the new school did not seem to care about this non-speaking kid, and I felt I was treated as if I was luggage. My identity was harmed. Before coming to the States, I was quite an active kid who enjoyed every aspect of school life. So, in the second semester going to school was such a depressing endeavor, but I survived. My resilience was largely thanks to the new homeroom class teacher I met in the corridor by chance. One day, I suddenly got left alone in an empty classroom. There must had been some classroom change, and nobody helped by informing me. I was walking alone in the empty corridor, looking around for where I should be. A teacher happened to come walking towards me and found me walking alone, looking so frightened and sad. He asked me whether I was okay, and that was in Japanese! His name was Mr. Holmgren, and he used to live in Japan as a child with his father, who was based in Japan in the army. I stood there in a flood of tears, and I still remember how warm they were. After that, Mr. Holmgren changed my class assignment and officially put me in his homeroom class. With his help, I gradually made friends in the new classroom environment. Without meeting him in the corridor, I might have stopped going to school or got seriously depressed.

Still, the classes were boring every day, as I could not understand at all, taking away my time. Nevertheless, I did not miss school, for two reasons. One: I did not want to upset and worry my parents. Two: I was a curious girl. I did not want to miss the new experiences that I would not get in Japan. For example, Music and P.E. classes were taught differently than in Japan. Every day, I went to school with the hope that I would experience something new.

As a teenager, I also experienced being a study-abroad high school student in a private girls’ school near Brisbane, Australia. I had a hard time mixing with new people and making friends with my limited English proficiency. At school, the local students were busy with their own things and did not seem to care about this Asian student, who did not understand much of what was said. One day, on the bus coming from school, I said bye to my “friends,” but nobody responded. They ignored me and kept talking. I was so hurt. I felt that I was not treated as a legitimate, valuable member. I remember I was crying, walking home from the bus stop. Seeing me come home in tears, my host mother hugged me, shedding tears with me. I remember that clearly to this day. Despite that hard time, however, I did not give up and never skipped school. I persevered because I had a very caring host family and strong motivation to learn English. By the end of the year, I made good friends and had enjoyed my time in Australia.

What does the literature say about resilience?

Second language learner resilience is not fully theorized in applied linguistics just yet (however, you can find general teacher resilience literature, such as this, if you are interested). This is because adversity and resilience are invisible, and therefore, they are difficult to define and operationalize. However, there is abundant and interesting literature in psychology since Masten et al. (1990) started the discussion and theorizing. Since then, as many as eight others have offered definitions (Fletcher & Sarkar, 2013). Psychology has been trying to theorize this complex and dynamic phenomenon—resilience. (I cited Masten et al’s original definition earlier in this article.)

One of my favorite articles on resilience is by Hirano (2020) in psychology. The article offers insightful ideas about the topic. For example, we can distinguish between resilience and resiliency, the former referring to process and the latter referring to capacity. She explains that “resilience is an interactive process with the environment.” Thus, even with the same resiliency, resilience may be different “due to the change in the circumstances” (p. 26). In an article published in 2010, she provides us with seven examples of resilience factors (shown in Table 1). They are social skills (e.g., empathy, social extroversion), competence (e.g., problem-solving skills, self-efficacy), self-regulation (e.g., emotional regulation), challenge (e.g., effort orientation), traits (e.g., perseverance), positive future orientation (e.g., optimism), and others (e.g., physical health, moral fiber/faith, self-understanding).


Table 1. Examples of resilience factors from Hirano (2010)

Social skills



Variation of interests

Social extroversion

Effort orientation







Problem-solving skills

Positive future


Ability to be insightful

Positive future orientation

Intelligence skills


Physical health



Self- regulation


Moral fiber/faith

Emotional regulation



Citing the literature, she explains that these may be individual factors and factors that a person can acquire or be provided with externally (p. 28). In other words, we can increase our resiliency, as this figure shows:

Back to second language learner/user resilience

Learning about resilience from Hirano above, we can talk about second language learner/user resilience and understand it better. Looking back at my example, in the US as a child, I survived school life because of social support (my friend), self-regulation (not to upset my parents), and my trait (curiosity for new experiences). In Australia as a high school student, I was resilient due to the social support I had (my host family), self-regulation (motivation to learn English), and another trait (perseverance).

"Resilience is a process."
Akiko Kiyota
TT Author

Let us acknowledge that resilience is a process that people may have to go through when learning and living with a new language. As we read in the opening of thisarticle, our experience as language learners/users are not always that easy. It has some good times, but bad times too, and some of them can be emotionally overwhelming. However, if you can overcome difficulties, you can continue your journey of learning. As a consequence, you will develop proficiency in the language. Even more, you feel a sense of personal development (which is called “post-traumatic growth” in psychology).

The issue is that not all people are strong. Or the adversity can be simply too huge to grapple with. In that case, a person needs an external hand to support their resiliency. Hirano’s first table is a good list to see what we are a little weak at. For example, if a person is too upset and lacks some problem-solving skills and emotional-regulation, you can talk to them about the problems and offer some alternative perspectives and solutions. When a person is just too overwhelmed by the immediate situation, then we can talk about what is waiting for them after the endurance. Remind them that there will be a clear sky after the rain.

Hirano’s figure shows us that we can increase our resiliency by adding more support or skills, and intensify them by discovering ourselves. In language classrooms, a teacher can share their own narratives of second language resilience. Students can understand that the teacher also went through the same process that they are experiencing. Also, students themselves can share their stories with each other. They might feel that they are not the only ones. In a Japanese saying, “three arrows bundled together are hard to break.” I have done these things in my classroom, and they have brought us wonderful outcomes.

Finally, I hope that the second language learning journey will become less overwhelming and stressful if you understand resilience. I also hope that you can be a part of somebody else’s resiliency if you have any struggling second-language learners around you, just like my host mother and Mr. Holmgren were for me. In the end, it is the care we give each other that makes the most difference.


  • Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological resilience: A review and critique of definitions, concepts, and theory. European Psychologist, 18(1), 12–23. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000124

  • Hirano, M. (2010). A study of the classification of resilience factors: Development of the Bidimensional Resilience Scale (BRS). The Japanese Journal of Personality, 19(2),94–106. (in Japanese).

  • Hirano, M. (2017). Cultivating inner resources. Japanese Journal of Clinical Psychology, 17, 669–672. (in Japanese).

  • Hirano, M. (2020). Individual differences in psychological resilience. In Y. Nara & T. Inamura (Eds.), Resilience and human history: Multidisciplinary approaches and challenges for a sustainable future (pp. 25–37). Springer.

  • Masten, A. S., Best, K. M., & Garmezy, N. (1990). Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2(4), 425–444. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579400005812

Akiko Kiyota is currently a Ph.D. student at the Graduate School of Education, Waseda University. Her research interests include emotion, resilience, inclusive education, content and language integrated learning (CLIL), English-medium instruction, and interactional competence.

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