In The Tree of Knowledge, Maturana and Varela state: “We human beings are human beings only in language. Because we have language, there is no limit to what we can describe, imagine, and relate” (Maturana and Varela 1987: 212). Language is an event which enters the plane of being, and through language we create meaning and come toward understanding. Maturana and Varela allude to an important aspect of language; namely, language enables us to express an understanding of our world within time. We are temporal beings. We can describe a past, a present, and through imagination, a future yet to be realized. In his work Time and Narrative, Paul Ricoeur directly addresses the aporia of being in time. In his text, Ricoeur illumines the fluid, multi-dimensional nature of time. He writes, “We can say that preoccupation places the accent on the present, just as primordial temporality placed it on the future and historicality on the past” (Ricoeur 1988: 82).Thus, the development of this learning guide must naturally acknowledge that adult learners of English as a second language in the rural areas of Yunnan, China come to the learning forum with a lived past, hopes for an imagined future, and an ability to fully engage in the present moment.

This learning guide addresses the following questions: How does the adult learner of English as a second language in rural Yunnan, China learn best? How is he or she changed by the experience? What are the implications for narrative identity? This essay examines these questions, offers a means to assess learning, and also analyzes the implications of a changed narrative identity for the adult learner in China. Ricoeur notes that “narrative identity is not a stable and seamless identity. Just as it is possible to compose several plots on the subject of the incidents…so it is always possible to weave different, even opposed, plots about our lives” (Ricoeur 1988: 248). According to Ricoeur, there is a core aspect to identity which does not change; yet, there is simultaneously another part of our identity which is malleable (Ricoeur 1992: 116). Narrative identity holds both change and permanence (1992: 116).

There are certain components which are critical to effective learning. First, the learner must be provided with the opportunity for reflection in the learning setting. In other words, adults who are learning English as a second language in rural Yunnan, China must be allowed time to reflect upon what they are learning, and why they are learning. Through reflection, the learner is able to identify a deeper meaning and purpose in the experience of learning. Richard Kearney submits that in the act of reflection, we are searching for “some kind of significance in terms of referrals back to our past (memory) and forward to our future (projection)…We might say that our lives are constantly interpreting themselves”(Kearney 2002:129). Kearney expands on this idea when he says that “our existence is already to some extent pre-plotted before we ever consciously seek out a narrative in which to reinscribe our life as life-history” (2002: 129). We emerge from a particular history. At the same time, we define our own lives through the narrative, and the story may be told and re-told in many different ways. There is, in fact, a continuous unfolding of the story. So, we repeatedly ask ourselves: Who am I? Where do I come from? Why am I learning? Who am I becoming? The answers may very well change as we change within time.

Another important component that can foster learning is recognition of the individual learner as a temporal being. In designing learning events, it is paramount that the educator takes into consideration the learner’s past, present, and future. A classroom event, for example, that draws upon history could be writing a story about a significant event from one’s youth growing up in rural China. A learning event that concentrates on the present could involve students verbally sharing some aspect of present day life that is important. One learner may say that he is a rice harvester and talk about how growing food has meaning in his life. Another learner may say that she weaves cloth, and speak to the significance of creating clothing for people to wear. The responses will vary, but all will be joined in the act of sharing and in the desire to express thoughts and ideas in the English language. A learning event that is future oriented could engage the learner in writing his or her thoughts on how life may change through the study of English. In this event, the learner draws upon his or her imagination to project what the future may hold in light of present action. An imagined future enables the learner to envision a world beyond the world that is known, and it opens up new possibilities.

It should also be noted that the study of a different language very naturally introduces the learner to a different way of seeing the world. “In China, people have a very strong sense of group identity. In most situations a line between an outsider and an insider is drawn either explicitly or implicitly” (Gao 2000: 13). Thus, “there are many terms like tongxue (schoolmate), and laoxiang (people who share the same place of origin) which imply group identity and mutual obligations” (2000: 13). As does Chinese, the English language contains features that reflect particular beliefs and cultural norms. Ellen Herda writes, “To uncover how our history affects us we can look at language and tradition. The language we speak holds our history” (Herda 1999: 4). The learner of English will become familiar with a different vista through study of the language. He or she may then take in that which is desirable, and discard that which is not viewed as desirable. Risk is inherent in learning. We may be changed by the experience. Adult learning is crucial for social change to occur.

The power of the narrative itself must also be considered. Literature offers an expansive venue for learning in China: The story of someone else is also our own story, and we can experience the self through another. Ricoeur writes, “Literature is a vast laboratory in which we experiment with estimations, evaluations, and judgments of approval and condemnation through which narrativity serves as a propaedeutic to ethics” (Ricoeur 1992: 115). Literature offers a broad spectrum of human experience and emotion, and it comes to us as the story of another. Yet, simultaneously, it is also our own story, as we see ourselves in the characters. Ricoeur submits that “there is no ethically neutral narrative” (1992: 115). In the narrative, be it text or oral story, someone tells something to someone else about something. We who encounter the narrative then determine our own ethics. We may agree or disagree with the narrator. In rural China, group discussion about a story could provide the experience of finding shared beliefs; or, perhaps, the opportunity to identify differences among learners. It is important to find common purpose in the experience of learning. So, while individuals may have different reasons for wanting to learn, they can find common ground in the desire to learn. There must be mutual respect in the learning environment in order for trust to take root. It is incumbent upon the educator to model trust and to demonstrate value of the other in the learning environment.

Adult learners of English as a second language in rural Yunnan, China come to the learning environment with a culture and an identity, and it is important to consider these issues in the development of a learning program. In Oneself as Another, Ricoeur hypothesizes that identity is composed of sameness, idem; selfhood, ipse; and a dialectic of the two (Ricoeur 1992: 116).Ricoeur submits that we can overcome the assumption of otherness, “which is always presupposed” (1992: 335). We do so through “the admission that the other is not condemned to remain a stranger but can become my counterpart, that is, someone who, like me, says ‘I.’ The resemblance based on the pairing of flesh with flesh works to reduce a distance, to bridge a gap” (1992: 335). But there is always an ipse-identity, which is largely unchanging. Selfhood contains character and those traits which remain constant. The interplay of ipse and idem acts much like a hermeneutic circle, moving to and fro, defining and redefining the self in relation to another. Ricoeur maintains that we come into our fullest sense of humanity when we assign a greater value to the other over valuing of the self. Ricoeur states:

In order to be the ‘friend of oneself’—in accordance with Aristotelian philautia—one must already have entered into a relation of friendship with others, as though friendship for oneself were a self-affection rigorously correlative to the affection by and for the other as friend. In this sense, friendship forms the bed of justice, as the virtue ‘for others,’ following another of Aristotle’s sayings” (Ricoeur 1992: 330).

In the learning setting, Ricoeur’s theory of identity is quite relevant. Adult learners of English as a second language in rural Yunnan, China can be encouraged to help one another through cooperative learning events, such as telling a story together, or creating and describing artwork together. To reiterate, with a deeper level of trust, there is greater potential for learning and venturing beyond know parameters. It is anticipated that trust will grow very gradually in the learning environment in rural Yunnan. Thus, the educator must be prepared to more forward slowly with the learning agenda and related activities.

Ricoeur submits that our aim should be “the good life,” which “is lived with and for others” (Cohen and Marsh 2002: 17). Ricoeur states that there is an “ethics of reciprocity, of sharing, of living together” (2002: 18). He does not assume that the sharing is equal; rather, one shares based on one’s ability to share. The act of sharing is what is significant in this case. Ricoeur’s theory of identity goes to the point of suggesting that the self cannot be defined absent the other who stands in relationship to us, for we inhabit a shared world. In the act of learning English as a second language, learners in rural Yunnan, China can be given the opportunity to ask themselves: What constitutes the good life? What role do I play to bring forth the good life for myself and for others?

In rural Yunnan, China today, there is increased exposure to the internet and other media, although not at the same rate as in urban areas. Nonetheless, inhabitants of rural China are increasingly aware of concepts such as freedom and democracy. With this exposure, there is a wider variety of thoughts and ideas, and thus the possibility of realizing other modes of being, thinking, and doing. The apparent gain is the increased awareness of different cultures, ways that were previously unknown. However, this gain has the potential to cascade into an abyss of homogenization, as people in China consciously or unconsciously emulate the Western world. There may be something lost in this process that is integral to Chinese identity. Perhaps the loss will not be apparent until it has already occurred, as this is often the case with subtle cultural changes over time.

To assess learning, the educator may employ a narrative assessment. Narrative data could include a story, video, metaphor, or some other chronicle of ideas and events (Herda 2004: 1). The act of emplotment is required for the learner to gather together seemingly discordant events into a concordant narrative. Through character, plot, and story, we recognize ourselves and the other. We see both that which is like us, and also that which is not like us. We must interpret, reflect, configure our understanding of the data presented, and then articulate that understanding in the act of speech. It is important that both course content and assessment materials reflect the interests of the group of learners. We naturally engage more fully in tasks that have meaning for us. Therefore, the educator must be careful to seek out the interests of the learning group, and direct assessment toward this subject area as well. Learning cannot be successful if the educator seeks a univocal stance in the learning environment.

At or near the conclusion of the English language course, there could be a learning exercise in which learners are asked to reflect upon whether or not learning English has changed them, and if so, how has it changed them. It is anticipated that there will be changes; however, the changes may differ from individual to individual. It is through relationship and conversation that we can hear the voice of another, and understand his or her unique view. Clearly, there is no right or wrong answer. The educator too, will likely be changed by the experience. The educator will likely learn from the learners. Intrinsic to any linguistic exchange is that it offers something to both persons who are participating in the dialectic.

There are definite implications for the narrative identity of adult learners of English as a second language in rural Yunnan, China. In the dynastic period, persons in rural China were largely isolated from foreign ideas and foreign cultures. Today, due to modern technology and changing political systems, people in rural China are slowly being introduced to that which is foreign. At times, that which is foreign holds appeal, and is appropriated. At other times, that which is foreign remains estranged from the self. However, over time, it seems likely that the learners of English as a second language in rural Yunnan, China would be influenced in some way, and their identity changed, either subtly or profoundly through the experience. In China, “the dragon is an ancient symbol of transformation and adaptability, characteristics that are the key to the resilience of Chinese civilization” (Shaughnessy 2005: 7).Globalization brings to China an increased exposure to that which is not Chinese. But only the Chinese can determine who they are, and who they are becoming.

To summarize, this learning guide for learners of English as a second language in rural Yunnan, China incorporates the following tenets into the learning experience: Acknowledgement of the adult learner as a temporal being, the inclusion of reflection in the learning process, and eliciting an awareness that the other has preeminence over the self. Ricoeur makes evident that, when we can see the self as another, we come toward greater compassion and understanding of our common ontological condition. This learning guide recognizes that learning is purposeful, and has the potential to be transformative. Trust is necessary for the adult learner to venture forth and assume risk to learn a new way of speaking, describing, and being in the world. It is not possible to ascertain whether or not learning English will bring greater happiness to people in rural Yunnan, China. However, it can be said that learning another language will expand the horizons of the learners who engage in the learning.