Identity and language learning

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A significant construct in language learning research, identity is defined as "how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is structured across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future".[1] Recognizing language as a social practice, identity highlights how language constructs and is constructed by a variety of relationships. Because of the diverse positions from which language learners can participate in social life, identity is theorized as multiple, subject to change, and a site of struggle.

The diverse conditions under which language learners speak, read, or write the second language are influenced by relations of power in different sites; learners who may be marginalized in one site may be highly valued in another. For this reason, every time language learners interact in the second language, whether in the oral or written mode, they are engaged in identity construction and negotiation. However, structural conditions and social contexts are not entirely determined. Through human agency, language learners who struggle to speak from one identity position may be able to reframe their relationship with their interlocutors and claim alternative, more powerful identities from which to speak, thereby enabling learning to take place.

Early developments[edit]

The relationship between identity and language learning is of interest to scholars in the fields of second language acquisition (SLA), language education, sociolinguistics, and applied linguistics[2]. It is best understood in the context of a shift in the field from a predominantly psycholinguistic approach to SLA to include a greater focus on sociological and cultural dimensions of language learning,[3][4][5] or what has been called the “social turn” in SLA.[6] Thus while much research on language learning in the 1970s and 1980s was directed toward investigating the personalities, learning styles, and motivations of individual learners, contemporary researchers of identity are centrally concerned with the diverse social, historical, and cultural contexts in which language learning takes place, and how learners negotiate and sometimes resist the diverse positions those contexts offer them. Further, identity theorists question the view that learners can be defined in binary terms as motivated or unmotivated, introverted or extroverted, without considering that such affective factors are frequently socially constructed in inequitable relations of power, changing across time and space, and possibly coexisting in contradictory ways within a single individual.

Many scholars[7][8][9][10][11][12] cite educational theorist Bonny Norton’s conceptualization of identity (Norton Peirce, 1995; Norton, 1997; Norton, 2000/2013) as foundational in language learning research. Her theorization highlights how learners participate in diverse learning contexts where they position themselves and are positioned in different ways. Drawing from poststructuralist Christine Weedon's (1987) notion of subjectivity and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's (1991) power to impose reception, Norton demonstrated how learners construct and negotiate multiple identities through language, reframing relationships so that they may claim their position as legitimate speakers. .

Contemporary ideas[edit]

Since Norton's conception of identity in the 1990s, it has become a central construct in language learning research foregrounded by scholars such as David Block, Aneta Pavlenko, Kelleen Toohey, Margaret Early, Peter De Costa and Christina Higgins. A number of researchers have explored how Identity categories of race, gender, class and sexual orientation may impact the language learning process. Identity now features in most encyclopedias and handbooks of language learning and teaching, and work has extended to the broader field of applied linguistics to include identity and pragmatics, sociolinguistics, and discourse. In 2015, the theme of the American Association of Applied Linguistics (AAAL) conference held in Toronto was identity, and the journal Annual Review of Applied Linguistics in the same year focused on issues of identity, with prominent scholars discussing the construct in relation to a number of topics. These included translanguaging (Angela Creese and Adrian Blackledge), transnationalism and multilingualism (Patricia Duff), technology (Steven Thorne) and migration (Ruth Wodak).

Closely linked to identity is Norton's construct of investment which complements theories of motivation in SLA. Norton argues that a learner may be a highly motivated language learner, but may nevertheless have little investment in the language practices of a given classroom or community, which may, for example, be racist, sexist, elitist, or homophobic. Thus, while motivation can be seen as a primarily psychological construct,[13] investment is framed within a sociological framework, and seeks to make a meaningful connection between a learner’s desire and commitment to learn a language, and their complex identity. The construct of investment has sparked considerable interest and research in the field.[14][15][16][17][18][19][20] Darvin and Norton's (2015) model of investment in language learning locates investment at the intersection of identity, capital, and ideology. Responding to conditions of mobility and fluidity that characterize the 21st century, the model highlights how learners are able to move across online and offline spaces, performing multiple identities while negotiating different forms of capital.[21]

An extension of interest in identity and investment concerns the imagined communities that language learners may aspire to join when they learn a new language. The term “imagined community”, originally coined by Benedict Anderson (1991), was introduced to the language learning community by Norton (2001), who argued that in many language classrooms, the targeted community may be, to some extent, a reconstruction of past communities and historically constituted relationships, but also a community of the imagination, a desired community that offers possibilities for an enhanced range of identity options in the future. These innovative ideas, inspired also by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998), are more fully developed in Kanno and Norton (2003), and Pavlenko and Norton (2007), and have proved generative in diverse research sites.[22][23][24][25] An imagined community assumes an imagined identity, and a learner’s investment in the second language can be understood within this context.

Towards the future[edit]

There is now a wealth of research that explores the relationship between identity, language learning, and language teaching.[26] Themes on identity include: race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and disability. Further, the award-winning Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, launched in 2002, ensures that issues of identity and language learning will remain at the forefront of research on language education, applied linguistics, and SLA in the future. Issues of identity are seen to be relevant not only to language learners, but to language teachers, teacher educators, and researchers. There is an increasing interest in the ways in which advances in technology have impacted both language learner and teacher identity, and the ways in which the forces of globalization are implicated in identity construction. Many established journals in the field welcome research on identity and language learning, including: Applied Linguistics, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, Language Learning, Language and Education, Linguistics and Education, Modern Language Journal, and TESOL Quarterly.

Key books[edit]

Block, D. (2007). Second language identities. London/New York: Continuum

In this monograph, Block insightfully traces research interest in second language identities from the 1960s to the present. He draws on a wide range of social theory, and brings a fresh analysis to studies of adult migrants, foreign language learners, and study-abroad students.

Burck, C. (2005/7). Multilingual living. Explorations of language and subjectivity. Basingstoke, England and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

This book presents a discursive and narrative analysis of speakers' own accounts of the challenges and advantages of living in several languages at individual, family and societal levels, which gives weight to ideas on hybridity and postmodern multiplicity.

Norton, B. (2013). Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

In this second edition of a highly cited study of immigrant language learners, Norton draws on poststructuralist theory to argue for a conception of the learner identity as multiple, a site of struggle, and subject to change. She also develops the construct of “investment” to better understand the relationship between language learners and the target language. The second edition includes an insightful Afterword by Claire Kramsch.

Pavlenko, A. and Blackledge, A. (Eds). (2004). Negotiation of identities in multilingual contexts. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

The authors in this comprehensive collection examine the ways in which identities are negotiated in diverse multilingual settings. They analyse the discourses of education, autobiography, politics, and youth culture, demonstrating the ways in which languages may be sites of resistance, empowerment, or discrimination.

Toohey, K. (2000). Learning English at school: Identity, social relations and classroom practice. Cleveland, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Drawing on an exemplary ethnography of young English language learners, Toohey investigates the ways in which classroom practices are implicated in the range of identity options available to language learners. She draws on sociocultural and poststructural theory to better understand the classroom community as a site of identity negotiation.

Other relevant books[edit]

  • Blackledge, A. & Creese, A. (2010). Multilingualism. London, UK: Continuum.
  • Canagarajah, S. (Ed.) (2004). Reclaiming the local in language policy and practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
  • Clarke, M. (2008). Language teacher identities: Co-constructing discourse and community. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Cox, M., Jordan, J., Ortmeier-Hooper, C. & Schwartz, G.G. (2010). Reinventing identities in second language writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE Press.
  • Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society. 2nd Edition. Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education.
  • Day, E. M. (2002). Identity and the young English language learner. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters
  • Garciá, O., Skutnabb-Kangas, T., & Torres-Guzmán, M.E. (Eds.). (2006). Imagining multilingual schools: Languages in education and glocalization. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Goldstein, T. (2003). Teaching and learning in a multilingual school: Choices, risks, and dilemmas. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Hawkins, M. R. (Ed.). (2004). Language learning and teacher education: A sociocultural approach. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Heller, M. (2007). Linguistic minorities and modernity: A sociolinguistic ethnography (2nd edition). London, UK: Continuum
  • Higgins, C. (2009). English as a local language: Post-colonial identities and multilingual practices. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Hornberger, N. (Ed.) (2003). Continua of biliteracy. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Kanno, Y. (2008). Language and education in Japan: Unequal access to bilingualism. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kramsch, C. (2010). The multilingual subject. Oxford: Oxford University.
  • Kubota, R. & Lin, A. (Eds.) (2009). Race, culture, and identities in second language education. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Lin, A. (Ed.)(2007). Problematizing identity: Everyday struggles in language, culture, and education. Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Lo Bianco, J., Orton, J. & Yihong, G. (Eds.) (2009). China and English: Globalisation and the dilemmas of identity . Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters
  • Miller, J. (2003). Audible difference: ESL and social identity in schools. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
  • Martin-Jones, M., & Jones, K. (Eds.). (2000). Multilingual literacies: Reading and writing different worlds. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Menard-Warwick, J. (2009). Gendered identities and immigrant language learning. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters
  • Mohan, B., Leung, C. & Davison, C. (Eds).(2002). English as a Second Language in the mainstream: : Teaching, learning and identity. Longman, UK.
  • Nelson, C. (2009). Sexual identities in English language education: Classroom conversations. New York: Routledge.
  • Pérez-Milans, M. (2013). Urban schools and English language education in late modern China: A critical sociolinguistic ethnography. New York & London: Routledge.
  • Norton, B. & Pavlenko, A. (Eds.) (2004). Gender and English language learners. Alexandria, VA: TESOL
  • Pakuła, Łukasz, Joanna Pawelczyk and Jane Sunderland (2015) Gender and sexuality in English language education: Focus on Poland. London: British Council.
  • Potowski, K. (2007). Language and identity in a dual immersion school. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Ramanathan, V. (2005). The English-vernacular divide: Postcolonial language politics and practice. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Sharkey, J., & Johnson, K. (Eds). (2003). The TESOL Quarterly dialogues: Rethinking issues of language, culture, and power. Alexandria, VA: TESOL.
  • Stein, P. (2008). Multimodal pedagogies in diverse classrooms: Representation, rights and resources. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Tsui, A. & Tollefson, J. (Eds.) (2006) Language policy, culture, and identity in Asian contexts. Mahwah, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Wallace, C. (2003). Critical reading in language education. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Broader literature[edit]

  • Albright, J. & Luke, A. (2007). Pierre Bourdieu and literacy education. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Blommaert, J. (2008). Grassroots literacy: Writing, identity, and voice in Central Africa. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power (J. B. Thompson, Ed.; G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Polity Press. (Original work published in 1982)
  • Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power (2nd Edition). Harlow, UK: Pearson/Longman..
  • Hall, S.(Ed.) (1997) Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices Sage Publications.
  • Janks, H. (2009). Literacy and power. London and New York: Routledge.
  • May, S. (2008). Language and minority rights. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Norton, B., & Toohey, K. (Eds). (2004). Critical pedagogies and language learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Pennycook, A. (2007). Global Englishes and transcultural flows. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Prinsloo, M. & Baynham, M. (Eds.) (2008). Literacies, global and local. Philadelphia, USA: John Benjamins.
  • Rahimian, M. (2018). Accent, intelligibility, and identity in international teaching assistants and internationally-educated instructors. University of Manitoba.
  • Rampton, B. (2006) Language in late modernity: Interaction in an urban school. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rassool, N. (2007). Global issues in language, education and development: Perspectives from postcolonial countries. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Warschauer, M. (2003). Technology and social inclusion: Rethinking the digital divide. Boston: MIT Press
  • Weedon, C. (1997). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory (2nd Edition). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Footnotes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Norton, Bonny (2013). Identity and Language Learning: Extending the Conversation. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. p. 45.
  2. ^ Rahimian, Mehdi (2015-02-12). "Identity Issues among Post-secondary Nonnative Students in an English Speaking Country". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 174: 305–312. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.663. ISSN 1877-0428.
  3. ^ Firth, A. & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. Modern Language Journal, 81, 286-300.
  4. ^ Morgan, B. (2007). Poststructuralism and applied linguistics: Complementary approaches to identity and culture in ELT. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 1033-1052). New York: Springer.
  5. ^ Norton, B., & Toohey, K. (2001). Changing perspectives on good language learners. TESOL Quarterly, 35(2), 307-322.
  6. ^ Block, D. (2003). The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  7. ^ Block, D. (2007a). The rise of identity in SLA research, post Firth and Wagner (1997), Modern Language Journal, 91, 863-876.
  8. ^ Menard-Warwick, J.(2006). Both a fiction and an existential fact: Theorizing identity in second language acquisition and literacy studies. Linguistics and Education, 16, 253-274.
  9. ^ Ricento, T. (2005). Considerations of identity in L2 learning. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research on second language teaching and learning (pp. 895-911). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  10. ^ Swain, M., & Deters, P. (2007). ‘New’ mainstream SLA theory: Expanded and enriched. The Modern Language Journal, 91 (focus issue), 820-836.
  11. ^ Zuengler, J. & Miller, E. (2006). Cognitive and sociocultural perspectives: Two parallel SLA worlds? TESOL Quarterly, 40 (1), 35-58.
  12. ^ Rahimian, Mehdi (2015-02-12). "Identity Issues among Post-secondary Nonnative Students in an English Speaking Country". Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 174: 305–312. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.663. ISSN 1877-0428.
  13. ^ Dornyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University Press.
  14. ^ Arkoudis, S. & Davison, C. (Eds.). (2008). Chinese students: Perspectives on their social,cognitive, and linguistic investment in English medium interaction. [Special Issue]. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 18 (1).
  15. ^ Cummins, J. (2006). Identity texts: The imaginative construction of self through multiliteracies pedagogy. In O. Garcia, T. Skutnabb-Kangas, & M. Torres-Guzman. (Eds.) Imagining multilingual schools: Language in education and glocalization. Clevedon, UK:Multilingual Matters, p. 51-68.
  16. ^ Haneda, M. (2005). Investing in foreign-language writing: A study of two multicultural learners.Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 4 (4), 269-290.
  17. ^ McKay, S., & Wong, S. C. (1996). Multiple discourses, multiple identities: Investment and agency in second language learning among Chinese adolescent immigrant students. Harvard Educational Review, 66(3), 577-608.
  18. ^ Norton, B., & Gao, Y. (2008). Identity, investment, and Chinese learners of English. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 18(1), 109-120.
  19. ^ Pittaway, D. (2004). Investment and second language acquisition. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 4(1), 203-218.
  20. ^ Skilton-Sylvester, E. (2002). Should I stay or should I go? Investigating Cambodian women’s participation and investment in adult ESL programs. Adult Education Quarterly, 53(1), 9-26.
  21. ^ Darvin, R., & Norton, B. (2015). Identity and a Model of Investment in Applied Linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 35, 36-56.
  22. ^ Carroll, S., Motha, S., & Price, J. (2008). Accessing imagined communities and reinscribing regimes of truth. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 5, 3, 165-191.
  23. ^ Dagenais, D., Moore, D., Lamarre, S., Sabatier, C., & Armand, F. (2008). Linguistic landscape and language awareness. In E. Shohamy & D. Gorter (Eds.), Linguistic Landscape:Expanding the Scenery (pp. 253-269). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
  24. ^ Kendrick, M. & Jones, S. (2008). Girls’ visual representations of literacy in a rural Ugandan community. Canadian Journal of Education, 31(3), 372-404.
  25. ^ Silberstein, S. (2003). Imagined communities and national fantasies in the O.J. Simpson case. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2, 4, 319-330.
  26. ^ See "Key Books" and "Other Relevant Books"
  • Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (Rev. ed.). London: Verso.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power (J. B. Thompson, Ed.; G. Raymond & M. Adamson, Trans.). Cambridge, England: Polity Press. (Original work published in 1982).
  • Kanno, Y., & Norton, B. (Eds.). (2003). Imagined communities and educational possibilities [Special issue]. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2(4).
  • Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Norton Peirce, B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 9-31.
  • Norton, B. (1997). Language, identity, and the ownership of English. [Introduction, Special Issue] TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 409-429.
  • Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. Harlow, England: Longman/Pearson Education Limited.
  • Pavlenko, A., & Norton, B. (2007). Imagined communities, identity, and English language teaching. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 669–680). New York: Springer.
  • Weedon, C. (1997). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory (2nd Edition). Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

External links[edit]

  • Applied Linguistics [1]
  • Critical Inquiry in Language Studies [2]
  • Journal of Language, Identity, and Education [3]
  • Language and Education [4]
  • Language Learning [5]
  • Linguistics and Education [6]
  • Modern Language Journal [7]
  • TESOL Quarterly [8]