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In the first instalment of this series, we looked at biological constructs and personality factors; constructs that were often that seen as steadfast and unchanging, and how they could influence the language learning process.

In the second instalment, we looked at motivation, a construct that was subject to the influences of the learners’ wants and needs, and their experiences with the target language groups. These influences were affected by social variables and rendered motivation a changeable construct.

However, such attempts to recognise social variables and deal with learner identity in was seen even before Schumann. Lambert (1972) made references to how Second Language Learning can involve not only the learning of target language but the target language group’s behaviour. Using the term ‘anomie’ to describe feelings of uncertainty and emotional conflict as learners start to experience changes to their social conditions and threats to their identity, Lambert addresses the social pressure on learners to conform to the target language group.

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However, Lambert, like most Second Language Acquisition (SLA) studies, including Schumann’s, tried to prove a mathematical cause-effect relationship between proficiency and the factors affecting learning, often with the use of structured questionnaires. Post-Structuralists, on the other hand, saw Second Language Learning as a socially-situated activity and not one that can be easily measured by quantitative analyses. Such studies using diary-entries became commonplace only recently, and some key concepts were brought to light.

Although studies had previously assumed that motivated learners would make the effort to seek out interactions with target language speakers in naturalistic contexts, findings showed that opportunities for such interactions were limited to gate-keeping encounters with doctors, bank clerks, etc., and access into the target language group’s social networks was not gained easily (Broeder et al, 1996).

In conversations with target language native speakers, their use of language was often judged, and they were positioned as inadequate, exemplified by Norton’s (2000) case where one native speaker proclaimed to the second language speaker that it was tiring talking to her.

The effort to negotiate meaning was often one-sided, with learners carrying the entire burden of ensuring mutual understanding and maintaining conversation-flow, in addition to struggling with the language, and ending up with feelings of frustration and a sense of failure (Block, 2007).

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Norton (2000) draws on Bourdieu, arguing that the right to speak and impose reception must be understood by addressing the relations of power between interlocutors. An example was her subject, Eva, a Polish worker at a Canadian fast food restaurant, who was deemed an illegitimate receiver with no right to speak when she did not understand her colleague’s socially-referenced comment about Bart Simpson. She was sent to do menial jobs such as cleaning the toilets while other workers continued their conversations and excluded her from communication. Such imbalance of power over sustained periods of immersion impacts on the learners’ sense of self, as they struggle with being positioned as ‘migrant’, and therefore less worthy.
One’s sense of self, i.e. identity, is a constantly changing construct. Also termed ‘subjectivity’, the identity of the individual is not fixed, but diverse, contradictory and dynamic. In Teutsch-Dwyer’s (2001) research, her subject Karol is faced with choosing between asserting his masculine identity and his learner identity, and prioritises the former over opportunities to improve his English. Norton’s (2000) other subject Martina relates to her identity as mother more than that of migrant, enabling her to stand up to younger target language speakers at work. 

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Identity is thus performed through the choices one makes, choices limited by the environment (e.g. one’s ethnicity, gender, and power imbalances) (Block 2007). However conscious or unconscious these choices may be, they interact with social situations and determines how one deals with issues such as marginalisation. Hence, while social interactions and withstanding social structures influence one’s identity, it in turn influences the interactions one partakes in.

As one’s identity shifts, so do characteristics of one’s personality. In initial stages, Eva, who worked in a Canadian fast food restaurant, felt unconfident, and assumed that others thought she was ‘stupid’ and ‘knew nothing’ (Norton, 2000:63). But as she penetrated the boundaries of the social network, her confidence increased and she was able to resist marginalisation. Previous assumptions about constructs like ‘global self-esteem’ are called into question as we gain understanding of the fluid nature of one’s personality.

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Norton (2000) introduced the notion of investment to capture the complex relationship between identity and language learning that previous motivation theories failed to do. The individual’s investment in their Second Language Learning process is understood as attempts to accrue different forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1986). 

While the acquisition of the target language allows for more job opportunities and thus the acquisition of economic capital (material possessions, money), cultural capital (accent, appropriate behavioural patterns, connections to institutions) is what allows for entry into social networks. Such cultural capital is often domestically transmitted and therefore difficult for outsiders to penetrate, but is necessary in enabling acquisition of other forms of capital, including social capital (membership in social groups, relationships with those that have cultural capital).

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When different forms of capital one possesses are recognised as legitimate, symbolic capital (prestige, fame, reputation) is obtained, and the right to speak and impose reception can be gained (Block, 2007). The learners’ investment in the target language characterises their commitment towards their Second Language Learning process and the social identities constructed in interactions with the target language group.

Dagenais (2003), for example, made a case for parents who invest into their children’s future by insisting they learn French on top of English and their family’s language, believing that such investment will increase their symbolic/cultural capital and give them access to otherwise unattainable resources.

Conversely, a high level of investment in a learning situation, such as a conversation with a target language speaker, could deny learners opportunities of interacting. When material or symbolic resources are at stake (e.g. when the second language speaker is in the role of the employee of a target language speaker), insisting on the right to speak might be inappropriate and jeopardise one’s access to such resources.

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The balance of power is often influenced by who controls and distributes symbolic or material forms of capital, and the cultural/symbolic capital that learners bring to the interaction could enable them to move from a probationary status of ‘legitimate peripheral participant’ to an accepted member of the community of practice (Block, 2007).

Like the ironic fact that one has to speak the target language proficiently to gain access to language practice with target language speakers, one has to have the appropriate cultural/symbolic capital to acquire cultural/symbolic capital gained through group membership.

However, investment in a particular identity could also affect relationships to the target language and the target language group (Norton, 2001).  Felicia, the upper-class Peruvian, felt uncomfortable with using English with Peruvians who spoke better English, and left her language class when the teacher refused to acknowledge her Peruvian identity. Preferring to align herself with property-rich Peruvians, Felicia’s high level of investment in this aspect of her identity reduced her chances of practising English.

Using the concept of ‘imagined communities’ where individuals align themselves to a community that they imagine themselves participating in, Norton (2000) describes Felicia’s non-participation as an act of resistance against marginalisation to preserve her integrity in her imagined communities.

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The Second Language Learning process is indeed a complex one - one that is affected by factors that are constantly-changing and dependent on multiple factors that could have an influence on each other. The simple, but common, belief that immersing oneself in the target language community by, for example, learning English in a ‘native-speaker country’ is the most effective way of learning a language might in fact be a myth.

Simply by physically being in a ‘native speaker country’ does not mean that learners have the choice of participating in their chosen target language communities. And when they do, they do not always gain instant acceptance or respect. The simplistic view that if learners are motivated enough, they would find target language speakers to practice the language with is not only misguided, but possibly damaging. This only highlights the short-sightedness of those who have not had the experience of being someone who does not hold any cultural or social capital, and therefore not given the right of speech in a given community.

Perhaps, instead of placing the full onus of language learning success on the learner’s personality and motivation, it is also important to consider the communities of practice that the learner uses English in, and the facets of their identities that they prefer to, or are able to, portray within those communities. For only by acknowledging the full complexities of the second language learning identities of our learners could we truly begin to understand the Second Language Learning process.

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Block, D. (2007) Second Language Identities. London: Continuum.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The forms of capital.’ Reprinted in S. Ball (ed.) (2004) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Sociology of Education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Broeder, P., K. Bremer, C. Roberts, M.T. Vasseur, and M. Simonot. (1996) Achieving Understanding: Discourse in Intercultural Encounters. Longman: London.

Dagenais, D. (2003) ‘Accessing Imagined Communities Through Multilingualism and Immersion Education’, Journal of Language, Identity and Education, 2:4, pp: 269-283.

Lambert, W. (1972) ‘A social psychology of bilingualism’. In A.S. Dil (ed.) Language, Psychology and Culture. Essays by Wallace E. Lambert. Stanford. CA: Stanford University Press, pp: 212-235.

Norton, B. (2000) Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Essex: Pearson Education.

Norton, B. (2001) ‘Non-participation, imagined communities and the language classroom’. In M. Breen (ed.) Learner Contributions to Language Learning: new directions in research. Essex: Pearson Education.

Teutsch-Dwyer, M. (2002) ‘(Re)constructing masculinity in a new linguistic reality’. In A. Pavlenko, A. Blackledge, I. Piller, and M. Teutsch-Dwyer (eds.) Multilingualism, Second Language Acquisition and Gender. New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp: 175-198.

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 

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