Identity is commonly 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 comprehends possibilities for the future” (Norton, 2000, p. 5). It can be said that part of understanding the world and our relationship to it is made possible by language; therefore, language plays a significant role in defining one’s identity and the environment surrounding that person. But what happens when there is more than one language involved? Moreover, how does the language acquisition journey in a new environment affect a ‘core’ monolingual identity (if there is such a thing)?
It is known that many SLA theorists have so far “struggled to conceptualize the relationship between the language learner and the social, cultural world” (Norton and McKinney, 2011, p.4), but there’s certainly a connection there; the lack of knowledge between those two entities further disables academics to develop “a comprehensive theory of identity that integrates the language learner and the language learning context” (Norton, 2000, p. 4). And although researchers in the field of psychology have studied and theorized identity extensively for nearly 50 years, there are still no clear derivations of how identity and SLA come together.
Many current SLA researchers have adopted a version of Norton’s (1997) definition of identity (above) which, again, defines identity as how people view themselves in relation to the social world around them; this, of course, brings about the conclusive notion that Norton, with the help of Chris Weedon (1997), finds identity as subjective, and relative to the environment of the agent.
Norton (1997; 2000; 2012), McKinney (2012), Hansen & Liu (1997), specifically, focus on the myriad complexities of identity in SLA; they interested on methodically inspecting how identity and second language learning deal with power relations, and motivation–-all which could potentially elucidate or help build a comprehensible theory of identity that is applicable to the language learner and their SLA journey today. In this paper, I aim to briefly synthesize the components that make up a possible theory of the SLA learner identity. I’ll be focusing on ESL students, specifically those who have emigrated from an ‘underdeveloped country’ to a nation like the United States. I’ll start by giving a brief review of how identity has been thought about in terms of power relations, subjective ideas of self, and motivation as well as the idea of SLA learning as an ‘investment’. The last portion of the paper will give way to a small discussion regarding concerns about the hiring practices within the English language-teaching world.
Many early researchers of identity and language are consistent with humanist conceptions of self in Western philosophy, most which assumed that there’s always a ‘core,’ an authentic, fixed sense of self (Norton and McKinney, 2011). In fact, there’s a strong case for believing that a single defined identity ‘eases’ the anxiety of learning English, and its cultural affiliations, in a classroom and greater target communal environment. In more recent times, poststructuralist ideology and the rise of globalization helped generate ideas of self through the lens of plurality; identity is not seen as one here, rather as a construct that struggles to summon up its various influences and places in which it unfolds.
Weedon (1997) notes that this idea of self is diverse, contradictory, dynamic, and changing over historical time and social space. More precisely, identity is in “constant state of change while being engaged, reshaped, and managed in thought as well as through discourse and interaction” (Weedon, 2004, p. 5). In so far as learning English as a second language goes, though, it is very hard for ESL students to navigate the classroom and greater school environment, and even further, a monolingual society, without engaging in an anxious existential dialogue. Once students experience another culture with frequency, they will never have a sense of a ‘core’ identity—especially if the target language is dominant and a necessary tool for subsistence; in fact, ESL students end up having “two sets (or more) of values derived from the two (or more) cultures and languages” (Qu, 2005, p. 113). In a sense, as Bonny Norton (2012) states, “every time language learners speak, read or write the target language, they are not only exchanging information with members of the target language community, they are also organizing and reorganizing a sense of who they are and how they relate to that particular social world” (P. 5).
Further, as mentioned earlier, ELLs will always be surrounded by various groups, all which differ culturally and linguistically. The ELL’s interaction with a diverse body of people will certainly influence how they perceive their identity as it relates to these groups. According to Hansen and Liu (1997), one’s identity is also derived from group membership. Group membership is dependent on language use and therefore is easily understood in a language-learning context (Hansen & Liu, 1997; Gardner, Masgoret,Tennant & Mihic, 2004; Norton, 2000; Ullman, 1997). By mirroring the language of the interlocutor (a native English speaker), the speaker may be marked as an ‘insider’ while a variation can signify an ‘outsider.’ This means that one’s inability to speak the language ‘accurately’ can exclude one from group membership (McNamara, 1997; Hansen & Liu, 1997).
Logically, to gain in-group status, language learners need to be invested in practicing and fully emerging themselves in the target language’s culture; this is often implicitly required by the social group in which the ELL is trying to fit into. Language proficiency is, then, seen as an indispensable part of acquiring the culture attached to L2. This is directly supported by the notion that higher levels of proficiency embody an ELL’s “ability to use a language effectively and appropriately throughout the range of social, personal, school, and work situations required for daily living in a given society” (Peregoy & Boyle, 1993, p.28). Regarding language ability, Canale and Swain (1980) prefer to use the term ‘communicative competence’ instead of ‘language proficiency’ due to its greater inclusiveness regarding ELLs and the process of acquiring a new language—which again ties in better with the more contemporary notion of multiple identities. ‘Communicative competence’ extends language use to the social conventions of language instead of a more rigid and academically inclined ‘language proficiency.' Either way, the extraneous task of acquiring a new language puts ELLs in a difficult position: they need to practice speaking English but are often excluded from the group because they do not speak the target language fluently.
Levels of ‘communicative competence’ or 'language proficiency', again, could hinder or aid an ELL’s journey for belonging. Language and identity intersect language choice and styling (i.e., code choice, register, genre, accent); such ranges of speech serve as a means to interpret “social information such as group identity: geographic region, language variety, and thus in some contexts, socio-economic status or educational background” (Duff, p. 3, 2012), and therefore explain why such language phenomena like Spanglish is seen as a representation of “language disfluency.” In the eyes and ears of the target social group, those who utilize it have failed to master English. Spanglish, in this case, is a linguistic phenomenon that is commonly labeled a “communicative handicap,” indicative of incomplete language acquisition or language convergence (Ansaldo, 2010). Such thinking, then, sums up the many struggles students go through as they negotiate their ‘knowledge’ of a language and cultural identity that is not entirely theirs—in a sense, these students are in a state of becoming; they’re in limbo, waiting to reach an absolute that they might never fully attain. If looked at through Bonny Norton’s ideas of identity in SLA, an ELL will always be in constant negotiation with various social groups—and this is a tough position to be in.
Identity and Power Structure
“Language choice and attitudes are inseparable from political arrangements, relations of power, language ideologies, and interlocutors’ views of their own and others’ identities. Ongoing social, economic, and political changes affect the constellation, modifying identity options offered to individuals at a given moment in history and ideologies that legitimize and value particular identities more than others.” (Pavlenko & Blackledge, 2004, p.1).
As noted above, language and power relations have a lot to say about one’s identity—especially those who emigrate from an ‘underdeveloped nation’ to a country that possesses economic and political dominance as it stands. As Bourdieu (1991) notes in Language and Power, the value ascribed to speech cannot be understood apart from the person who speaks it, and the person who speaks cannot be understood apart from larger networks of social relationships.
Central to group membership and L2 proficiency is the concept of imagined identities and imagined communities. The concept of imagination, and how it impacts the desire or avoidance of some identities, is primarily informed by Markus and Nurius (1986), Anderson (1991) and Wegner (1998). Their ideas were then further developed by Bonny Norton (2001) in the effort to adapt this concept to SLA identity theory. Markus and Nurius’ (1986) theory of possible selves delves into what an individual wants to become, might want to become, and what they are afraid of becoming; such notions within an individual inform his or her tendencies to avoid or catch on to certain cultural, and in this case, linguistic patterns or systems. Memberships to imagined communities (i.e. the powerful Western English speaking community) are linked to levels of motivation, behavior, and cognition. Anderson’s (1991) notion regarding the role of language as an indication of power presents the idea of imagination as a social process informed by hierarchies of power. More precisely, those in power do the imagining for the laymen and laywomen, offering them a restricted list of identity options and leaving other options ‘unimaginable.' Wegner’s (1998) situated learning theory, then, discusses imagination as that which is imagined as both an individual and social process. In his view, imagining a social group that is far from a person’s own, is a distinct form of belonging. Relating it to ELLs, the act of learning the L2 facilitates them to “locate [themselves] in the world and history, and include in their identity other meanings, other possibilities, and other perspectives” (p.178). These imagined identities might vary from the extremely privileged to the underprivileged. Norton’s (2000) appropriation of both theories presents an interesting view of SLA identity theory. In the work of Norton (2000), this notion of possible selves is what influences a student’s multiple ‘investments’ in learning an L2, and respectably, the different aspects of the target language community(ies) that they are looking to emulate.
In his paper Linguistic Imperialism, Robert Phillipson (1992) argues that native English speakers’ culture and thought processes are based on “a dominant Centre (the powerful Western countries and interests) and dominated Peripheries (the underdeveloped countries)” ideology, along with “linguicism, [which] consists of ‘ideologies, structures, and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources... between groups that are defined on the basis of language’” (p.57). In this case, Western English (its accent, register, etc.) and its culture become the ‘apparent’ driving force for economic and social development; this means that ELLs are most likely propelled to learn English by trying to embody what Phillipson calls the dominant Centre culture’s language. Linguistic imperialism is a primary component of cultural and social imperialism, and like racism, linguicism may be conscious or unconscious on the part of the actors (p. 55).
ELLs seeking a more ‘influential’ and powerful social identity can modify their language use to join or keep being a part of the more dominant groups (Gee, 2004). Phillipson’s ideas inform Bourdieu’s (1991) concept of ‘cultural capital,’ which alludes to a form of non-financial social asset that elevates social status when learned. In example, an ELL’s interest in transforming their identity through the ‘positive’ consequences of learning an L2, and its respective culture, is looking to gain the corresponding symbolic and material resources that’ll increase their societal value.
Enacting various ‘selves’ in the process of acquiring a second language requires an examination of motivation. Motivation, as seen through the lenses of SLA identity theory, is more often than not seen through a social construct rather than within the usual psychological context. The construct of investment, first mentioned by Bonny Norton in 1995, “signals the social and historical relationship of learners to the target language, and their often ambivalent desire to learn and practice it” (Norton & McKinney, 2011, p.75). The term ‘investment’ is inherently linked to Bourdieu (1991)’s notion of ‘cultural capital’; in a similar way, Norton ties in notions of financial success and cultural relevance to a learner’s interest in learning the target language. In applying the investment construct, we could identify language learners as susceptible ‘customers.' What I mean by this is that an ELL’s motivation to remain engaged in the learning process may decline or heighten due to the expected and the actual return on their investment. There is an inbuilt difference between the ways we look at motivation regarding intention and the notion of investment as it affects actual behavior in the classroom, however. In a study conducted by Duff (2002) in a classroom with native and non-native English speakers, the teacher’s efforts to get everyone speaking generated unfavorable results for the ELLs. In this specific case, the teacher’s attempt to create a supportive, all-inclusive classroom environment backfired. When asked to speak, the ELLs felt afraid of being criticized or laughed at by their limited ‘language proficiency’ and so they remained silent. The native English speakers, on the other hand, felt that the ELL’s silence was indicative of a “lack of initiative and agency” (p. 312). This, again, takes us back to the notion of group membership; for ELLs to be ‘accepted,' they need to practice speaking English but are often excluded from the group because they do not speak the target language fluently. What this is trying to illustrate is that, although the ELLs are motivated to learn the second language (their interest in being ‘accurate’ in order to fit in the group, for example), they are not completely ‘invested’ in the language practices of the classroom, as they are not consistent with their expectations. Their behavior doesn’t reflect their intentions; “In sum, a learner can be highly motivated to learn a language, but not necessarily invested in a given set of language practices” (Norton & McKinney, 2011, p.75).
Norton’s theory of investment and its effects on motivation differs from Lambert and Gardener’s (1972) ahistorical, non-linear take on motivation and second language acquisition. Lambert and Gardener look at two types of motivation: On one end we have instrumental motivation, which embodies a student who desires to learn the L2 for utilitarian purposes, such as employment, while integrative motivation references the desire to learn a language to successfully integrate with the target language community; both types have been “found to be related to success in second language learning” (Lightbrown and Spada, 2013, p.87). Both types of motivation do acknowledge the learner’s desire to access, and therefore fit into a target community’s linguistic system, yet there is no mention of the multiplicity of desires and identities that are always unfolding as the ELL negotiates their possible selves in the presence of the target social group or others.
Most research concerning hiring practices in EFL (i.e. Selvi, 2010; Ruecker & Ives, 2014; Mahboob, 2009) tells us that approximately 75% of all job ads published online are for NESTs (native English speaking teachers) only. Given these numbers, many language institutions and or programs, abroad and in English-speaking countries, hire teachers that reinforce this imbalanced power dynamic. Job postings for English teachers not only deny most if not all NNESTs (non-native English language teachers), but they also strengthen the negative discourse that works around the ESL community regarding notions of an English teacher’s authenticity via cultural, linguistic, and racial affiliation. The idea of reaching diverse varieties of English threatens this linguistic power that English, as a Western language, holds. Yet it also contradicts this notion that English, as an international language, should be flexible and diverse in hopes that it will connect people from all over. Moreover, “failing to consider the centrality of learners’ identities, as well as issues of power and inequality in the language learning process, will produce an inadequate understanding of SLA, ” (Atkinson, 2011, p.24) therefore, language institutions, as well as public school officials, should hire instructors that not only are capable of teaching a second language in a culturally responsive way but who also speak or are familiar with a variety of Englishes.
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