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The Impact of L2 Learners’ Negotiation of Identity on L2 Learning

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Published: 9th Dec 2019

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The Impact of L2 Learners’ Negotiation of Identity on L2 Learning


This article looks at how the issues of social identity have been examined and addressed in the field of second language acquisition (SLA). More specifically, it reviews selective empirical studies that investigated second language (L2) learners’ negotiation of identity in various communities of practice and its impact on L2 learning. I review articles published since the rise of social turn in SLA in 1990s and address how the field has evolved in investigating identity issues in L2 learning. I begin with the construct of identity and the typical research methods employed to study identity and SLA followed by a broad discussion on the interrelationship between language and identity. I then deliberate in research examples of examining L2 learners’ negotiation of identity and its impact on L2 learning. Finally, I conclude with the pedagogical implications regarding the role of identity in L2 learning and teaching as well as future directions on identity and SLA research.

Keywords: identity, L2 learning, communities of practice, social consequences


Firth and Wagner (1997), though not explicitly, was the first article linking the concept of identity issues to second language acquisition (SLA). In their article, Firth and Wagner challenged the narrow view of identity that had been discussed in most second language (L2) learning research, which were the native speakers (NS) identity and non-native speakers (NNS) identity. They asserted that NS and NNS identity were only one facet of the various social identities (i.e., teacher, colleague, father, stranger, and etc.), which may also play important roles in language learning. Later on, Gass (1998) called for the needs to establish the identity categories to L2 learning and she argued that while previous SLA research studied L2 learners from a cognitive perspective which categorized L2 learners as fixed and binary terms such as motivated and unmotivated, introvert and extrovert, the sociocultural perspective viewed these dispositional characters as situated and may change in different contexts across time. Gass further argued that language learning theory and research needed to investigate the power struggles in the social worlds and in the target language community so as to better understand L2 learners’ linguistic behavior and performance within a certain social context. Since then, there has been a remarkable increase of studies conducted in investigating the interrelationship between learners’ social identity and L2 learning (i.e., Pavlenko & Blackedge, 2004; Miller, 1999; Norton, 1993).

Language learning is never just about the language itself, for many people, perhaps the purpose of learning a new language derives from their desire to change social world, to be accepted by other members, or to become more competitive in the society (Ortega, 2009). Block (2003) also posited that language learning should be conceptualized as a social process in addition to the traditional view of cognitive process. The question then is: how does language learning take place through social interactions and what’s the role of L2 learners’ identity in their language learning process and outcome? Drawing on identity and SLA literature, this paper discusses how the issues of identity started and evolved in the field of SLA and more specifically, the way in which L2 learners negotiate and structure their identities through communities of practice and its impact on their investment in L2 learning.

I begin with a brief discussion on the construct of identity and the typical research methods that have been employed in examining identity and SLA. I then link language with identity and particularly discuss how linguistic forms are used by speakers to mediate and negotiate social identities (i.e., Bourhis, Giles, & Lamber, 1975). Next, I explore how L2 learners negotiate and transform their identity through different communities of practice and its impacts on their motivation and investment in L2 learning. I further discussed more recent identity research emphasizing the role of learners’ identity in their development of specific language areas (i.e., Polat & Schallert, 2013). Finally, I conclude this paper with pedagogical implications in aspect of L2 learners’ identity in L2 learning and teaching practice as well as future directions in the line of identity work in SLA.

The construct of identity

In studying identity and language learning, many SLA scholars have put forward different terminologies for identity and conceptualized identity in a variety of ways. For instance, Hall (1995) used the term identification to presuppose the processual angle, while Weedon (1997) preferred subjectivities which she defined as “the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, his or her sense of him-/ herself and his / her ways of understanding his/her relation in the world (p. 32)”. Davies and Harré (1999) employed positioning, as for them, identity was about an individual’s continuous and ongoing positioning in social interactions with others. In most current research, identity and subject positioning are used interchangeably. For the sake of simplicity, this paper uses the term identity in most cases unless otherwise is indicated.

Other than the heterogeneous terms used by different SLA scholars for identity in their research, the approaches that different researchers took to examine identity and language learning also varied. Before 1990s, identity was examined from an essentialist view where identity was conceived as a fixed subject that an individual either possessed or lost (Horner & Weber, 2018). Later on, a poststructuralist perspective was proposed and received great attention and credibility in identity studies. The poststructuralist view acknowledged an individual’s multiple and dynamic identities and framed identity not as something fixed for life but something that may change and be reconstructed as the sociocultural environments changed (Smart, 1999). According to research, the dynamic and situated nature of one’s identity appeared to be particularly salient when he or she arrived in a new social environment, such as moving to a new country (Bhabha, 1994; Hall, 1996). When situating in a new environment, an individual may go through a period of identity negotiation and struggles in finding a balance between his old and new identity. That’s also one of the important reasons why most of the identity research was conducted in the immigrant context.

Based on the poststructuralism perspective, methods required to study the interrelationship between identity and language learning need to be able to grasp the complex, situated, and dynamic nature of identity negotiation in different social contexts. Furthermore, identity research also needs to take into account different social backgrounds such as political and economic issues or various identity classifications such as gender, sexism. It is therefore ethnological and longitudinal case studies were the most popular trend in identity research. Learners’ narratives about their language learning experience is one typical source data in the line of identity and SLA research. Other typical ways of data collection in identity and SLA research involve ethnographic observation, interviews (formal and informal), journal writing, and written responses to structured questions. In terms of data analysis, based on the nature of the source data, qualitative analysis was the major approach, though there have been few quantitative studies in investigating identity and SLA (i.e., Polat & Schallert, 2013)

Language and identity

The link between identity and language may not seem to be straightforward on the surface level, but in many social contexts especially in multilingual and multicultural situations, language may be used as a powerful tool by interlocutors to index a particular identity. Indexicality is “the process whereby the speaker’s use of certain linguistic forms ‘point to’ a specific identity” (Horner & Weber, 2018, p. 106). For instance, Bailey (2000) documented naturally occurred interactions between a 17-year-old Dominican teenagers, Wilson, and his peers in school, home and community contexts through ethnographic observation, video-recording, and interviews and showed how the varieties of languages (English and Spanish) were employed skillfully by Wilson to negotiate (or renegotiate) his identities among different social situations to either align with or distinguish himself from different social categories.

The negotiation of identity through using different linguistic forms occurred in an interactional process where individuals either showed their alignment with others or distanced themselves from others constituted the various and shifting we / they dichotomies. According to Gumperz (1982), we-code referred to a societal minority language spoken at home and within the same communities (in-group code), while they-code pertained to the societal majority language used when talking with outsiders (out-group code). Depending on the interlocutors and the conversational contexts, individuals may switch their “codes” of communications.

Code-switching and identity

In linguistics, code-switching refers to the alternating use of two or more languages in a single conversation. According to Gumperz (1982), code-switching could be classified as situational or metaphorical code-switching. Situational code-switching referred to the changes of linguistic behavior when situational conditions (i.e., setting, interlocutors) of conversation changed. For instance, a group of Chinese conversing among each other in Mandarin but switched to French or English when ordering food in a local restaurant in Montreal, Canada. In the case of metaphorical code-switching, linguistic switch is often used by the speakers to invoke and renegotiate identities or to display particular values or beliefs. An example that demonstrated the metaphorical code-switching could be a study carried out by Bailey (2002) where he examined the relationship between language use and the negotiation of identity among second-generation Dominican Americans. Isabella, a Dominican American teenager told her friend that she was going to break up with her boyfriend because he spoke too much Spanish and refused to speak English. In this case, it seemed that Isabella was trying to establish the “American identity” through the use of English and intentionally distanced herself from the “Dominican identity” through the avoidance of Spanish. Isabella’s tendency to use one language and avoid using another to index her identity suggested the inseparable connection between linguistic forms and social identity and cultural values, assumptions and beliefs. Bailey (2002) demonstrated how languages were used as a “metaphorical extensions of specific sociocultural interpretative frameworks” (p. 132)

Another form of code-switching that has been the central of discussion in sociolinguistic literature is how one’s speech style influences his or her achieved (assumed) or ascribed (imposed) identity. According to Gee (2000), achieved identity referred to one’s desired identity and how a person identified his/herself, whereas ascribed identity referred to the identity that others assigned to a person through social interactions. In other words, one may be recognized as he or she wished to be identified (achieved identity) or may ignore the achieved identity and continue to work on the identity that is assigned to him/her (Palmer, 2007).  Depending on one’s perception of his or her own identity, the individual may change his or her speech style to achieve the identity he / she wants to establish in social contexts. Conversely, one’s speech style may also influence other people’s perception or judgment of that individual’s identity and social class. Speech style involved various aspects such as accent, pitch level, pronunciation, speed of speech, quality of speech and etc. (Seligman & Lambert, 1972). This paper focuses on one variety of speech style, accent, for its tremendous impact on one’s achieved and ascribed identity.

One of the very first examples to look at the relationship between speech style and social consequences was Bourhis, Giles, and Lamber’s (1975) seminal study. In attempting to investigate the impact of different accents on social consequences, Bourhis et al. (1975) proposed three types of speech style accommodation and conducted similar studies in two different nations (Quebec, Canada and London, Britain) investigating different accents of French and English. The three accommodation included: upward convergence where the speaker raised his or her standard of speech style to accommodate the interlocutors, downward divergence where the speaker lowered his or her standard to accommodate the interlocutors, and no accommodation where the speaker made no change of his or her speech style. In the Quebec context, 211 French Canadian students were assigned to listen to an interview between a Canadian athlete and a European interviewer (both athlete and interviewer were guised by the same French speaker who was able to switch comfortably between the roles and among three different accents of French: Formal Canadian, standard and informal Canadian style of French). The participants were asked to listen to four versions of two interviews with six different conditions where the upward convergence, downward divergence and no accommodation were interchanged and then completed a questionnaire asking about their attitude towards the athlete in each condition and if they were able to perceive the style switch of the athlete. Through a 3 x 2 analysis of variance, the result showed that the athlete was perceived to be more intelligent and educated when shifting to European (standard) French (upward convergence). Moreover, 65% of the shift was perceived correctly by the participants and 86% of whom stated that they would not change their speech style to accommodate the European interviewer because they did not want to lose their “Quebecois identity”. The same procedure took place in London but the speech style/ accent in this context were the shifts between Received Pronunciation (upper class), mild Welsh-accented English (middle class), and broad welsh-accented English (working class). Similar to the first study, the result of the second study also showed that shifting to the Received Pronunciation (upward convergence) was perceived as more intelligent but interestingly, the participants (72 students secondary school students who possessed south welsh accents) perceived shifting from Received Pronunciation to more Welsh accents (downward convergence) more trustworthy and kind. In short, both studies suggested that upper convergence was related to an increase in perceived intelligence but in the Britain context, upper convergence also pertained to be viewed as less trustworthy and kind than no shift. Bourhis et al.’s (1975) revealed the impact of one’s speech style, accent specifically, on others’ perceptions of one’s identity and social class. Meanwhile, their study suggested that the choice of one’s speech style was related to their own perception of identity. The participants in the Quebec context did not want to switch their speech style to accommodate the interviewer due to the fact that they perceived “Quebecois” as their achieved identity.

Not only one’s accent or speech style may impact how others perceived that individual, but one’s social identity may influence other people’s judgments or expectation on his or her accent. The very process where listeners tend to assign a speech style to a speaker according to what they expect to hear based on the speaker’s social identity but not based on what they actually hear is called Reversed Linguistic Stereotyping (RLS) (Rubin, 1992; Kang & Rubin, 2009).  In RLS, attributions of a speaker’s group membership may result in twisted and inaccurate evaluation of that speaker’s speech style. For instance, Rubin (1992) had the participants (62 undergraduate students who were all native speakers of English) listened to a 4-minute speech recorded by the same speaker twice but projected two different females (one Caucasian and one Chinese) to the screen respectively. Through the quantitative analysis on the scores of the listening comprehension cloze test and the questionnaires on attitude, background, value, appearance, ethnics and impression to accents, Rubin found that participants rated the Chinese woman’s accent more “foreign” and that the listening comprehension scores were generally lower when listening to the speech with the Chinese woman but in fact, the speaker was the same person. Rubin’s study showed that listeners tended to attribute the accent differences (even though in fact the difference did not exist) to their perception of the speakers’ social identity. In sum, it could be seen that one’s speech style (accent) and his or her perceived identity went both ways, interacting and influencing each on many levels.

Identity and second language acquisition

The link between identity and SLA was not vigorous in the field of applied linguistics prior to 1990s. It was until Norton (1993) published her dissertation where she documented five immigrant women’s struggle of identities in Canada that the field of identity and SLA started to grow. Studies on identities and SLA mostly examined the impact of L2 learners’ identity negotiation and power struggle on their investment and motivation in L2 learning. In this section, I start with the introduction of an influential identity and second language learning model that was proposed by Norton (1995). Based on Norton’s framework, I discuss research examples of L2 learners’ negotiation of identity in different communities of practice and its impact on L2 learning and among which, studies in the immediate communities of practice is the focus.

Norton’s second language identity theory

Among all the second language identity theory, the most compelling one may be that established by Norton (Norton Peirce, 1995; Norton, 2000). The most important concept in her second language identity theory was the notion of investment, which according to her, “if learners invest in a second language, they do so with the understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic and material resources, which will in turn increase the value of their cultural capital” (Norton Peirce, 1995, p. 17). She further explained that the reasons behind L2 learners’ investment in L2 could only be appreciated as their accounts for identities, desires and changing social world and all these three elements worked together to influence L2 learners’ different investments in L2 learning at different times across contexts. Another important construct in Norton’s identity theory was the right to speak. According to Norton, L2 learners often struggled to claim their right to speak due to the unequally distributed power dynamic as an illegitimate speakers of the language in different communities of practice. According to Norton (1995), it is of great importance for L2 learners to possess their right to speak especially in their development of communicative competence in L2.

Based on Norton’s (1995) identity theory, I discuss below research that has been conducted on identity and SLA in various communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Most identity and SLA research was conducted in the context of immediate communities of practice and most subjects of such type of research were immigrants learning English in a new social environment. Therefore, this section discusses extensively on L2 learners’ negotiation and construction of identity in immediate communities of practice and its impact on their L2 learning. Research has also shown that not only did immediate communities of practice play an essential role in L2 learners’ negotiation of identity, but imagined communities of practice also influenced L2 learners’ construction of identity, which in turn affected their L2 learning. Therefore, relevant research examples in the context of imagined communities of practice are also discussed. More recently, research has started to explore the impacts of L2 learners’ self-determined identification with their first language (L1) communities and L2 communities on L2 learning whose research examples are also presented. Finally, I end this section with other social factors that may also play a role in L2 learners’ negotiation of identity and its impact on L2 learning.

L2 Learners’ negotiation of identity and power struggle in immediate communities of practice and its impact on L2 learning

Oftentimes, immediate communities of practice occurred in the circumstantial L2 learning context. Circumstantial L2 learning context referred to situations “where language minority learners must learn the majority language for reasons “that are related to large-scale social events like immigration or occupation” (Ortega, 2009, p. 243). Research in this context demonstrated that L2 learners struggled to negotiate their past and new identities, fought to fashion positive identities among other members in the society in various social contexts (i.e., workplace or institutional contexts).

Norton (1995) was the pioneer study in identity and SLA where she documented her one-year longitudinal study of five immigrant women in Canada. Also noted in her book (Norton, 2000), she traced five immigrant women’s experience in Canada from January to December 1991 through diaries, questionnaire, interviews, and home visits. Her findings suggested how negotiation of identity and power relations in different social contexts affected the participants’ decision to create or resist opportunities to speak English. One the one hand, social constraints may limit L2 learners’ opportunities to practice English. For instance, Mai, an independent woman who had a great investment in her job mentioned that she was uncomfortable speaking to her boss, while Katarina who possessed a master degree in her own country stated that she was uncomfortable speaking with other Anglophone professionals like her teacher or doctor. For Felicia who had a strong L1 identity (Peruvian identity) felt most uncomfortable speaking English in front of Peruvians whose English was better than her. On the other hand, social contexts may also urge L2 learners to claim their right to speak among target language speakers, which may lead to improvement in the language. Norton (1995) highlighted two immigrant women who legitimated themselves among their Anglophone colleagues through identity negotiation and finally developed their communicative competence in English. Martina, who often referred herself as “stupid” or “inferior” when she first arrived in Canada because of her limited proficiency in speaking English, asserted that she could not give up learning English due to her identity as a mother and a caregiver for her family. She even drew on her identity as a mother and reconstructed the power relationship between herself and her teenager coworkers to claim her right to speak. Another immigrant, Eva’s case was an illustration of the crucial link between social identity and the desire to speak the target language. When Eva found her first job in an English speaking environment, she felt powerless as an illegitimate speaker of English and oftentimes she was silenced by her Anglophone coworkers due to her lack of knowledge in Canadian culture. However, as she looked at herself differently, she started to seize the right moment to converse with her Anglophone coworkers, which helped her to finally develop her social identity to be a multicultural citizen and her communicative competence in L2. Both Marita and Eva’s communitive competence improved thanks to their awareness of how to challenge and alter their social practices of marginalization. Norton (1995, 2000) also argued that investment was a better term than motivation to grasp the complicated relationship of language learners and the target language as well their occasional ambivalent desire to speak the target language. Her findings suggested that a language learner may be highly motivated in learning the language but felt constraint or reluctant to practice it due to the social contexts he or she is in.

Another study that showed the pivotal role of the social context in L2 learners’ negotiation of identity and its succeeding impact on language learning was illustrated in Harklau (2000). In her three-year ethnographic case study, Harklau examined three students: Aeyfer, Claudia, and Penny’s experience through their last year of high school and first year of college. Data was mainly collected from tape-recorded interviews where participants were asked to recall and describe their recent class activities and assignments. Through a qualitative analysis of the data, Harklau showed how the educational settings impacted ESL students’ negotiation of identities and in turn affected their motivation and investment in learning English. For one, the three students were situated in an ethnically diverse high school where the images of immigrants (representation) were considered as “hard working, highly motivated and even inspiring” by the teachers. For another, they were often provided opportunities to talk and write about their personal stories. Situating in such a context, the three participants were highly motivated and largely invested in their L2 learning. This positive identity, however, was altered when they started college where they were regarded as “non-native English speakers” and therefore were placed in an English as a second language (ESL) program in the college. Contrasting from the high school context, all three participants struggled to resist their labelled identity as “outsiders” or “non-native speakers” and their imposed identity by their college teacher as “immigrant students who tried their best but would always struggle academically”. Despite their effort in resisting such imposed identity by working extra hard, their teachers neglected their resistance and efforts.  As a result, even though they were highly motivated to advance their English, they decided not to reenroll in more ESL classes when they realized that ESL classes were not mandatory.  Although the social contexts discussed in Norton (1995, 2000) were different from those in Harklau (2000), the participants were all situated in the immediate communities of practice and experienced the impacts of the surrounding contexts in their L2 learning journey. This again suggested that language learning was a social phenomenon and L2 learners’ investment in L2 learning may change across different social contexts.

In the immediate communities, not only did social contexts play a vital role in L2 learners’ investment in learning the target language, but research also showed that L2 learners’ desire to establish positive identities in the new social environment and their urges to change social world were also important for L2 learners’ investment in developing L2 skills. For instance, in their two-year longitudinal ethnographic research project, McKay and Wong (1996) qualitatively analyzed the data from class observation (mostly ESL classes), field notes, writing samples, and interviews and  found that the participants (who were four Chinese adolescent immigrants) appeared to struggle in negotiating and structuring positive identities in the new social environment and that this negotiation and reconstruction of identities contributed to their investment in developing different ESL skills. For instance, the three Taiwanese students managed to establish positive social identities through personal strengths and talents, which allowed them to integrate into the new social environment and affected their ESL learning outcome directly. Take one of the participants, Michael, as an example, Michael’s multiple identities as an athlete and popular friend motivated him to improve his listening and speaking skills but limited his investment in English writing skills. As McKay and Wong conjectured, the reason why Michael was not invested in writing skills was perhaps because he had already gained enough satisfaction from his identities as an athlete and popular friend. However, the other participant, who was the only participant coming from a lower economical l background, failed to establish a positive identity in the new environment and finally dropped out school. McKay and Wong (1996) indicated that L2 learners’ negotiation and reconstruction of identity play an important role in second language learning, especially when learners experienced sudden change of environment, such as immigration. Furthermore, their study suggested that learners may selectively invest in different English skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and the four skills were not necessarily developed at the same time and the proficiency in one skill was not an indicator of another skill.

McKay and Wong (1996) was also supported by Morita (2004). Morita (2004) traced the class participation of six female Japanese L2 learners of English in their first year of graduate program in a university in Canada and demonstrated the critical link between learners’ desire to claim their rights to speak in L2 classroom communities and their investment in L2 learning. Through qualitative analysis of the data from participants’ weekly report on their class participation, interviews, and class observation, Morita further suggested that L2 learners, under the circumstantial learning context, constantly struggled to reconstruct their identity in order to be acknowledged as a legitimate and competent member in the given community, which urged them to adopt different strategies to develop their L2 competency, oral skills in particular. For all the participants, the main obstacle that hindered them to voice in their classroom was the language barrier and in order to claim their right to speak in the classroom, they were aware of the importance of improving their English. Lisa, for instance, felt inferior to her classmates mainly due to her English skills and her fear of making mistakes in English. In spite of her strong desire to participate in class, Lisa held herself back to avoid being judged as incompetent. However, in order to contribute to class participation and establish a positive identity in the class community, Lisa managed to confront the challenge and made up her mind to improve her oral skills by employing a variety of different strategies. Lisa’s example revealed the impacts of negotiation of identities on the development of L2 learning. Her determination and perseverance to improve in turn gained her an increased confidence and positive personal identity transformation.

L2 Learners’ negotiation of identity in imagined communities of practice and its impact on L2 learning

Second language identity research has suggested that not only the immediate communities of practice or the present surrounding discourse, but the imagined communities (referred to communities that do not exist at present but are formed based on an individual’s past experience and desire for the future, as cited in Norton, 1995) also play an essential role in L2 learners’ investment in language learning. For example, Peirce’s (1993) analysis of one of the participants, Katarina’s story, demonstrated the impact of imagined communities on L2 learning. Speaking three different languages but had no knowledge of English, Katarina, a Polish immigrant in Canada who possessed a master degree and many years of professional experiences in her home country, constantly struggled to resist her labelled identity of as “uneducated and unskilled immigrant”. Hence, she invested in the imagined community where she saw herself as an educated professional and to reach this goal, she signed up an 18-month computer course for which she had to work extra hours as a homemaker and drop her ESL courses. Katarina chose to invest in the professional training course rather than improve her English due to her imagined identity as an accomplished professional, though speaking English was one of the most important requirements to become a professional in her context. Over time, Katarina developed her English skills but she was only comfortable and confident to communicate within a low-stake context and she stated that she felt uncomfortable to speak English with other professionals. Katarina’s story showed that one’s imagined communities of practice may hinder his or her investment in L2 learning.

By contrast to Katarina’s story (Pierce, 1993), Kinginger (2004) demonstrated the positive force of imagined communities of practice in one’s identity negotiation and language learning.  Kinginger followed and documented an American student named Alice and her journey of learning French over a period of four years and demonstrated the link between identity reconstruction and foreign language learning. Alice came from a working class family and had experienced a great deal of hardship in life, which made her feel inferior to her college peers. Having read about French language and culture through textbooks and Medias, Alice started to imagine her future self as a French-speaking female who would be offered more life opportunities. In spite of the numerous difficulties and disappointments that she encountered throughout her years of studying abroad, Alice managed to overcome the obstacles and accomplished her French learning successfully. For instance, when Alice participated in a French immersion program in Quebec, she was placed to live with a group of American girls and she immediately realized that she would not have much chances to practice her French so she consciously distanced herself from that group and tried to find opportunities to practice French with the locals. When she started her study in France, she decided to skip many classes as she thought it would be more beneficial to practice French in real-life contexts, which led her to seek opportunities to talk to people inside and outside schools and even found employment in French. Alice wanted to go to Quebec and France and invested in studying French because of her desire to reconstruct her social identity as she imagined for her future self and such desire pushed her to confront a multitude of challenges and finally succeed in her French learning. Alice’s story also illustrated how imagined communities functioned as an impetus of language learning. Like Alice, Neta, one of the participants in Miller (1999) stated that if she could speak English, she could socialize with anyone she wanted. In order to become her imagined future self as being capable in socializing, Neta seized every opportunity to practice English inside and outside school. Her imagined self of “being capable of speaking to anyone she wished” motivated her to improve her English and at the end of the study, Neta was the only student among three who was granted by the English-speaking students as having the right to speak.

L2 learners’ identified L1 and L2 communities and its impact on L2 learning

The research examples discussed above in both immediate and imagined communities of practice, though linked to L2 learning, they were not targeted a specific language skill area. Further, they were all conducted and analyzed with qualitative methods. Polat and Schallert (2013) was one of the first identity studies that linked to a specific language skill area (accent attainment) and adopted a mixed research method (quantitative and qualitative) to analyze the data. Polat and Schallert explored how learners’ self-determined motivation and identification with their L1 and L2 communities influenced their L2 accent attainment. On the quantitative side, the authors adopted Jesney’s (2004) global accent judgments as accent measurement and adapted the two motivation theories proposed by Dörnyei and Ushioda (2009) and Ryan and Deci (2000) to categorize learners’ motivation. On the qualitative side, they conducted semi-structured interviews with the participants. The participants were L1 Kurdish adolescents who were studying in monolingual Turkish schools. The results from the quantitative analysis on the accent measurement indicated that even though all participants studied and lived in the L2 (Turkish) context, their accents varied to a great degree. Results from the self-determined identification further suggested that there was a significant positive correlation between leaners’ association with Turkish-speaking (L2) communities and their native-like L2 accent but a significant negative correlation between their association with the Kurdish-speaking (L1) communities and their native-like L2 accent. As for the self-determined motivation, the integrated self-determined regulation (referred to the internalized desire to engage in a task) was a moderate and significant predictor of accent native-likeness while the introjected regulation (referred to “engaging in a task to avoid the feeling of guilt and anxiety”, p. 748) was a low but a significant negative predictor of accent native-likeness. In other words, learners’ inherent desire for learning was beneficial for their accent attainment, while when learners engaged in a task due to external factors, they may not perform as well. In line with Chihara and Oller (1978), Polat and Schaller’s (2013) study suggested that learners who identified themselves with their native communities to a higher degree tended to achieve a less native-like accent. That being said, learners’ self-determined identification with their L1 and L2 community had significant impacts on their second language accent attainment. Unfortunately, though adopting mixed method, Polat and Schaller did not report the results from the qualitative analysis, which might have provided deeper insights into the relationship between learners’ self-identification with L1 and L2 communities and their accent attainment.

Polat and Schaller’s (2013) findings also supported McKay and Wong (1996) where one of the participants, Brad Wang, whose strong L1 identity appeared to be one of the reasons to hinder his ESL learning. Brad, the only student who came from a lower socioeconomic background struggled to a great extent in fitting in the new social environment. First, his great proficiency in Chinese and the fact the he used be a student in a top school in China was not evident to his teachers, but his lack of material good was visible to his peers. In attempting to establish his identity among his peers, he constantly showed his pride in his L1 identity of being a mainlander who was more superior to other Chinese students. However, such move was not beneficial for him to structure a positive identity, as the majority of Chinese students in the school were from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Failing to construct a positive identity and not being recognized by his peers and teachers, Brad finally dropped out of school.

Other factors that may affect L2 learners’ negotiation of identity in L2 learning

As discussed at the beginning of this paper, due to the complex and dynamic nature of identity in different social contexts, identity researchers have also started to extend the research contexts by involving more sociocultural and political factors such as gender, race, sexism and etc. in investigating the role of identity in language learning. For instance, Teutsch-Dwyer (2001) indicated how gendered identities play roles in influencing an L2 learner’s language learning experience and outcome. The participant in Teusch-Dwyer’s study was a middle-age Polish man, Karol, who lived and worked in the United States. The author traced Karol’s English learning experience for 14 months and suggested that Karol’s gendered identity hindered him from improving his English. He struggled to a great degree to converse with American men but felt confident and easy to communicate women. Through deeper examination, the author found that the women whom Karol spoke to often simplified vocabulary deliberately and sometime was even able to anticipate his speech. Consequently, Karol had no stress in improving his English or to speak good English, as he found his positive identity as an accepted member among the women he communicated with.

Polanyi’s (1995) study suggested that sexism may also influence L2 learners’ investment in L2 learning. In order to establish their identity as strong women and confront humiliations from men, a group of American women studying in Russia worked extra hard to enhance their L2 competencies. Talburt and Stewart (1999) documented a contrasting story where an African woman studying Spanish in Spain decided to end her Spanish learning journey due to her ascribed identity as “a symbol of sexuality” and suffered from continuous harassment. These stories suggested that language learning and identity negotiation could not be understood without the consideration of the social world.


Thus far, I have discussed the construct of identity followed by different conceptualizations of identity in SLA, typical research methods employed by identity researchers, the inextricable link between language and social identity, and most importantly, how language learners’ negotiation of identity impacted their L2 learning in various social contexts. In this section, I turn to the pedagogical implications that can be drawn in the line of identity work in L2 learning and teaching. Further, limitations of previous and current identity research in SLA and future directions are addressed.

Pedagogical Implications

The findings of identity research in SLA has offered new insights into second language learning and teaching. As noted at the beginning of this paper, prior to 1990s, a number of SLA research studied language learning from a cognitive perspective, which regarded language learners in a binary terms (i.e., introvert or extrovert, motivated or unmotivated). With the rise of social turn in SLA, more recent research started to incorporate sociocultural factors into examining and accounting for L2 learners’ linguistic behavior and classroom performance and regarded L2 learner identities as context-dependable and may change in different social contexts. The identity research has pedagogical implications in second language learning and teaching on both conceptual and practical levels.

On the conceptual level, it is essential for language teachers to be aware that L2 learners have different identity positions and recognize their struggles in their negotiation of identity within the classroom community. Certainly, in order to better understand L2 learners’ classroom practice and address their needs, it is also important for L2 teachers to explore their students’ sociocultural background. Polat and Schallet (2013) suggested that it might be helpful for L2 educators to undergo an extensive learner profile analysis comprising L2 learners’ goals, needs, motivation, identity position through self-reported data (i.e., surveys or interviews) and observation. Furthermore, L2 teachers need to recognize that learners’ diverse identity positions may lead to unequal power dynamic within the classroom community, which may in turn hinder students’ investment in L2 learning and their transformation of L2 identity. Hence, it is vital for L2 educators to keep close eyes on the power dynamic of the classroom and make efforts to yield an equal L2 learning environment through pedagogical interventions (which is discussed below). Finally, it is also important for curriculum designers, material developers and school policy makers to take into consideration L2 learners’ struggles of different identity positions so as to minimize the amount of prejudice, misunderstanding, and conflicts in L2 community.

On the practical level, L2 instructors can adopt different strategies to encourage L2 learners’ participation and involvement in class. For instance, when setting up a class discussion or activity, it is important for the teacher to clearly explain the purpose of the activity as well as the cultural background information that some L2 learners may not be familiar with. In this way, L2 teachers facilitate L2 learners in fashioning L2 identity, as learning L2 culture is also important for L2 learners to legitimatize their status in L2 community. Additionally, instructors should pay close attention to learners who appeared to struggle to participate or tend to be in a silent or marginal position so as to find ways to help them become a legitimate member in class (Leki, 2001). A useful pedagogical intervention may be the turn-taking practices where all students takes turns to participate in an equal manner. Moreover, L2 educators may also plan discussion topics that allow and encourage L2 learners to show their knowledge and perspectives, which may in turn help them in structuring their L2 identity. Finally, other than helping L2 learners to build up a legitimate identity within the classroom community, it is also important for L2 educators and curriculum designers to help L2 learners to claim their right to speak outside the classroom (Norton, 1995). Therefore, implementing a variety of interactional class activities that are related to live experience and incorporating authentic and natural communicative tasks in the second language curriculum are of essence.

Future directions

Despite of a number of identity and SLA research since 1990s, the field is only at the beginning of studying the impacts of language leaners’ negotiation of identity in language learning. Most of the identity and SLA research focused on the macro level by examining the interrelationship between L2 learners’ identity negotiation and their investment in L2 learning. However, to date, there was very few research linking the impacts of L2 learners’ identity to specific language skill areas. Norton (1995, 2000) touched upon how L2 learners’ different identity position influenced their communicative competence, while Polat and Schallert (2013) linked L2 learners’ identification and motivation patterns to L2 accent attainment. However, these two studies also examined the relationship between L2 learners’ identity and language learning skill on the macro level, as identity was only one of the many other factors influencing the L2 skill area. Thus, future research may specifically investigate the correlation and interconnection between L2 learners’ identity and specific language skill (i.e., fluency, literacy) areas on a more micro level so as to address the link between L2 learners’ identity and language learning in a more direct manner.

As far as the research contexts and population concerned, Norton and De Costa (2018) suggested that future identity research may examine the “internationality” (different social categories such as ethnicity, gender and class) in a holistic way instead of only focusing on one social section. Furthermore, they proposed to expand identity research on digital communities given the fruitful and informative research findings on digital identity in the past ten years (i.e., Lam, 2000, 2004, 2006). Meanwhile, it is also important for researchers to be cautious in digital identity research.  As Lam (2006) indicated, although technology may be helpful in fashioning L2 learners’ identity within the digital community, it may not necessarily be beneficial for them to establish a positive identity in the real social world. Further, digital research may only be possible to be conducted in the wealthy regions, which has limited implication in other contexts. In terms of research population, most previous identity work mainly focused on immigrants learning L2 in the immediate community of practice, Norton and De Costa (2018) argued that more identity research should involve populations such as teacher identities, lingua franca speakers, heritage language learners, and study abroad learners. For instance, it may be interesting and beneficial to examine the impacts of educational policy on teacher practice and identity in a given context.

Future research on identity and language learning should adopt more sophisticated and comprehensive methods to investigate how identities mediate and influence language learning. As noted above, previous identity research mostly employed qualitative research methods in studying identities and language learning through the analysis of journals, narratives, and interviews. It may be beneficial for sociolinguists to adopt mix methods by also incorporating quantitative data and analysis into identity research to better account for L2 learners’ identity and language learning. Although SLA researchers have realized that there is a gap between cognitive-linguistic which often used quantitative approach and sociocultural-linguistic research which often used qualitative research methods and called for the needs to bridge the gap for both sides to learn and benefit from each other’s methodology (Hulstijn, Young, Ortega, Bigelow, Dekeyser, Ellis, Lantolf, Mackey, and Talmy, 2014), cognitive and sociocultural research is still going in the parallel direction. From the identity literature that I have reviewed, Polat and Schallert (2013) was the only study employing mix methods, but unfortunately, they did not report their results of the qualitative analysis. While Bigelow in Hulstjin et al. (2014) argued that bridging the social and cognitive gap may be of tremendous challenges as a result of the tradition in the field, Ortega suggested that the bridges are not one or two but many and for researchers who feel the cognitive-social tensions, it may be good for them to perceive the gap not as threatening disciplinary concession, but as a captivating invitation to build and travel the bridges, which may lead to a new path to knowledge and creation in the field.





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