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Imagined Identities in Second Language Learning

CI 597

Nicole M. Linko

Penn State University


Imagined Identities in Second Language Learning

Language is commonly seen as a set of systems and grammar rules that students

must learn in order to succeed in their second language development. However, the

research is moving away from this static and systematic view of language and taking on a

poststructuralist view, positioning language in terms of identity, which is ever-changing.

Identity is shaped through social interactions, which are influenced by many broader

factors in the world such as history and ideologies. When students learn another

language, they create imagined identities that they aspire to realize and imagined

communities that they would like to join; this has a strong influence on students

investment in their second language learning. Students social environments may

positively or negatively influence their success as they seek to develop their imagined

identities in the second language. This paper will provide an overview of the research

with regard to identity, investment, the role of the social world, and imagined identities

and communities and how these factors affect second language learning.

According to Pennycook (2010), the people, places, cultures, histories, and

ideologies that exist in the social world all influence how language is used locally by

individuals at the micro-level (p. 6). Thus, the social world is not a distant place that is

separated from our daily use of language. Rather, it shapes and is shaped by our local use

of language, which is inherently connected to our identities (Norton, 2013). The

connection between language learning and identity development can be demonstrated by

considering how social issues such as race, ethnicity, gender, and social class affect

individuals and their identities at the local level (Nelson, 2009; Norton, 2013). Bourdieu

(1977) states that language use shows how much power people hold in society, that

language is made to be spoken appropriately (p. 646). In other words, language tends to

be used in a way that confirms the norms that people have created in society. This

phenomenon creates unequal relations of power not only in the society at large, but also

at the micro-level, such as in language learning classrooms. Numerous researchers note

that perceived discrimination often does not present itself in the form of outright acts of

bigotry, but is frequently presented through subtle inequalities in systems or institutions

that ultimately privilege some and marginalize others (Anya, 2017; Kubota & Lin, 2009).

Additionally, discrimination can occur through the general silencing and exclusion of

certain groups that do not fit the norms of society (Nelson, 2009). These macro-issues

that are influenced by different histories, ideologies, and cultures around the world play a

large role in shaping students identities as they learn new languages.

Individuals who are negotiating their identities in second language learning are

affected by the unequal relations of power that are present in their social environments

where they are learning and those which are present in the second language. These

unequal relations of power play out through discourses, which are executed through and

are thus inseparable from language (Kubota & Lin, 2009). The norms that are accepted

through means of discourse ultimately determine which identities students feel permitted

to construct (Nelson, 2009). Norton (2013) ties the question of, Who am I? to the

question of, What am I allowed to do? (p. 48), also demonstrating the effect of the

social world on individual identity development. The role of the social can encourage or

discourage second language learners who are trying to figure out where they fit in new

communities that have been opened to them through a new language (Nelson, 2009;

Norton, 2013). This is particularly important in the classroom where teachers and peers

create a social setting for students who are learning a second language, which shapes

students investment in the target language.

According to Norton (2013), motivation relates to how students learn in order to

achieve an outward goal while investment is a deeper phenomenon that deals with

identity development; when students are invested in their language learning, they are also

invested in negotiating their identities in the new language (p. 50). Murphey, Jin, and Li-

Chi (2004) discuss how students may be motivated to achieve high grades in the

classroom, but may feel that they are not actually invested in the second language and

may thus leave the classroom with no intent to use the language (p. 88). The authors also

describe investment as a roller coaster (p. 91) because students may become inspired,

uninspired, and inspired again to learn through incidents that spark their interest or cause

them to become distanced from the language, and role models such as teachers, family,

and friends can affect students investment in the second language (Murphey, Jin, & Li-

Chi, 2004). Talmy (2010) points to a study in which Chinese students in an English

classroom felt that they were categorized negatively due to their race, causing a perceived

environment of hostility towards them which led to a decrease in their investment in

English language (p. 40). Had these students perceived that they were equal to the other

students in the class, they may have sought opportunities to excel in English rather than

being turned off by the negative influence of their social environment in English.

The research shows that there must be a meaningful link between individuals and

their social environments in second language learning, and this can be done through the

successful connection between students imagined identities and communities and their

actual social environments in the second language. Benedict Anderson was the first to

create the term imagined communities (Norton, 2013, p. 8), using this term to describe

how nation-states use language to create a sense of community among the peoples

(Anderson, 1991). Language learners envision communities that they would like to be a

part of and this affects their success in acquiring their second language (Norton, 2013).

For example, King (2008) describes the experiences of homosexual Korean men learning

English and the important role that imagined communities played in their investment (p.

232). These men saw a vast difference between the Korean discourse that heavily leans

toward heterosexual marriages and the West where they believed that they could live out

their homosexual identities more freely; this caused them to invest in learning English by

studying in English-speaking countries because they believed English language was the

medium through which they could become a part of the homosexual Western

communities they had imagined (King, 2008). These identities and communities that

language learners imagine heavily influence how they become invested in their second

language and construct their identities in that language (King, 2008). This shows that

language is central in helping students to achieve their imagined identities and become

part of their imagined communities, but language cannot be separated from students

social worlds.

Students overall success in a second language is influenced both by their

imagined identities and communities and by the social relations of power that are

imposed on them. Norton (2013) discusses the imagined identity of a female Vietnamese

immigrant in Canada, named Mai, who worked at a clothes factory (p. 9). Mai did

repetitive tasks with a sewing machine and wore regulated clothing for the job. Her

imagined identity was to advance to become a part of the office personnel who did a

greater variety of tasks, had access to more advanced technology such as computers, and

wore more stylish clothing. Mai sought to make her imagined identity match this

community that she aspired to become a part of, but her ESL classes focused on cultural

exchange, which did not help her to advance her imagined identity in English and she

eventually withdrew from the class (Norton, 2013). This type of situation can cause a

drop in investment and a loss of interest in the second language because students are not

able to realize the imagined identities that they aspire to become or to join the

communities that they imagined themselves being a part of. Immigrants such as Mai

could remain powerless if they are not equipped with the linguistic tools necessary to

advance in their new society, perpetuating the marginalization of immigrants.

On the other hand, a classroom environment can cause students to become more

invested in the second language and achieve greater success in learning and developing

their identities in that language. A group of African American middle school students had

great success in learning Arabic because their teacher helped them to realize their

imagined identities and to get closer to their imagined communities (Moore & English,

1998). The students envisioned themselves being able to talk to the African American

Arab students in their school, to possibly join the Black Muslim organization in their

community, or to one day participate in a community of African American Arabic

speakers in the Middle East/Africa. In addition, their teacher was an African American

Arabic speaker who not only served as a role model, but also allowed them to express

themselves in Arabic using aspects of their African American identity in English; they did

this by composing rap songs in Arabic and using African American slang to teach Arabic

(Moore & English, 1998). This shows how important students imagined identities,

imagined communities, role models, and perceptions of their classroom environment are

to their investment and overall success in second language learning.

The research on second language learning has been moving away from its

historically static view of language and is now taking into account issues such as race,

ethnicity, gender, and social class and how these variables intersect and continuously

shape identities. These macro-issues do not play out only on the global level, but are

pervasive, and often invisibly so, at the local level. A classroom is a crucial setting for

student identity development, particularly in language learning classrooms where new

language opens up new possibilities for identity development. Students who feel

marginalized in the classroom due to the dynamics of power may become distanced from

the second language, but their investment could be reactivated through positive role

models and encouraging situations. When learning a new language, students have visions

of what they see themselves to be in that language, their imaginary identities; they also

have visions of certain social groups that they would like to be a part of, their imagined

communities. Once students enter a space such as a language-learning classroom, this

new community can open the door to positive identity development in new social worlds.

It is critical that teachers address the needs of students in accordance with their imagined

identities and communities. If students are not provided with the linguistic resources that

they need to realize their imagined identities in the second language, they are likely to

lose investment and may give up on the language even if they were at first highly

motivated to learn. To address these concerns, educators and institutions must pay more

attention to the societal issues that influence their students ever-changing identities in

second language learning.



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