Second Language Acquisition and Identity

  • Viniti VaishEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Encyclopedia of Language and Education book series (ELE)


This chapter introduces the field of second language acquisition (SLA) and identity with a focus on the main topics prevalent in this field and the research methods used by scholars. Beginning with some seminal works in the early 1970s, this field has gained increasing importance. Resilient concepts regarding the study of identity and language include “acts of identity,” resistance, and investment rather than motivation and the idea that attitudes toward speakers of another language are formed at an early stage. Typically studies in this area have focused on immigrants in first world countries like the USA and UK who make tremendous investments in language learning. However, a new trend in this area is the emergence of studies which look at language learning in Asian contexts, such as Singapore and Malaysia, where English is either the sole medium of instruction or the medium of instruction for a few subjects. Scholars tend to lean more toward qualitative methods of data collection in this field, favoring case studies and ethnographies, though there do exist a few studies in which a large-scale survey is the main instrument of data collection. I will introduce this chapter with a few incidents from my own professional life that have shaped my identity as a language learner and teacher. Thereafter I go on to discuss topics in the literature which have longevity, in other words, topics that keep occurring in the literature over decades of research. Following this is a section on the best-known works in the field of SLA and identity and, thereafter, topics that are currently being debated in the field. At the end of the chapter, I focus on problems faced by scholars in this field and finally future directions.


Identity Investment Motivation Resistance Language learning 


Two incidents from my life come to mind as I reflect on the issue of identity and SLA . One is regarding my very first job: a rhetoric and composition tutor in an American university from 1987 to 1989. At that time, when I was in my mid-20s, I was hired to teach composition to undergraduate engineering students, a compulsory course for them that they hated. What I remember about those 2 years is struggling with my own identity as an Indian tutor teaching writing to an all-white class of youngsters and the perception of my class that a “nonnative” speaker of English was teaching “native speakers” how to write in “their own” language.

The second incident occurred during data collection for my dissertation Vaish (2004). I was visiting the Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya (Sarvodaya Girls School) in East Delhi regularly for data collection. The Sarvodaya School has two streams: an English- and a Hindi-medium stream. Often I sat with the teachers in the staff room and had informal conversations with them about the students. In one of these conversations, a teacher remarked that there is a difference between the girls in the Hindi- and English-medium streams in terms of aptitude: only the brightest girls were sent to the English-medium stream. The others were in Hindi medium because they would not be able to cope with science and history textbooks in English, even though the teachers explained the content of these texts in Hindi. In one of these conversations, a teacher made the following remark: “The girls in English medium are different. They look different. They even walk differently.”

The teacher’s remark was about SLA and identity. What she meant was the girls in Sarvodaya School, who were in the English-medium stream, gained a confidence due to the fact that they were acquiring a global language of power that could lead to professional development. As all the students of the Sarvodaya School, many of whom were first-generation school goers, came from disadvantaged homes, this newfound confidence acquired due to learning a new language was as important as language acquisition itself.

My experience in an Indian school emphasized how second language learning, though a skill necessary for academic achievement, is never merely a skill but the acquisition of a new and transformed identity. At the same time, my experience of teaching in an American university reminded me that for those who are deemed “native speakers” the perception of this identity is vastly different from what the second language learner thinks of himself/herself. The contestation of differing perceptions and attitudes toward identity and the contestations between “native speakers” or the purported owners of a language and the learners of the same language make this field both interesting and provocative.

Early Developments

Resilient concepts regarding the study of identity and SLA include “acts of identity,” investment, and resistance rather than motivation and the idea that attitudes toward speakers of another language are formed at an early stage. By the word “resilient” I mean concepts that remain important in the literature across decades though the sample or subjects on which these concepts are applied may change. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss each of these key concepts as they comprise the bedrock of the literature on SLA and identity.

One of the most cited works on identity is LePage and Tabouret-Keller (1985), who suggested that identity is revealed through language. They used the phrase “acts of identity,” meaning that identity is not a static set of attributes though at first we might perceive it to be so. For instance, we might perceive an individual to be a male; Indian, from North India; and Hindi-English bilingual who believes in the supremacy of the Hindi language. But these attributes should be revealed through speech acts (e.g., requests) or speech events (e.g., asking for information) if a linguist has to prove that this is indeed the identity of that Indian individual. The theoretical framework of “acts of identity,” formulated in the 1080s, on data that LePage and Tabouret-Keller collected from the countries of Belize and St. Lucia, was in the tradition of variationist sociolinguistics and creole studies. The “acts of identity” model predicted a specific behavior from speakers. The model posited that speakers behave according to the speech and behavior of groups they want to identify with and speakers can identify these desirable groups, have access to them, are motivated to join them, and have the ability to change their own behavior. On this basis, LePage and Tabouret-Keller found five clusters of speakers in Belize and eight in St. Lucia. The strength of the “acts of identity” model is that it privileges a mixed methodology in research design. Though the survey was analyzed quantitatively, the authors also took the history and social fabric of Belize and St. Lucia into account while analyzing their data.

Although LePage and Tabouret-Keller (1985) contributed a seminal work to research on identity and language, their heuristic still results in creating groups without hybridity that, in today’s globalized world, is not sustainable (Nero 2005). For example, Nero pointed to the limitations of labels like the native and nonnative speaker dichotomy, English language learners (ELL), and other such monikers that do not do justice to the rich and changing identities that students bring to the language learning classroom. According to Nero, a more holistic way of representing the hybridity of postcolonial identities is Rampton’s (1990) framework which comprises three distinct categories: language expertise, language affiliation, and language inheritance. The first refers to proficiency, the second to desire, and the third to what we inherit in terms of language from our families, whether or not we have expertise in our inherited language or whether or not we desire to be part of what we have inherited.

Typically the concept of motivation in language learning is isolated from the contributions of identity, culture, and personal history, an approach challenged by Pierce (1995). Pierce, in a seminal article, argued that SLA looks at the language learner in isolation, without an integrative theoretical framework that links the learner with the learning context. To address this knowledge gap, Norton proposed a theory of social identity and substantiated this through a longitudinal qualitative study of five immigrant women learning English in Canada. She coined the concept “investment” as an alternative to motivation. The difference between motivation and investment is that “motivation is a property of the language learner-a fixed personality trait. The notion of investment, on the other hand, attempts to capture the relationship of the language learner to the changing social world” (p. 17). Investment situated the learner within a cultural and linguistic ecology in which the desires of the learners could keep changing depending on how they wanted to be perceived by society and by themselves. Norton’s research was linked to the classroom on the basis of classroom-based social research (CBSR). She defined CBSR as “collaborative research that is carried out by language learners in their local communities with the active guidance and support of the language teacher” (p. 26). Studies on motivation, even today, tend to be largely quantitative in nature and are conducted by scholars with a background in psychology. Though valuable these studies offer a unidimensional view of the language learner as highly motivated or not motivated. The concept of investment requires a qualitative methodology to locate the desires of learners embedded in their histories and cultures. For instance, Norton (1995) analyzed the diary entries of her five participants to trace how their identity changed in response to their language learning environment.

Lambert and Tucker’s (1972) longitudinal study is a voluntary, community-based Canadian project in which French was used as the language of instruction for children (Grades 1–4) who came from English speaking homes. The student participants’ achievement and attitudes were compared with children who came from French speaking homes. Lambert and Tucker knew from previous research “how important the language learner’s attitudes toward the ‘other’ ethnolinguistic group can be in determining one’s success in acquiring that group’s language, quite independently of the student’s linguistic aptitude or verbal intelligence” (p. 154). They found that even in Grade 1 the children who came from English speaking homes developed a more democratic and open-minded perception of French people and their culture and that this was partly due to their immersion in the French language and interaction with French teachers. Similar to Lambert and Tucker’s work, Downes (2001) looked at cultural identity of bilingual students in an Asian context. He compared the attitudes of two groups of students in Japan: (1) secondary school students in an English immersion program and (2) secondary students in a regular program who were learning English as a second language. The main instrument of data collection was the Attitude Towards Japan and the West Questionnaire (AJWQ) . Despite the concern of parents that students in the immersion program would lose their Japanese identity, Downes found that not only was this not the case but students in the immersion program developed more flexible attitudes and their scores were comparable to the children in the regular program, thus corroborating what Lambert and Tucker had found in their study.

In the mid-1990s, there was a spate of special issues on identity (Martin-Jones and Heller 1996; Sarangi and Baynham 1996), testifying to the increasing popularity of this topic in language learning. One of the themes that stood out for me from these and other articles that followed these was that of resistance. The idea of resistance was probably a concern for these scholars because they wanted SLA to acknowledge the presence of agency in the learner. They thought of the learner, not as an empty receptacle to be filled with the knowledge of the teacher, but as an active participant who could evaluate his/her own language learning experience.

Second language (L2) learners are never passive consumers of a linguistic product; rather, their efforts to learn a second language are mediated by their perceptions of the specific culture that the new language symbolizes. More often than not, L2 learners display contradictory behavior by resisting and also being drawn to the L2 they are learning (Canagarajah 1993; Liu and Tannacito 2013; Norton 2001). While teaching English as a second language (ESL) in Sri Lanka, Canagarajah found that students favored the product-oriented, grammar-based approaches to learning English and avoided communicating in English. Sri Lankan students felt that by communicating in English, they were pretending to be the bourgeois and thus were being disrespectful to their own Tamil language and ethnic group.

On the other hand, Liu and Tannacito (2013) argued that Taiwanese students of English display a White Prestige Ideology (WPI) , which the authors described as “a personal fantasy toward the white languages/people/cultures” (p. 357). They defined WPI as both discourse and social practice that perpetuates the unequal power relations between American teachers and Taiwanese students through the processes of inferiorization. Through in-depth interviews with two Taiwanese students, Liu and Tannacito found that the students were not happy with Taiwanese or other non-American teachers of English as they considered these teachers substandard. With such teachers, the students showed resistance because such teachers could not teach them the American way of writing that would give them access to an imagined community of prestige in academia.

Early work in SLA and identity thus not only popularized major concepts in this field but also problematized them. For instance the concepts of attitude and motivation , though crucial for understanding SLA, were problematized by overlapping concepts of investment and agency, which created a fertile ground for future studies in this area.

Major Contributions

One of the most referenced works in the field of SLA and identity is Norton’s (2000) Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. The problem, according to Norton, at the time of writing this book was that SLA theorists had not developed a theory of identity that integrated the language learner with the language learning context. In this context, power is inequitably distributed and social interactions do not give second language learners the autonomy and benefits that are enjoyed by native speakers. It is this theoretical gap, and its concomitant methodological conundrums, that Norton was grappling with. In this book, Norton used the term identity “to reference how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future” (p. 5). In a memorable statement, Norton wrote: “I take the position that identity references desire – the desire for recognition, the desire for affiliation and the desire for security and safety” (p. 8).

In suggesting what would be the most appropriate methodology for analyzing issues on this topic, Norton (2000) drew on the work of educational researchers in the fields of cultural studies, feminism, and critical ethnography. Rejecting the view that any research can claim to be objective or unbiased, Norton, in her own research with immigrant language learners in Canada, used a more qualitative approach and frequently asked questions about race, gender, and social class. Norton recommended a relationship between the researcher and the researched characterized by “research that is on, for and with subjects” (p. 23). The common methods of data collection tend to be ethnographies, interviews, diary studies, and participant observations.

Two edited volumes have made substantial contributions to the field of SLA and identity: Kubota and Lin (2009) and Cox et al. (2010). Kubota and Lin observed that English language teaching brings together many different races; however, TESOL has typically ignored “race” as an important aspect in the enterprise of language learning. They pointed out that the concept of race typically means differences between groups of people based on phenotypical features like skin color. However, the numbers of genes between human beings that are actually different are very few. According to some studies, only 0.5 % of genes in the human body account for differences in phenotype. Thus there are far more similarities between races than differences, and the idea of different races is more imagined than real. Yet, race is a very real ideological concept that drives the motivations and aspirations of human beings. Since phenotype does not lend itself to empirically proven differences between groups of people, it is possible that the difference is more one of identity, which is socially constructed, than race which is physically constructed.

Both race and ethnicity are integrally linked to ideology in the field of SLA. According to Kubota and Lin (2009), “the problem lies in the tendency to equate the native speaker with white and the nonnative speaker with nonwhite.” (p. 8). Due to this underlying problem, two important theoretical orientations for investigating issues of race in the teaching and learning of English are critical race theory (CRT) and critical white studies. These orientations unpack the physical and ideological space dominated by race and the privileging of “whiteness.” The term critical white studies refers to the importance given to the cultures and lifestyles of middle-class white people, specifically the importance given to pedagogies of English language learning, textbook content, and assessment which are produced in inner circle countries. The methodological tool in CRT and critical white studies is the interview in which participants narrate stories about their histories and experiences. The narrative , also called storytelling or counter storytelling, is considered a suitable methodological choice for the researcher because it gives voice to those who have historically been marginalized. An illustration of this style is Harushimana’s (2010) essay describing the author’s journey as a third language learner of English in Africa and subsequently as a graduate student of English in the USA and finally as a professor.

Border crossing between composition studies and general writing in SLA is emphasized in Cox et al. (2010), a book that explores issues of identity in SLA writing. According to the authors, composition studies dominate this field because composition courses, introduced in American universities in the late nineteenth century, are still a requirement for all undergraduate students in all disciplines. In addition to the large volume of students who take composition courses, a substantial percentage of these students are studying English as a second language. Though the way students express their identity through their compositions has always been of importance to scholars, the emphasis has now shifted to the nuances of “becoming” rather than “being.” In other words, scholars see students’ identities are constantly shifting and being formed and transformed by their writing, including their compositions. What the authors mean is that identity cannot be essentialized into neat categories as it is an attribute that is constantly in flux.

Both Creese et al. (2006) and Li and Zhu (2013) took an ethnographic approach to exploring issues of identity within diasporic groups. Creese, Bhatt, Bhojani, and Martin analyzed the identity of Gujarati children in London studying in complementary schools. They found that Gujarati students in two specific neighborhoods in London displayed heritage and learner identities encouraged by the school. However, in contrast to these, the children also developed multicultural identities that were fostered not only by the school but also by the environment in which they lived. They suggested that “society does not have clearly demarcated traditions that blend into distinct heritages. Rather, there is a co-existence of many heritages and newly invented traditions within a single nation-state” (p. 36). Thus the authors emphasize the identity cannot be essentialized into one identity and one language. In their data they find that the Gujarati students and teachers have moved from India to East Africa to the UK, and in this journey their identities have shifted and transformed. Thus complementary schools do not emphasize “essentialized ethnic or heritage identities but instead provide a context for students to combine their different life experiences in more fluid ethnicities with flexible bilingualism” (p. 41).

Li and Zhu (2013) took a similar approach to researching identity among Chinese university students in the UK. Using the conceptual hook of translanguaging , the authors conducted a “moment analysis” of the way five young Chinese men interact with each other. As Li and Zhu explained, “moment analysis was proposed in the context of studying multilingual creativity in everyday social interaction” (p. 522). The emphasis on moment analysis is on “spur-of-the-moment creative actions that have both immediate and long-term actions” (p. 522). Through an analysis of interactional data, they find that students of Chinese origin in the UK universities display creativity during translanguaging practices and perform identity. Thus translanguaging is not merely the mixing of languages in utterances but a celebration of identity. Li and Zhu’s use of translanguaging and moment analysis to coding their transcripts adds a new dimension to the way ethnographic data in field of identity and SLA can be analyzed.

Work in Progress

Work in progress in the field of SLA and identity is shifting the location of language learning from inner circle countries to outer circle countries. This has enormous implications for transnational identities in diasporic communities . For instance, Kang (2012) explored language use and identity in a Korean community in Singapore. South Koreans, who have migrated to Singapore to avail of the English-medium national school system, form a substantial community. This community has chosen to learn English in an outer circle country that also offers instruction in Mandarin, considered to be a language of great instrumental and professional value in the twenty-first century. Along with English and Mandarin, the South Korean students also pick up Singlish, which is a colloquial variety of English spoken in Singapore. Rather than mapping one language onto one language ideology, Kang argued for a “metapragmatic discourse of language” through which South Koreans display a global Asian identity. They value English most for its instrumental value and Mandarin for the value it would have in future. These languages give the diasporic Korean community a global Asian identity. However, the young students also value Singlish because it helps them make friends. Thus these three languages together, spoken with sociolinguistic competence, give the diasporic Korean community both locality and solidarity. Kang further contended that learning English in an outer circle country implies a challenge to the hegemony of Western modernity. Singapore is uniquely positioned as a first world country in Asia that offers textbooks, pedagogies, and curricula based on inner circle countries but delivered by local teachers. The outcome of this language learning experience is thus different from, for example, Japanese students going to the USA to learn English where the native speakerism is reinforced.

A group of students that has been less researched is that of L2 writers in secondary school. When the topic is second language writing, most data sets are regarding college students. According to Ortmeier-Hooper and Enright (2011), this is the growth area in the field of identity and SLA as this cohort of secondary school students has been under-researched. Though there are about five million such students in secondary schools in the USA, only about 3 % of research is on this cohort specifically. In their introductory article to a special issue on Adolescent L2 Writers in US Contexts, Ortmeier-Hooper and Enright offered a conceptual model with three foci regarding research on L2 writers: identity negotiation/social interaction, national policy and curricula, and students’ postsecondary trajectories. It is the first research focus that concerns us here. Adolescents are at a stage in life when they are negotiating affiliations, identities, and career paths, all of which affect their choices and attitudes to L2 writing. According to Ortmeier-Hooper and Enright, “any understanding of adolescent L2 writers must begin with the acknowledgement that identity negotiation and social interaction…are significant to discussions about how these teenage students respond to their writing tasks…” (p. 171). A key feature of the way teenagers negotiate identity is resistance and acceptance: for instance in some cases they resist the label of being L2 learners and at time they embrace this moniker. Also the kind of writing that adolescents enjoy of school through the medium of technology, a platform where adolescents celebrate identity, determines their motivation and attitude toward writing tasks prescribed at school.

Problems and Difficulties

The social turn taken by scholars in SLA research has now become deeply entrenched in the field. According to Block (2003) until the mid-1990s, calls for a socially informed interdisciplinary approach to SLA were notable by their absence. Citing the special issue of Modern Language Journal published in 1997, Block comments that the late 1990s saw a shift in trends regarding research in SLA. The shift was from a more psycholinguistic and cognitive approach to language learning toward a more social and interactionist approach. Though this shift is now firmly ingrained in SLA, it has thrown up some new conundrums that scholars need to grapple with. I will focus on two main issues: the first is the definition of “second language” and the second is the role of technology in language learning.

In the twenty-first century which is defined by the global flows of people, media, and currencies, nations and individuals are reorienting themselves to linguistic affiliations. Monikers like “national language,” “second language,” and “mother tongue” are not applicable across the board as groups of people move across national boundaries and reinvent their identities. A case in point is Singapore, one of the most globalized countries in the world. To ascribe a “second language” to children in Singapore is difficult as many children grow up in a highly bilingual linguistic ecology where they acquire two first languages. Also, the L1 and L2 could change as these children transition through 12 years of schooling: what was their L2 could become their L1 by the time they complete high school.

Technology has changed the access that learners have to language. When Bonny Norton published her seminal work, Identity and Language Learning, technology was not a major issue impacting the language learning of the five immigrant cases in her study. One of the problems faced by the women in Norton’s study was that because they were in a powerless social position, they had limited access to opportunities for conversations with speakers of the target language. Though there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, today’s environment provides many more opportunities for the learner to listen to the target language and use it. At the same time, the challenge is for teachers to adopt best practices using technology that enhance the listening, speaking, reading, and writing of L2 learners.

Future Directions

Within the field of identity and SLA, two themes emerge that likely will dominate future studies in this area: the labeling of students and the impact of World Englishes on SLA. Nero (2005) found that “the ‘native/non-native’ dichotomy, by assigning… fixed linguistic identities to students, often missed the mark, for many…students claimed simultaneous types and levels of relationships with different languages and language groups” (p. 195). The problem in most ESL classes in the USA, according to Nero, is that though these classes celebrate diversity in theory, they are actually platforms for assimilation. Students are expected to assimilate into American ways of speaking, writing, and living, which is the underlying goal of SLA. However, what Nero found was that students resist both the label of “ESL” identity and the assimilationist ideology.

This finding reinforced Rampton’s view (1990) that students resist being docketed into categories because their language experiences are not only varied but their identities keep changing in a cultural space. Rampton observed that instead of limiting terms like “mother tongue” and “native speaker,” it is more constructive to look at the language expertise, affiliation, and inheritance of learners. Expertise has to do with the proficiency with which a language is learned; a native speaker could have less expertise than a nonnative speaker. Affiliations emerge as people negotiate identities; a student could have a closer affiliation with his/her second language compared with his/her mother tongue. Finally there is inheritance, which also means heritage, and consists of what speakers inherits from their families and geographical location. Rampton’s view is that expertise, affiliations, and inheritance coexist in shifting forms to give speakers their identities.

As a way forward, Nero (2005) recommended the use of an instrument called Language Identity, Awareness, and Development (LIAD) . This instrument does not essentialize students into labels like ESL or ELL ; rather, it gives students the opportunity to show their affiliations with various languages and also show how these affiliations have changed over the years. Nero offered samples of answered student questionnaires in the series of appendices. The tabulated results showed that out of a total of 61 students in the MA-TESOL program at St John’s University (Fall 2000 to Spring 2003), 47 were born in the USA. Of these 47, 43 claimed English as their native language, yet they were in a MA-TESOL program with other students who were born outside the USA and did not speak English as a native language. This instrument clearly exposes problems with labels like ESL, ELL, native, and nonnative.

The problem, according to Rampton (1990), is that people think of the native speaker as one who has one mother tongue and of this speaker as the best representative of speech and writing in that language. However, nativeness is not synonymous with best practice in language, as Nero’s research has demonstrated. “Expertise” is learned and not inherited. It is also not innate and a nonnative speaker can have more expertise than a native speaker. Thus the idea of expertise shifts the focus from “who you are” to “what you know” which is a more objective criteria for evaluating teacher and students of language. Language expertise cannot be dissociated from language loyalty that includes both inheritance and affiliation. Inheritance occurs within social boundaries and can consist of a group of white native speakers of English. However, affiliation occurs across social boundaries and can consist of a group of English teachers from all parts of the world including their diverse students learning English as a second language.


The era of globalization in which we live has surfaced issues of language affiliation and identity which are unprecedented. Though discussions of identity reflect the complex nature of the world in which we live, the field of SLA needs to be more cognizant of this complexity. Let us take Singapore, where I am writing this paper, as an example. The very term “second language” is controversial in a country like Singapore. Language learners in Singapore’s schools could study their “mother tongue” as a second language, and by the time they finish 12 years of English-medium schooling, their affiliation, expertise, and inheritance of and with English could be stronger than that with their “mother tongue.” For many bilinguals in Singapore, exactly what is their first and second language is not very clear. Thus in today’s context, the very term “second language” needs to be reworked because not every bilingual learns languages in neat order one after the other.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.English Language and Literature Academic GroupNational Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (NIE/NTU)SingaporeSingapore

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