Let’s talk about the language learner identities in formal second language learning context (by Sumanthra Govender)

In second language acquisition studies, language learner identity has evolved from being spoken about with a static description based on language ability to a dynamic one that is also socially and individually constructed. Within a structuralist framework, identity is a stable or fixed state of being in which life events build upon a person’s sense of self, subjectivity, or belonging. Within a post-structuralist framework, identity is fluid and multidimensional, and it is explored through social interactions and discourses. Schiefflin and Och’s (1986) language socialization framework, which examines how individuals are socialized into a community through language use and how they are socialized to use language in ways that are consistent with community norms, has been productively applied to the analysis of language identity in second language learning (Duff, 2007). One way to foster language learner identity in the L2 is by weaving cultural nuances into language education. When this is done, it is hoped that the L2 identities of language learner can become more salient. Yet I still continue to wonder how well academic language classes help in the construction of L2 identities.

For most language learners, their initial experience with learning a second or foreign language is in a classroom environment where either real or authentic situations are simulated. Role-plays are utilised, authentic texts are modified or customised, classics are graded, and tests (more often grammatical in focus) are markers of proficiency, knowledge and competence. However, the classroom is not only a space to gain academic proficiency but also where social orientations can be displayed. Some people might say that knowing another language is like knowing how to ride a bike or play a guitar. In this view, knowing another language is another skill that someone can add to their repertoire that characterises what they can do. However, a learner’s L2 is more than a skill; it’s an ability to share one’s voice – it can define who they are. Moreover, there are also some people who might think that a learner’s identity in their L2 is just an extension of their identity in their L1, but I argue that L2 learner’s/learners’ identities are developed when acquiring and/or after acquiring the additional language. As learners acquire this additional language and discover more about what they can and cannot do with the acquired language, they gain a new sense of self in that language (Granger, 2004).

As a second/foreign language instructor, I can assume that the ultimate goal of my students is to have strong communicative skills (oral and written) in the additional language. Their communicative proficiency is usually characterised as native or non-native-like. This dichotomous characterisation has been written about in previous blog posts by Dr. Lauren Godfrey-Smith and myself. In these posts we’ve challenged the ideologies associated with this dichotomy. And as my BILD colleague Mehdi Babaei pointed out in his review of this post, it is perhaps time to consider this dichotomy invalid especially when identity is conceptualised through a post-structuralist framework where identity is continually changing. In other words, learners will develop identities in the language as a legitimate speaker of the language, regardless of their language proficiency, this changing learner identity needs to be acknowledged and fostered. This begins by giving language learners the opportunity to explore their voice in the language learning content.

In high-level/high-stakes English language courses, for example, university level English for Academic Purposes (EAP), language learners are not only taking classes to work on or fine-tune their language skills, but they are also taking classes to help them communicate their knowledge in their own voice. However, the focus on linguistic accuracy of these classes can overshadow attaining a sense of self in the L2. In other words, if the focus is always on being accurate in sentence structure and grammar, learners might have a harder time attaining a freer voice for their thoughts and ideas in the L2. While some teachers try to promote critical thinking skills among their students through the class content, it is not uncommon for some language learners to simply repeat what their teacher has taught. For some students this is a way to show respect to their instructor (this tends to be culture-specific) and the information that they have learned from them. For others, it will simply get them a high mark. In this regurgitation of information, it’s important to see if a learners’ true identity and voice in the language being attained.

As educators, we can push our students to share their original thoughts on class content, but I am continually searching for innovative ways (such as self-reflective journaling) to encourage advanced language learners to critically analyse the class content rather than only focusing on faulty sentences or misplaced semi colons. Learners are active participants in their language learning process and in their identity construction, so to all the language educators reading this post, what have you done in your advanced language class to help your learners develop their sense of selves in the additional language?


Duff, P. A. (2007). Second language socialization as sociocultural theory: Insights and issues. Language Teaching, 40(04), 309-319.

Granger, C. A. (2004). Silence in second language learning : A psychoanalytic reading

Schieffelin, B. B., & Ochs, E. (1986). Language Socialization. Annual Review of Anthropology, 15(1), 163-191. doi: 10.1146/annurev.an.15.100186.001115.



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