I is for Identity

13 06 2010

In one of a series of moving articles in the New York Review of Books, the historian Tony Judt, terminally ill with motor-neuron disease and reflecting on his life and work, admits to a feeling of never having had a narrowly defined sense of identity —  whether geographical, political or religious.  There is no single social grouping that he strongly identifies with. But this is not a source of anxiety. On the contrary:  “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another”.

Having myself lived most of my life “on the edge”, one way or another, I share something of Judt’s preference for  rootlessness. I’ve lived twice as many years away from my country of birth as I ever lived in it. And, despite having been granted Spanish citizenship, I don’t feel a strong affinity for my elective new ‘home’. (The test may come if New Zealand and Spain face one another in the World Cup!)  On the downside, however, this reluctance to forge an alternative Spanish identity probably accounts, in part at least, for my less than native-like fluency in Spanish.

Because, as I point out in An A-Z, the notion of identity has now moved to the very heart of second language learning theory.  As Norton and Toohey (2002) argue: “Language learning engages the identities of learners because language itself is not only a linguistic system of signs and symbols; it is also a complex social practice in which the value and meaning ascribed to an utterance are determined in part by the value and meaning ascribed to the person who speaks” (p. 115).  Becoming a member of what Lave and Wenger (1991) term ‘a community of practice’ assumes the capacity – and willingness – to identify, and be identified, with the  members of the target group (and, by extension, to relinquish membership, even temporarily, of one’s own group).

In fact, a post-modern gloss of Tony Judt’s condition (and of mine) is not that we have no identity but that we have multiple – and often contesting – identities, and it’s the business of the second language acquisition project to find a match between an existing identity and the target one.  This at least is the thinking that underlies the concept of ‘the ideal L2 self’ as promoted by Zoltan Dörnyei in his compelling new theory of motivation: “If the person we would like to become speaks an L2, the ‘ideal L2 self‘ is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because of the desire to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves” (2009, p.  29). But being an ‘edge person’ means that this ideal L2 self is elusive.

In the absence of having the identity of a real or potential L2 user, one possibility might simply be to manufacture one. This strategy, at least, seems to underlie the practice, in Suggestopedia, of assigning learners new, L2 speaking, identities, including giving them new names and biographies.  Larsen-Freeman (2000) comments that this is based on the assumption “that a new identity makes students feel more secure and thus more open to learning” (p.82).

Olivetti Oh, my Second Life avatar

More recently, the construction of an idealised identity is at the heart of computer gaming and of virtual environments such as Second Life (SL). My avatar in SL (see picture), for example, allows me to interact there in ways that  – arguably – out-perform my ‘real life’ personality.  Does online identity creation offer advantages to language learners, then?

James Paul Gee would argue most emphatically that it does. In his book What Video Games have to Teach us about Language and Literacy (2007) he suggests that, by allowing gamers to customise their virtual identities, video games “encourage identity work and reflection on identities in clear and powerful ways” (p. 46). Such identity work is crucial, he claims, since “all learning in all semiotic domains requires taking on a new identity and forming bridges from one’s old identities to the new one” (p. 45). Video games and virtual environments would seem to offer learners the opportunity to design ‘ideal language-using selves’.  The question remains, of course, as to whether these games and these environments provide the kind of language-using opportunities that these ideal selves can usefully exploit.


Dörnyei, Z., and Ushioda, E. (eds.) 2009. Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Multilingual Matters.

Gee, J.P. 2007. What Video Games have to Teach us about Learning and Literacy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2000. Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd ed.) OUP.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. CUP.

Norton, B., and Toohey, K.  2002.  ‘Identity and language learning’.  In Kaplan , R.  (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics.  OUP.



66 responses

13 06 2010
David Venezia

Wow. Incredibly interesting post. The idea of L2 and identity is something I was talking about with my partner earlier tonight. We spent most of the day in Manhattan, making the Chelsea gallery rounds, and exploring the new NYC Highline (a raised section of the city full of plants, cafe’s and art exhibitions). The entire afternoon we were speaking Portuguese (my L2), since her friend is visiting from Brazil. When we got back to the apartment, as I was cooking dinner, she commented that the tone of my voice changes drastically at times when speaking Portuguese–that I have a ‘mature’ thirty-something voice in English but often sound much younger in Portuguese.

Not having the slightest clue what to conclude from that utterance, I do feel as if my identity is changing on a very deep level as I become more engaged with the Portuguese language. My partner says that she feels like there are two different Brunas: one before the USA and one ‘in the USA.’ She even feels herself vacillating between the two of them while she is in Brazil visiting home.

Has there been any research done on whether or not this phenomenon is physiological? I’m going to do a periodicals sweep to find out, but identity and neurophysiology might be interesting bedfellows.


13 06 2010
Marcos Benevides

Indeed an interesting–and interestingly delivered–topic as always, Scott. Regarding David’s points above, I think many language learners will certainly report similar experiences. I wouldn’t be especially surprised if physical changes in the brain are detected since–and I’m venturing outside my comfort zone here so please be kind–evidence does suggest that L1(s) and L2(s) reside in different areas of the brain (I’m thinking here of cases in which brain damage to a localized section of the brain leads to the patient losing one entire language but not another). Since, as Scott points out, language and identity can’t be easily separated, the idea that different self-conceptions reside and are accessed separately seems logical enough.

13 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

David, Marcos,
Thanks for your comments. Regarding David’s question: “Has there been any research done on whether or not this phenomenon is physiological?” – I honestly don’t know. Although the notion that the language faculty is modular – i.e situated in a single discrete part of the brain, as opposed to being distributed across a range of neural areas – has been fairly conclusively discredited. Likewise, research into bilingualism suggests that at least some language operations are shared across languages, e.g. that their lexicons are interconnected rather than being stored separately. By the same token, it’s hard to envisage the very complex notion of ‘identity’ as being confined to one part of the brain, especially if we accept the view that identity is always “under construction”, fluid, and multiform.

14 06 2010
David Venezia

Scott and Marcos,

Thanks for the engagement.

I wasn’t so much imagining it being modular (in the sense that identity and language would occupy discrete modular neural correlates). I was thinking more about PET or fMRI testing done while people were using their first and second languages–and the mapping of neural pathways in this regard.


13 06 2010

My wife, in her high school English classes in France, was assigned the new identity of “Cindy”. The teacher gave all students a new English name. My wife still talks about how she hated this.
It’s something I would never do as a teacher, and I would not “anglicize” the names of students either unless they specifically told me to (e.g. calling Pablo Paul). Something about that sits uncomfortably with me. If I am hampering the creation of their “ideal L2 speaker selves” then so be it.
I have yet to read Dornyei’s work on this area, although I did see him talk about it at IATEFL. Part of what he talked about reminded me of NLP actually, and made me think that I preferred his earlier theories of motivation.

13 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment Lindsay. In the light of your comment, it’s interesting that – in some regions of the world, such as China – learners come to the class with English names of their own choosing (always ending in -y if you’re a girl!). Does the fact of having an anglicised name make it easier to assume an English-speaking identity, and thereby facilitate the English learning process, I wonder?

13 06 2010
Dennis Newson

Reflecting on the “me” that I feel when I am speaking English/German… I have to think hard to be reasonably clear how it is these days after so many years in Germany. I believe the English core ‘me’ is still the essential me, though that English me has been modified in many ways by living in Germany. I believe I can express myself fairly well in spoken German (fluent broken) though my written German is lamentably embarrassing, a very inferior communicative tool to be used with close friends only. Whether I speak English or German on any given occasion depends on who is present. I have noticed often that when I go to Holland – frequently, since it is only an hour’s drive away – and have the choice to speak English or German, I often, surprisingly, opt for German. I am not sure why this is so, though. It could be that, Freudianly, I am keeping my “real” language for England! This behaviour has changed. On a couple of occasions when I was stopped for speeding in Holland a few years ago (they haven’t caught me recently) I found myself saying: “My car is German and I live in Germany, but I am English.” Oh. Oh. What was going through my mind was that the Dutch police would be more lenient towards an Englishman than a German. Mea culpa.

13 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Dennis. Seeing your name in the Comments menu, I’d assumed you’d be responding to my mention of Second Life, but you didn’t. Nevermind, but I’d be curious to know whether your Second Life avatar is “you”, or some kind of idealised version of you? Or not you at all! And whether you think that “avatar-ism” offers at least some learners an L2 identity they can feel more comfortable with?

13 06 2010
Jessica Mackay

Thank you Scott!

I’ve spent the last six months researching self theories and the idea of virtual selves had never even occurred to me! And last night we watched Avatar on DVD (no 3D, unfortunately) Serendipity!
As you know I’m currently piloting materials to implement Dörnyei’s L2 Motivational Self System theory and now I’m wondering if there’s a way of incorporating an element of computer simulation into the study.

Another really interesting aspect of identity (for me) comes up in the Dörnyei & Ushioda book in the chapter on Ethnolinguistic affiliation by Segalowitz, Gatbonton and Trofimovich (p. 172).

The idea is that the stronger a person’s core feelings about their primary ethnolinguistic group, the less open they may be to learning another language, possibly because of the reduced TL exposure and fewer opportunities for use.
The conclusions are based on ESL data from the Québécois community in Canada but I can see that this may also be the case in my own classes in Catalonia. Could it be that the younger generation’s rediscovery of pride in their language, culture and national identity may have the unfortunate side effect of creating resistance to the learning of other languages and their perceived imperialism?

13 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jessica, and I’m delighted to be able to contribute – in some small way – to the development of your research agenda. I think it would be fascinating to investigate the motivational potential of online avatars. In fact, there’s a paper in a recent issue of The Modern Language Journal that deals with the learning affordances offered by video games, and specifically the way that avatars ’embody’ authentic language use – I’ll hunt out the reference tomorrow when I get back to town.

14 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

The article I was referring to above is called ‘Negotiation for Action: English language learning in game-based virtual worlds’ by Zheng, et al. MLJ 93 (2009). The authors invoke the concept of ’embodied cognition’ whereby ‘thinking is directly tied to our bodies, whether real or virtual’ (p. 491. They cite research that suggests that “people who play online role-playing games project their sense of self onto the avatar that excecutes the players’ commands” and add that ‘in this study, an avatar’s action is considered the extension of the learner’s physical body, including writing a word and negotiation for meaning making and cultural identity” (ibid.)

14 06 2010
Jessica Mackay

Brilliant Scott, I’ll definitely check that out.

Thanks again.

13 06 2010
Dennis Newson

Scott, I was so over-joyed to see you refer to Second Life that I temporarily lost focus and forgot to comment….. The question of identity in SL is fascinating, and not straightforward. Residents, as SL calls members, have many choices – male/female, young/old, fat/thin, bald/hairy, one/many and so on. And they choose the colour of their hair, their clothes, how they walk and, recently, what their voice sounds like. There are people, like me, who try to make their avatars look roughly as they look in actuality (though it was you, like a true friend, who pointed out that my avatar did look a little like me but was many kilos lighter. :-)) There are others who experiment with different looks, even to the extent of sporting wings or taking on the appearance of their favourite animal. Personally, I am not especially interested in being anyone in SL except my inner perception of “me” and I have been wearing the same clothes for well over a year. But many of my friends in SL try out new skins, and new clothes all the time . A couple of male colleagues I know explore the differences in SL between being a man and being a woman – by having two avatars, one male, one female. I was particularly interested, in the context of speech and identity, though, at the reaction of a group within SL about a year ago who did not want the introduction of speech. They prefer the world of written communication and feared speech would interfere with the image of themselves they produced. (Personally, I feel speech, when it works properly, is one of the glories of SL). So, to sum up, I personally try to be a tidied-up, rejuvenated version of what I perceive as “me”, but SL allows one to make quite different decisions.

13 06 2010
Marisa Constantinides

A beautifully written post, Scott.

On the question of identity – like others have commented, I have often wondered at what it is that drives my identity when I speak English and to what degree my Greek persona affects my delivery in English, whether I am speaking or writing.

I suspect it does a lot and I am happy to allow it to. I am confident that I should not be trying to appear ‘English’ and hence, any directness or lack of tentativeness typical of Greek discourse, is certain to have crept into the way I use English.

What annoys me is when people hear me speak in Greek and ask me if I am English – it seems that here there is some identity infringment into my L1, something I do not wish at all! What is it? The lack of imposition of opinion? Am I following some sociolinguistic rules in an unconscious way? Has my intonation changed?

This sense of identity carries over with me into Second Life but in SL it operates in a different way.

I have not been a learner of foreign languages for any significant lengths of time to be able to introspect usefully for the benefit of your discussion, but I have noted how on those few occasions, the change of costumes and locale has a truly powerful effect on my motivation, my willingness to be playful and adventurous, to take risks and experiment with new or old-new phrases and words.

After all, if I do make some terrible mistake, we only have Marisolde Orellana to blame, Marisa’s ‘face’ remains intact and untarnished by Marisolde’s failure to be so successful!!! 😀

I noticed the same in other people when I taught them some Greek in Second Life. Especially the change of place and the act of bringing them into a place which looked typically Greek seemed to have a great effect, everyone seemed excited and motivated by the virtual sense of immersion.

Unlike Dennis who tries to look like himself in Second Life, I have no such desire. In Second Life I am different, I am beautiful, and perhaps, more confident and daring as a language learner, willing to act in ways that are different to how I behave as myself.


14 06 2010

Scott’s topics really have a way of sticking… I was reminded this morning of an interesting L2 identity experience: After struggling and generally failing to learn French as a SL in Canada for several years in high school, one night I had a dream in which I was speaking completely fluent French (participating in a heated discussion about politics, no less!). It was gibberish of course–think the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef–and my mannerisms were so horribly exaggerated and stereotypically ‘French’ that I was even a bit embarrassed when I woke up.

BUT, I also woke up with a really clear sense of what it might feel like to ‘be’ while speaking French. I knew enough not to start going around with a baguette under my arm saying, “Oo-la-la, zut alors!”, of course, but my pronunciation and fluency really did seem to improve after that. Certainly it felt easier somehow to learn the language from that point on.

These days, when I rehearse Japanese in my mind before speaking, I have to admit I sometimes enjoy doing a bit of a faux-samurai thing that I would never do in public. And again, in a rough, thumbnail-sketch kind of way, it does seem to help in feeling out, if not so much a new identity(*), certainly a kind of Japanese speaking ‘je ne sais quoi’!

It leads me to wonder if there might not be a useful L2 ‘inter-identity’ at work for learners, in the same sense of an interlanguage?


(*) @Lindsay on his comment above: I’m with you and your wife on the indiscrimate naming thing. But I suspect what was at play there–and something that in my opinion is the bane of all teaching approaches–is that subtle and complex concepts like the role of identity in SLA get diluted and turned into method-bites. They then manifest themselves in disconnected and often uninformed activities in the classroom like “Let’s use English names!”

14 06 2010
Jessica Mackay

I think Marcos, above, has hit on the crucial element of Dörnyei’s Ideal L2 Self theory. Dörnyei consistently emphasises the importance of imagery, the senses and the element of fantasy in forming a motivating self-concept.

As he puts it (2009:17) “The main attraction of possible self theory for me has been that it goes beyond logical, intellectual arguments when justifying the validity of the various future-oriented self types (….) Possible selves involve images and senses, approximating what people actually experience when they are engaged in motivated or goal-directed behaviour.”

He refers to evidence from neuroimaging research which shows that many of the same areas of the brain are activated during the ‘imagining’ of an activity as when actually performing the activity itself (Kosslyn et al, 2002).

Motivational techniques based on possible selves theory such as positive visualisation and imagery enhancement have proven successful in fields as diverse as psychotherapy, medical practice, educational psychology and sports psychology (2009:35).

There is compelling evidence in support the benefits of these techniques. Oyserman et al (2002) conducted an Ideal Self intervention programme with American high-school teenagers from low-income, minority backgrounds which reported improvements in motivation, grades and in the case of the boys, behaviour.

So the question is whether or not these techniques can be applied successfully to “promoting L2 motivation and the vision to master a foreign language” (2009:35).

14 06 2010
Dennis Newson


A question. It sounds as if you are saying that neural activity differs according to whether a speaker is using mother tongue or a foreign language. If this is so, have you the time to give a few references of where this is reported?



14 06 2010
Greg Quinlivan

The adoption of an “English” name in EFL situations seems quite common in the countries in which I’ve worked (China, Korea and Taiwan) and I suspect it occurs throughout other Asian countries as well. The names are generally chosen by the students with either parental or teacher assistance if required.

For students, they seem to enjoy having such a name – it’s a bit like their time in SL anyway – and they often choose a person or concept they relate to personally. Examples include musicians, movie stars, sports heroes, words like ‘king’, and even objects, like ‘yo-yo’.

For us teachers, it makes it much easier to say and recall their names. If you’ve ever tried pronouncing 700 or more Korean or Chinese names with the correct tonal inflections, you will understand how difficult it is. Also since you only see them once a week for less than an hour, it becomes extremely valuable for communication if you can use more familiar names. I suspect they prefer to be called by some name rather than a mispronounced one or just “hey you”.

I also feel that it adds a little to their cultural experience of learning English. None of them would consider their English name as having any official status. They seem to consider it more like a nickname instead, or even just a nickname for English class.

Still, I would never try ascribing them new identities, as I feel that this COULD be harmful to their developing sense of self. It is enough to assume other characters in the context of a role-play or drama where the individual being represented is clearly not themselves. Going further might be psychologically damaging.

As an aside, I chose a Chinese name before I first started teaching in Taiwan and, when asked, I’m happy to share it with students and have them call me “Teacher Kuang” instead of “Teacher Greg”. That way, it’s more of a two-way street.

14 06 2010
Paul Maglione

Great post, and a highly interesting subject for getting at the deeper motivations (and effects) of language learning.

It’s clear that long periods of life experience in an L2 country almost inevitably result in a sort of cultural and linguistic osmosis that can only facilitate picking up the L2 language. An interesting side-question is whether this same osmosis can be re-created artificially for learners not lucky enough to be learning a language within the L2 country. No doubt the web — and audio-visual media generally — can go some ways towards achieving this; we all know Nordic, Dutch and German people who have absorbed (and can re-create) typically British or American sentence structures, accents and cultural references merely through having watched hundreds of hours of undubbed television programs.

Games, including “traditional” massively multiplayer online ones like Second Life and World of Warcraft as well as the new breed of more casual Facebook games like Farmville — are certainly stepping into this arena, and teachers of English would be remiss not to encourage their learners to play these mostly English-speaking games from time to time as a way of accelerating the development of an identity conducive to better brain “buy-in” of English.

14 06 2010
Sara Hannam

Hi all,

Scott thanks for bringing up this fascinating avenue of discussion in language teaching. It is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about (a life time in fact in one way or another). I think what makes the pinning down of identity so tricky is that it is an internal process which is by its very nature completely subjective, both at the level of how we each define it and at the level of how we each experience it. This is evidenced by the vast array of ways that contributors thus far in this thread are discussing identity and how it cuts across multiple other areas – connected to mother tongue/foreign language, names, feelings, national identity, community, geography, belonging (or not), residency status – to name but a few. It is, in a sense, everything that we are.

I think it is worth perhaps (if you wish) in your new entry on identity mentioning some of the pitfalls of its entry onto the ELT stage, as well as the benefits (which I would be the first to argue are enormous just as this discussion is extremely fruitful). Firstly, there is a kind of assumption in this post, and in the way identity is sometimes discussed in ELT, that what “we” should be aiming for is some sort of ideal and fully integrated “identity” in our learners, and that we have the power to influence this process. That we are striving towards perfection. I would say this is the first pitfall as identit(ies) is/are never a completed process and nor can they be influenced in a top down way – they are always a process under construction. In everyone. And as no two identities are ever the same, then to talk of a joint understanding of an ideal one is a non-starter. We want to nurture confident users of English, but each learner might reach that point in a multitude of ways. As people, whether learners or teachers, we move in and out of different phases and influences and adjust accordingly, in ways that we are often unaware of in ourselves or others. I think the first step is accepting, and I mean really accepting, the “right” for our learners to have their own set of contradictory, changing and multiple identities rather than trying to move them towards a unitary version of what we consider ideal 🙂

The second pitfall for me is the propensity of ELT to use “identity” as a little bit of a dustbin category into which we pour anything about our students as “other” that we cannot explain within our own understandings of the world (or indeed to explain our fellow colleagues who are different), and ultimately the reference point goes back to how we understand ourselves (and as we know, there are vastly different philosophies the world over for understanding the self in relation to society). We place our own understanding at the centre, which will always limit the ripples of interpretation of others around us. This is arguably one of the characteristics of the view that is sometimes described as “native speakerism” and it is worth considering how identity comes into play in that area too. I think when people talk about identity they should really grapple with *how* they define it. As a set of characteristics, as an internal psycho-social process, as a external political process, as something socially constructed. The meaning is not self-evident but it is almost always assumed that it is. We have post-modern thought and a changing world of thinking (in Western philosophy) to thank for this in part. It is no longer the case that identity is seen as fixed and unchanging. But is that the case everywhere?

For this reason, and because the journey to define identity is in itself fraught with misinterpretation (though very important), I have so far found Bonny Norton’s work of the widest significance in terms of teaching because it is my belief that Norton really tries to take into account the subjective nature of identity and how it is experienced. Bonny’s strength lies in her ability to look at how identity cuts across areas like expectation and desire, as well as the social reality of learners (and teachers). I think it is fair to say that mainstream ELT is not very good at the latter, and we have a lot to do to improve that IMHO. Her research with immigrant women in Canada is fascinating, thorough and revealing in so much as she charts how each of those students was “invested” (as Norton calls it) in the learning process in different ways, with a separate set of expectations and wishes. She rejects the idea of “motivation” in the way it is understood in pyschological readings as reducing the learner to psychological characteristics and not placing them in their social context. She questions the mainstay of our profession, second language acquisition theory, as demonstrating shortfalls both in terms of how to understand the learner and their social world and reality. She integrates her understanding of literacy as social practice to offer a more holistic and critical view of learning and teaching (and identity). I have yet to read such an all-encompassing view of identity in relation to language teaching and would strongly recommend Norton’s work.

Human subjectivity (or identity) is incredibly interesting and a discussion for our times. The “right” to occupy the inbetween spaces of identity is a relatively new development in thinking and one that many of us (including Scott if I understood your opening post correctly) finds liberating. I would be the first to celebrate this development as it accepts the diversity of human experience! But I think we need to think carefully about how the concept of identity is being applied in ELT.

I haven’t made any comments about second life though am finding the discussion fascinating.

14 06 2010
Sara Hannam

Sorry forgot to mention a quick point about the ideal second language self as I agree with you Scott that this is a kind of bridge between the old and newer theories of identity. I also find this idea very attractive and something that resonates. My only doubt is how do we deal with the fact that this ideal self is not likely to just be a linguistic self, but also a self who is situated in places where the language potentially allows access to a better life or opportunities? What about those who don’t have such access? In the case of a person moving to another country who has access to employment, that better self might mean moving around and communicating with society at large more effectively, becoming more integrated into society. But to someone who is learning English in their own country and wants it to better their life (which is after all a lot of people), the “dream” might not match the “reality”. Food for thought??

14 06 2010
Jessica Mackay

Hi Sara,

I think you make extremely valid points. You’re right of course that the concepts of identity and self are hugely complex areas. I do believe Dörnyei has tried to address some of your concerns in the creation of this construct .

Dörnyei’s theory draws on mainstream psychological theories relating to possible selves and future self guides (Higgins et al 1985, Markus & Nurius, 1986).

Dörnyei’s L2 motivational self-system consists of three main elements;

A) The Ideal L2 Self; traditional integrative and internalised instrumental motives
B) The Ought-to L2 Self; Extrinsic, less internalised instrumental motives
C) L2 Learning Experience; Situated ‘executive’ motives. Influence of context.

He outlines six steps in order to help learners achieve a self-guide that will act as an effective motivator. These are (massively reduced, I don’t want to hog the blog).

1. Creating the vision: encouraging imagination, guiding learners through possible future selves
2. Strengthening the vision: making the vision elaborate and vivid
3. Substantiating the vision; making the vision plausible (matching the dream to the reality that you mention in your post)
4. Keeping the vision alive: maintaining the motivation over the lengthy language-learning process
5. Operationalising the vision: elaborating personal procedural strategies, fixing realistic goals, creating an action plan
6. Counterbalancing the vision: developing an awareness of the negative consequences of not achieving the objection (the ‘feared self’)

All of these steps are, of course, elaborated upon and explained far more articulately in his work on the subject, with suggestions and examples of how this may be done, in particular in ch. 2 of the book that Scott mentions in the original post.

The question remains (one I am currently trying to answer) as to whether these steps can be translated into practical, useable classroom activities. And whether or not an attempt by the teacher /researcher to influence/encourage/manipulate the student’s future ‘vision’ of themselves will have any short or long-term effect on their language-learning motivation.

I was originally attracted to Dörnyei’s theory because it involves techniques and practices that are radically different from my usual teaching. I wanted something to shake me up a bit. You could say I’m in the process of adapting/developing my EFL teacher self.

My piloting up to now makes me think he’s definitely onto something but whatever the final conclusions this process has definitely given me cause to think and re-evaluate my own practices, which has been energising and -dare I say it? – motivating!

14 06 2010
Sara Hannam

Thank you Jessica. I agree with most of your post and also find the ideas attractive – I have read the work that Scott and you mentioned so am familiar with the construct, but thank you for outlining it in detail. I am full of praise for the work that Dornyei has produced and find it far more enlightened than previous generations of thought on the matter. My point (which is outlined in more detail in the first of my posts above) is that the construct still operates around the premise of the individual divorced from their social circumstances which are not positioned as defining factors (although yes social reality could be contained in any of the ‘selves’ as an appendage and could be thought of as ‘context’, but I think the depth to which this is explored is a limitation). To be clear, successful language learners are denied the opportunity to improve their life circumstances every day, and mediocre ones are given opportunities abound – this is nothing to do with them, but with the gatekeeping associated with the dispersal of opportunity. That is neither fair nor transparent.

I was struck when watching Dornyei present at IATEFL (which was a brilliant session) by the metaphor he used to describe the successful language learner. He referred to research done by sports psychologists who found that marathon runners and olympic athletes were often successful if they were able to hold the image of winning the gold medal in their heads whilst competing and training to help drive them forwards i.e. to visualise themselves as a ‘winner’). I think there is something in the theory, but I also find that it is “lacking” an awareness both of the specificness of the metaphor (i.e. does the olympic gold image resonate with everyone?) and the theories of self (which still, by and large, fall into an enlightement and therefore euro-centric view of the self and its relation to society being highly individualised).

That is why, on balance, I think it is important to refer to other work at the same time that is grounded in social theory i.e. Bonny Norton. I would never discourage anyone from trying out new theories in their classroom and my reason for contributing is not to set up a false dichotomy between different theories, or to make you feel that you should defend Dornyei, it is simply to try and use the study of identity to see the learner (and ourselves as teacher) as much more about difference than similarity. For this reason, I am doubtful as to the universal application of any theory of identity or motivation because I think each learner demands a different appraisal.

Hope that’s clearer. Good luck with your students.

14 06 2010
Jessica Mackay

Thank you Sara.

I do see what you mean and I will definitely take your comments on board.


15 06 2010

Hi Scott – this was a wonderful quote to open this topic with

In one of a series of moving articles in the New York Review of Books, the historian Tony Judt, terminally ill with motor-neuron disease and reflecting on his life and work, admits to a feeling of never having had a narrowly defined sense of identity – whether geographical, political or religious. There is no single social grouping that he strongly identifies with. But this is not a source of anxiety. On the contrary: “I prefer the edge: the place where countries, communities, allegiances, affinities, and roots bump uncomfortably up against one another.”

Then I noticed these lines,

In fact, a post-modern gloss of Tony Judt’s condition (and of mine) is not that we have no identity but that we have multiple – and often contesting – identities, and it’s the business of the second language acquisition project to find a match between an existing identity and the target one.

Like you and many others on these boards, amongst my various “identities” are my L1 identity, L2 identity and various shifts and changes occur frequently between them.

What strikes me in the first quote is the reference to this place of non-identity spoken of so movingly by a dying man. If you ever read the work of Stephen Levine (who worked with the dying for decades in America and trained in Zen Buddhism) this space of no identity is a theme that tends to crop up time and time again. A place beyond roles either individual, cultural or societal – indeed a place according to Levine that we all share and ultimately are stripped back to and have to face in one way or another during the dying process. But, says Levine, this place is in fact always with us and it isn’t necessary to die to touch it, we’re just normally too busy with our many identities, protecting, creating or defending them to glimpse the place. Although, he says, there are glimpses, perhaps when watching a breathtaking sunset, or in times of profound grief, where one part of the mind seems to stop.

Sogyal Rinpoche Tibetan lama and author of The book of Living and Dying puts it like this:

“We are fragmented into so many different aspects. We don’t know who we really are, or what aspects of ourselves we should identify with or believe in. So many contradictory voices, dictates, and feelings fight for control over our inner lives that we find ourselves scattered everywhere, in all directions, leaving nobody at home”

This view speaks about confusion which cuts clean across cultures – it’s an inherent part of being a sentient living being. The Dalai Lama talks about this mental suffering which he says is actually more acute in the beings in richer developed western nations. He speaks of the Tibetan people – who suffered torture, ethnic cleansing and other such atrocities and are now a people essentially without their homeland – and of people in nations such as America as suffering at the hands of the same culprit – their own minds.

How on earth does this translate into being an effective classroom teacher or language learner? Well – to know that regardless of “outside appearance or status” it seems (if these ancient Eastern wisdom traditions are to be believed) we have much much more in common than not.

It’s true in a sense I’m in a less powerful position when I have to communicate in Swiss German (my L2) than in English. There are hierarchies abound. But rightly or wrongly I try to remember that in the really big scheme of things, hierarchy, roles etc are changeable and ultimately not really who human beings are. In this sense questions of identity become more about what it means to be a human being than what it means to be a British/Swiss/Tibetan human being.

Then language is a tool to communicate and yes, it is a gateway to a different world, worldview and possible identity. But what I think the Eastern philosophers and sages are saying is that we accept the existence of such views, temporary identities – but that we don’t confuse them with who we really are. It seems if we can relate to people from the perspective of what we share, rather than what identity cultural or otherwise we hold at the moment, there are huge possibilities for deep communication…..at least this is what I’ve witnessed with people like The Dalai Lama. Sorry – this isn’t easy to communicate.

I don’t have academic work to quote – but this way of looking at things has been subject to on-going investigation, study, scrutiny and practice for hundreds of years in various philosophy’s and religions in particular in the East.

16 06 2010
English Raven

Gosh this is an interesting and well-written post, Scott – one of your very best, and one which I think will resonate with almost everyone involved in learning and teaching languages.

I find so much here I can relate to, as a not-so-gifted second language learner who became very fluent in Swedish in only four years (against the odds, so to speak – as the first three years of learning took place in Australia and I was a shockingly slow learner for the first two years), as someone who taught in Korea for ten years and is now struggling somewhat with this notion of identity now that I’m back in Australia (as I did earlier when I returned from living in Sweden), as the husband to a Korean wife who is now going through her own identity shifting/unfolding in a new culture and language, and as a father to two bilingual children.

The idea of identity also deeply intrigued me in Korea, where learners (often forced) took English names – something I never really felt all that comfortable with. With English becoming a global language, with a shifting “ownership” base, I’ve often thought that identity is an important issue.

I’m also very interested in extended role-playing games and what they could hold for language learning, and – as per your point about SL and computer/video games – the concept of identity occupies a central place in such applications.

Fascinating stuff – I can’t contribute a whole lot to the discussion other than to say it’s great reading what everyone has to say about it!


– Jason

16 06 2010
Dennis Newson

Several people, including Jason, have referred to the dubiously motivated practice amongst some English language teachers of giving their pupils English names. I keep on thinking in this context, of the African novelist Ngugi Wa Thiongo whom I met in Leeds aeons ago when we were both post-graduate students there. Ngugi’s first novel, Weep No More Child – which contains a hilarious scene where the teacher’s attempt to do the Direct Method fails – was published under the name James Ngugi, James being the name he had been given at his christening. Later Ngugi not only rejected his English name,which he saw as colonialist, having achieved considerable success writing in English he switched to his native language , Gĩkũyũ.

There is an informative entry on Ngugi at:


P.S. Can someone tell me how I can replace the present icon here with my photo?

16 06 2010
Graham Stanley

Very interesting post, Scott – I enjoyed reading all the comments too. Re. Second Life, video games and identity, there have been lots of discussions and research going on into this over the last few years. One researcher’s (simplified) outcome that I remember well was the idea that there seems to be three approaches to identity in Second Life re. avatar appearance:

1) People who try to make their avatar look like themselves, albeit a little fitter, younger, etc. In my experience, this tends to be the case with most people, which is interesting. These people are also usually not happy with adopting a different name too. It’s almost like most of us are uncomfortable straying too far away from our real identity in a virtual world. Their attitude tends to be very much the ‘I am who I am no matter where I am’, even if this ‘where’ is in a game or otherwise online, There is a parallel with speaking a language I think – most people don’t want to or cannot adopt the L2 accent (nor should they have to). Our accents (and here I’m speaking about regional as well as national) seem to be very much a part of who we are.

2) There are those like Marisa, who see the opportunity of taking on a whole new identity/appearance in the game/virtual world. For instance, people who were born with blonde hair can be brunette. And men who are bald can have hair in Second Life! The people who do this tend to very much identify themselves with their avatar. These people often adopt another name in games and virtual worlds (even when they can use their real name) and use this name across virtual worlds and when they create accounts in games.

3) Then there are others, like myself, who are happy not to have any fixed appearance and who change it frequently, across games/virtual worlds. I have avatars in Second Life who are female, others which are older/younger than me and others which are animals.

What’s interesting to me is that many of the people I meet in Second Life who are category 1) above seem to be uncomfortable with those, like me, who belong to category 3) for some reason. It’s almost as if they want the virtual world to abide by the same rules as our (non-virtual) world.

Finally, how far does Second Life and other virtual worlds/games provide useful ‘language-using opportunities’ because of this? I’ve noticed that talk about appearance in Second Life is far more common than in real life classrooms, where it tends to be avoided (for fear of causing upset?) unless a teacher is specifically teaching this (i.e. it is ‘being covered’!). In Second Life, at the beginning of a language class, it’s very common to talk about someone’s new hair or dress, etc. It’s one of the things I like about teaching there – an aspect that you don’t seem to find in any other online learning/teaching environment.

17 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Graham – that’s a credible analysis of avatar-mediated identity creation. I’m not sure what category I fall into, since Olivetti Oh is neither my improved self nor my fantasy self, more a disguise – and it was quite fun, on one occasion, to attend a SL conference as Olivetti and not Scott. But when I was asked – on another occasion – to speak to a group of teachers in SL – as myself – it was irritating to have to speak behind – or through – the appearance of this bearded nerd of Italian extraction. I guess I should have followed your lead, and crafted a new avatar altogether – one more fitted to represent the real me (whatever that is!).

16 06 2010
Nick Bilbrough

Very interesting discussion

I wonder how much achieving native-like proficiency in pronunciation in a language is linked with an ability to establish an L2 identity?

Earl Stevick (in Memory, Meaning and Method), suggests that if as teenagers we establish a strong L1 identity, and ultimately come to some conclusions about our role in the world, then we are less likely to be able (or willing) to adopt a more L2 way of speaking later. If, on the other hand, this stage is less successful and we don’t feel that we belong to any particular group, then L2 pronunciation models are more easily taken on board later- perhaps because we are still trying to work out who we are!


16 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nick – and the issue of pronunciation raises a related question: What is the model of English pronunciation which the learner’s ‘ideal L2 self’ speaks? Is it a NS standard? Is it English overlaid with features of their L1 accent? Or is it some (yet to be fully described) lingua franca pronunciation, locally coloured, but adapted to maximise intelligibility in a global context?

Proponents of ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) wish dearly that it was this last. Jennifer Jenkins, for example, professes disappointment that the argument for intelligibility fails to override the typical learners’ aspirations to speak with an RP accent. Even her own research suggests that NNS teachers are resistant to the argument that their own L1 accented English offers an acceptable model to their learners. In her (aptly titled) 2007 book, English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity (OUP) she finds again and again “there was a strong sense that [her NNS informants] desired a native-like English identity as signalled by a native-like accent, especially in their roles as teachers” (p. 231). She adds, “Many perceived an almost immutable link between a native-like English accent and their chances of success in their teaching careers. And yet most also expressed an attachment to their mother tongue and nationality, projected through their English accent, that they seemed reluctant to relinquish” (ibid.) Those who recognised the contradiction used the term ‘linguistic schizophrenia’. You could also argue that it is simply the healthy tension that results from having two competing identities – as a football supporter might also experience, watching his/her home team play the team whence his/her ethnicity originates.

17 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

As a footnote, I just read this, from Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg: “The days of having a different image for your … co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity”. (Guardian Weekly, p. 22)

Clearly Mark Zuckerberg has never learned another language!

16 06 2010
Dennis Newson

Scott, I am sure many colleagues have had students say to them: “I want to be able to speak English like you. I want to sound like you.” Teachers trying to think about pronunciation openly and logically make comments like: “Unless you are aiming to be a spy, “easy intelligibility” is a good aim to have.” Many learners, though, do not see it that way. They are like learners of musical instruments, they want to be able to play/speak “perfectly” and they would define “perfect” if they went in for definitions as “native like.” To “easy intelligibility” I suppose one could add: “The ability to create the kind of impression on your listeners that you intend.” I tried to warn generations of students that a proliferation of glottal stops were OK as long as they did not mind creating the impression that they were all Cockneys. The question – What model should be taken for pronunciation? – provides a good example of how learner and instructor opinions can differ radically.

17 06 2010
Anne Hodgson

I have quite a bit of practical experience with Suggestopedia, and just a bit in Second LIfe, so I can see what you all mean. I think having the absolute freedom to step into and step back out of that avatar (or foreign language speaker) identity is absolutely key for a learner. If you take that sense of playfulness away or cause a learner any loss of face in his or her vulnerable state of being someone else, it can actually become quite inhibiting. As long as the identity works, it’s really liberating. The tricky part for a teacher is to sense where a learner’s taking the role really seriously is part of the play, and when they are ready to slip out of it again. In a classroom you’ll have different people and attitudes, so I can imagine what the situation must have been like for Lindsay’s wife. This is actually one of the strong points of Second Life: Participants can and do leave the moment they feel uncomfortable (“gotta go, bye”).

17 06 2010

There is something here that makes me feel vaguely uncomfortable, about how people are becoming someone else, and that they can step in and out of this process.
For me, my learners are mostly extending what they are, and often finding out that they are in fact happy with what they are in the process.
I remember reading some of Bonny Norton’s work, and the problem with their learning an L2 seemed to be that the person’s original identity wasn’t valued, that they saw no need to add to it until it had been. They didn’t want to reinvent themselves, they wanted to be able to express the person they were before they started adding to it.
I get a bit worried about that we start to generalise why people are learning, and that the best way to do so is to become someone else.
For @Anne Hodgson, in real life we can either make our excuses or storm out, but not really just log out. Isn’t second life actually preventing real language learning here – ie extricating yourself out of a situation delicately?Doesn’t being able to ‘opt out’ miss the point for most people learning a language?

17 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

“Isn’t second life actually preventing real language learning here – ie extricating yourself out of a situation delicately?”

Fair point, Darridge – and echoes the distinction that is sometimes made (in the communication strategies literature) between coping strategies and avoidance strategies. Simply avoiding awkwardnesses in communication (e.g. by changing the subject, foreclosing the conversation etc) is good for saving face but probably bad for long term language acquisition. Better to learn to deal with it, perhaps.

19 06 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

This is a premiere, so allow me to introduce myself: My name is Klaus Beutelspacher, I’m running a small language school in Cologne, in the very West of Germany. We work mainly on the basis of PDL (from (French) Psychodramaturgie Linguistique, or „language psychodramaturgy“), a very unconventional approach to language teaching/learning that’s been around for a long time. Don’t despair if you’ve never heard of it. PDL is virtually unknown outside Germany, and not really widespread here either.

PDL is based on the work of Bernard Dufeu. It appears to be very compatible with dogme, which I only discovered recently. I haven’t even read all of this blog, but I thought I might chime in at this point, in case the thread hasn’t died yet.

That’s because “identity”, at least in some sense, is at the very core of PDL theory and practice. Dufeu proposes a “pedagogy of being” in the line of the being-having polarity that’s been discussed in philosophy and psychoanalysis (like in Erich Fromm’s “To Have or to Be?”). The “having” is all about gaining knowledge and ability, much in the same way we struggle for power or material wealth. As opposed to that, the “pedagogy of being” aims at the development of the self.

Then there is the concept of relation. Generally you can’t learn a language, or anything for that matter, if you don’t relate to it in some positive way. But on top of that, language is used as a means of communication between individuals. It’s the yarn people use to weave relationships. A positive or constructive L2 identity needs to grow on relationships with others using the language.

In practice, this is precisely how a PDL classroom works. The L2 is present, we provide a testing ground for each person’s L2 self in the face of others. At least in Germany everyone already has such an English self, and they are rarely positive. In fact, they are usually battered by years or decades of feelings of inadequacy (“everyone speaks English but me”, I heard that from people who were C1). And there’s a will to turn this around, which quickly becomes common ground for the group.

Actually, the common ground is key, not where it comes from. In PDL, each exercise provides opportunities to question the negative (or even less-than-perfect) aspects of this “L2-self” and try out something different, something potentially better. Everyone experiences intensity and adequacy and support in the encounter with the L2, and everyone witnesses it with the others. The group carries each individual and vice versa.

Before getting into too much detail: I just wanted to mention that there is an approach out there that’s literally built on the concept of identity in FLT, in some sense. And it’s not just an idea, it’s very real, right through to the methodology, my daily business. Maybe you can imagine that there’s neither time nor energy for curricula or textbooks or testing in this kind of work. That’s why it ties in with dogme, I guess.

I’m grateful to Scott and the contributors here for bringing this up and indicating some different angles. I simply didn’t know that others (like Dörnyei) were discussing this to such an extent. I already adopted the idea of an “L2 self”! But it gives rise to yet more questions, like: Why self, and in what way (the way of psycho-, socio-, anthropo-logy? or are we talking philosophy?). Why not L2-ego, -id, -super-ego?

It’s all pretty complex, but a very good start.

19 06 2010
Karenne Sylvester

Golly, by the time one gets to end of reading the comments, one forgets entirely what one was thinking when reading the article itself… Like Jason and David, will say “brilliant piece, ta.”

Like Lindsay’s wife, I had a persona “given to me” – in French class and actually still remember being a “Catherine” (Catherine enjoyed playing with barbies whereas Karenne was a tomboy) … and I vaguely remember enjoying the experience but it didn’t help me remember French any more than the process of repeating Latin verbs over and over and over and over helped learn Latin…

I think the issue of game identity is an interesting one – it was actually the very first thing I thought of when I looked into SecondLife and immediately noticed how the adoption of avatars is in a higher percentage made up of beings ultimately more “sexually-attractive” in nature than the actual persons are in real life …no judgments intended, just interesting.. chalked that down to Freudian impulses than to learning environments…

And… while I agree that it is relatively helpful for learners to adopt or even just try out new identities when learning an L2, through role and real plays w/ + w/out virtual worlds, at the end of the day, it’s not the main focus, is it?

Don’t we simply want the students to practice communicating with each other – to assimilate the language?

Not the what, where, how… but the why 🙂


25 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

“Not the what, where, how… but the why”.

In the light of the (fascinating) comment by Klaus about the PDL approach, I’m tempted to add that it’s all about the “who”!

19 06 2010
Dennis Newon

Scott and Darridge, with your comments – not that I object at all – we seem to be turning from language learning to acquiring acceptable social behaviour. Of course the point where the two join forces is fascinating. One of my favourite book titles is: “What Do You Say After You Have Said Hello?” Is that about Language or social behaviour? ( I know – language is social behaviour…..).
Coincidentally, my Romanian explained today that he wants to learn what to say to people when he meets them for the first time so that he can get to know them and carry on finding out about them….. I will stop there. I realise I have taken us away from identity.

20 06 2010
Dennis Newson


Given that we all believe feedback is positive – Wow! Thanks for a fascinating contribution. It has got me, and others, I am sure, really thinking. Greetings from just along the road in Osnabrueck.


22 06 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Hi Dennis,

Thanks a lot for the feedback, I really appreciate that. It’s very encouraging, it keeps me thinking too, and maybe contributing! Greetings back up the road,


20 06 2010
Graham Stanley


“Don’t we simply want the students to practice communicating with each other – to assimilate the language?”

This is a valid and interesting point. In fact, one of the things that we’ve been doing in recent classes in Second Life through the AVALON project is this, without trying to use many of the special features of the environment, i.e. the focus is on the language learning and speaking practice. The interesting thing is that, just like in real life, the environment and the way people look etc. occasionally invades the conversation.

I guess it’s only natural that ‘who’ you are and ‘where’ you are two factors that do influence a language class whether you like it or not, whether you are sitting around a real table or a virtual one.

21 06 2010
Jill Hadfield

Very interested to read all this discussion! As a starting point I just homed in on the Second Life references. You might be interested to know that in book on Motivation I am doing with Zoltan we have a Second Life project.

I will read in more detail and no doubt comment more

22 06 2010
Jane Arnold

I too have been following the identity and L2 self issues with a great deal of interest.
Like Scott, I have lived longer away from my original homeland than in it and also like Scott I have Spanish citizenship. However, unlike Scott, I do feel totally integrated and I have often remembered the comment by Alice Kaplan in her book French Lessons. She describes her experiences as a teacher of French and as a person who took on a new culture and she explained her readiness to do so by saying that “English didn’t ‘name’ her”, English being of course more than the language only. I think there must be a connection here with the L2 self.

25 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jane, for that comment, and for reminding me of Alice Kaplan’s wonderful book. It’s interesting how such non-specialist, first-person accounts of SLA, such as Kaplan’s, or Eva Hoffman’s equally wonderful Lost in Translation are enriching the discussion on SL identity formation. For more on this interesting line of research, see Aneta Pavlenko’s paper ‘Autobiographic narratives as data in applied linguistics,’ Applied Linguistics, 28, 2007.

23 06 2010
Jill Hadfield

Two interesting – and opposing quotations about attitudes to identity change through language :
The first from Phillipson , author of Linguistic Imperialism :
 My Finnish language is my skin, my air I breathe, my snowfall, my rage and sorrow. It is in this language I heal my deepest wounds and it is here I shape and root my deepest feelings. My Finnish language is the source and ground of my own being
Jalava 1978 quoted in Phillipson and Skutnabb Kangas 1986

The second from Lvovich:
‘I could never travel to the country of my dreams to work, study, develop professionally, or see people who were dear to me.’
Instead, associating French with intellectualism, sophistication, and nobility, she created an imaginary French identity for herself, learning to speak with a Parisian accent, memorising popular French songs, reading French classics and detective stories in argot, mastering numerous written genres, cooking French food (from locally available ingredients), and even dipping ‘the imagined croissant into coffee.’
For her, this was the only possible escape from the political reality:
‘A French personality, after all, was much less confusing and safer than being a Jew in Soviet Russia.
It was a beautiful Me, the Me that I liked’

(Lvovich, 1997: 8-9).

23 06 2010
Dennis Newson

Following on from the remarks on language, identity and nationality from Scott, Jane and Jill –

I have been living in Germany for some thirty years or so, have a German wife, step-children, a granddaughter and relatives, and along with a bank and my wife, own a German house. I speak fluentish but broken German, though I read and write it unwillingly, badly with lack of ease or accuracy. Nonetheless, I could no more consider becoming German or being German than having a sex change. I am not proud of being English, I just am. I was born in England, my parents and grandparents were English, English is my mother tongue and my upbringing, education and formative social and psychological experiences were within English culture. I never needed to pretend I was a Roman, a Frenchman, a Russian, A Bulgarian, a Spaniard; an Arab, a Norwegian or a German to learn the languages I have studied at some time or other – Latin, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, German. (Might I have learned them better if I had?). Uncannily, when I translate from German into English, I stare at the original text and my English version of it and although I know that the two texts “mean” the “same”, it just does not feel that way. The two “identical” texts are closely related, but in terms of affect they are, to me at least, separate entities with a quite different feel to them. (Have you ever tried translating poetry from one language into another?) And who, with a smattering of any foreign language and a little interpersonal experience does not know that, if you are a native English speaker, there is a world of difference between saying: ‘Je t’adore”, “Ich liebe dich” and “I love you.”

23 06 2010
Jill Hadfield

I don’t think a future L2 Self is necessarily integrative – in fact the whole exploration of Self psychology in relation to motivation , as I understand it, stemmed in part from a feeling that with the rise of Global English, integration was no longer always relevant. Yashima posited that instead ‘international posture’ was replacing integrative motivation : a desire to be a global citizen rather than an affinity with a particular culture or desire to acquire aspects of Englishness ( or American- ness or Kiwi-ness …) I think people’s future L2 selves can be instrumental and international as well as integrative/international – a successful work L2 self for example, a successful tourist self , a global citizen self, a s well as My L2 French personality Self.

25 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jill for the comment.

A similar position ( to yours) is argued in a recent TESOL Quarterly article, in which the researcher “reports on a qualitative study investigating seven users of English in a higher education setting in Thailand engaged in intercultural communication”. He notes that the data “suggest that culture and identity can be expressed through ELF, which contradicts the claims… that ELF is culture and identity neutral. Given that the degree to which English is used by some of the participants in the study and the frequency with which they engage in ELF communication… the participants do seem to view ELF as a vehicle for expressing and perhaps creating cultures and identifications” (p. 586)

Baker, W. 2009. The cultures of English as a lingua franca. TESOL Quarterly 43/4.

26 06 2010
Jane Arnold

My ELT methodology students have to write a “Learning Journal” where they freely reflect on any issues related to language learning and teaching that occur to them. Correcting students’ work yesterday, I came across the following, which I am not totally sure relates to the discussion but think it is worth reading and maybe connects to Dennis’ comments:

I would never marry an English or American man. The reason is quite simple: I need to yell in my native language, loud and quick, and I could never feel the same way if I had to do it in another language. Of course, I could marry a man that is English and understands quite well Spanish insults, but that is not the point. The point is: I want my future husband to argue with me in my native language. I know it may sound a little close-minded and even ridiculous, but when it comes to love and hate, I only feel what I say when I use my native language. Spanish is part of my essence, my personality.

(I won’t ask her if she doesn’t conceive of the possibility of getting on with her future husband well enough not to have to scream insults at him but her comments reflect well the emotional connection with language.)

27 06 2010
Jill Hadfield

Yes … when living in France the area I could not express myself in was anger … well not really anger – it was more standing up for myself if someone was rude to me ( I am thinking of a particular brand of French shop assistant here…) I associate both my French and German L2 Selves with a greater degree of seriousness and intellectuality .. but am not sure how much that is because the European tradition places more value on philosophy and thinking as opposed to the British innate distrust of intellectuals! Or due to the fact that the FL is more associated with the thinking rather than feeling side. I know my Tibetan students when we taught in Lhasa had a complete language separation – anything intellectual was Chinese ( school was in Chinese) and they didn’t have the vocabulary in Tibetan to express it, whereas everything emotional was in Tibetan. A case for including more roleplay and drama in language teaching…?

27 06 2010
Jill Hadfield

Another comment while I’m online – unrelated to Jane’s point but going back to the earlier points, eg Graham Stanley’s about how far or how much people want to change their identity and the different types he observes in Second Life. I did a study on my daughter’s accent change when we moved to NZ from Britain, and in writing up the diary notes found myself getting into Social Identity theory and Communication Adaptation Theory. I liked Bonny Norton’s description of the self as a ‘site of struggle’ . SIT examines the contradiction between the individual self and the collective self ( the-self-embedded in the group) and finds that in ‘conditions of high cognitive uncertainty” there is a need for collective identification as a means of ‘uncertainty reduction’ ( Brewer 2003). In other words the more insecure you are ( as my daughter joining a new primary school the other side of the world) the more you will change your individual identity and adapt to the group norms. CAT ( which stems from Labov’s work and is developed by Giles) finds that people tend to change their language to adapt to others’ speech and that the people who do this more are : those with an interpersonal orientation, high self monitors, extraverts, cognitively complex communicators and the socially sensitive. Giles opposed to this category what he called ‘The Noble Selves” , those who were unwilling to compromise the integrity of their sense of self by adapting their speech to more closely resemble their interlocutor’s. Quite what this tells us about the people who play Second Life I am not quite sure…! It could explain some of the different attitudes to taking up an L2 identity though.

27 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Jill. I suspect that Communication Adaptation Theory also helps explan why some people respond positively to game-type environments (like Second Life) while others are suspicious or dismissive. Maybe (in the case of the latter) it’s their Noble Self that is preventing the kind of (dare I say it?) ‘infantilization’ that is required to become part of a virtual world?

Footnote: The literature on learner differences also made reference to the concept of ‘ego permeability’, I seem to remember. But I don’t know who this is attributed to, or how much currency it still has.

27 06 2010
Jill Hadfield

Interesting, Scott! A lot of lit on ego permeability relates to age – the older you get the more impermeable you are it seems……But also some studies seem to relate ( though not explicitly) the ego permeable learners to Giles’ communicatively adaptable speaker ( Most of CAT research is in L1 situations not with L2 learners – so it’s interesting to see parallels) Some studies relate permeability to empathy for example, which would seem to correlate with Giles’ description of the socially sensitive and those with an interpersonal orientation.
I also found a study which found learners are more ego-permeable in online situations than f2f! Implications for Second Life, Facebook etc …….?

27 06 2010
Jane Arnold

Madeline Erhman, based on Hartmann’s work in psychology, wrote in the 1990’s about ego boundaries in language learning, which I believe relates to what Jill mentions – ego permeability. She also discussed regression in the service of the ego, which permits someone to accept “infantilization”.

She says (1999) “One important application of regression in the service of the ego is second language social identity formation… social interactions disrupt existing schemata for individuals and thus require cognitive and affective adaptation. This process leads to some amount of reconstruction of the self…. To accept such a challenge to one’s pre-established concepts of self necessitates letting oneself be ‘someone else’ at least on a temporary basis, a lifting of adult reality testing, and a form of regression. To the degree that such regressive acceptance of a kind of fantasy of being someone else is adaptive – that is, it contributes to language learning and new ways of interaction with others – it is regression in the service of the ego, and not simply regression in defense against anxiety.”
All this before Second Life was on the horizon.

27 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

I find the implications of this discussion – on the ideal L2 self, on ego permeability, and on regression – extremely suggestive in terms of its possible applications to identity creation in gaming and Second Life. It would seem to be an area crying out for more research!

27 06 2010
Jessica Mackay

It’s so fantastic to read all your comments on this subject.

Is there any way I can save this whole thread and reproduce it in its entirety in my thesis? Thank you all for the fantastic ideas.

I’m starting an intensive summer course tomorrow and will be using a lot of material relating to the Ideal L2 Self (many, many thanks to Jill) I was wondering if there is an on-line tutorial or very easy intro to Second Life that you would recommend? I’d like to introduce my students to the possibility and feel I should learn more about it myself first.

27 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

I’m not sure about on-line tutorials, but Nergiz Kern’s website is an excellent introduction to Second Life: http://slexperiments.edublogs.org/

27 06 2010
Madeline Ehrman

Jane, thanks for calling my attention to this discussion and for mentioning that section of my article about regression in the service of the ego. I still find it a useful concept when I try to help language learners at the Foreign Service Institute or train teachers. However, I’ve also found that many of our students also need help feeling safe (mostly from judgment by teachers, classmates, and especially the self) before they feel free to relax enough to engage in the rather playful regression required.

I am also reminded that this is a useful concept to introduce in the staff training that I conduct at FSI, especially the creation of a safe environment to relax into the playful regression that can so promote learning. When I walk by a classroom and hear laughter, I’m cheered to think that more learning is taking place amid the fun.

As for Second Life, I’m glad to read that teachers are finally taking advantage of its potential. One of the major disappointments I experienced at FSI was that I could never get first The Sims Online and then Second Life available for teaching and learning experimentation. (This was mostly because of institutional information system security demands.)

With respect to identity formation, many learners fear that formation of a second language learning identity means erasing who they are. Ideally–and this has been my experience as a language learner–one has a core identity that is enriched, not replaced, by the ability to experience oneself as a member of another culture. It’s both/and, not either/or.

27 06 2010
Jane Arnold

just a little correction – in case anyone is interested in checking out Madeline’s work on ego boundaries etc. – her surname is Ehrman. Sorry 🙂

28 06 2010
Scott Thornbury

I’m not sure if this enriches this (fascinating) discussion of identity issues in language learning, but I can’t help mentioning a review in yesterday’s NY Times in which the reviewer happens to cite the recent case of the German (Armin Meiwes) who advertised for, and ATE, a sex partner (Bernd Brandes). The reviewer notes that “Meiwes believed he was eating Brandes’s essence. ‘With every bite, my memory of him grew stronger, ‘ Meiwes told the authorities. He also noted that Brandes had been fluent in English – and that since eating him, his own English had improved”. (Henig, R.M. ‘The Psychlogy of Bliss…’ in NY Times Book Review, June 27, 2010, p. 6).

(Apologies for introducing this totally uncalled for, and macabre, note!)

28 06 2010
Jill Hadfield

ingestion in the service of the ego?

29 06 2010
Dennis Newson

And….think of some of the idioms English has for reading :

He devoured it in a sitting.
It’s a tough read. (c.f. a tough piece of meat).
Here is some food for thought.

29 06 2010
Dennis Newson

And I forgot:

His ideas are hard to digest.
Her ideas are impossible to swallow.

There is a classic, but over-the-top Freudian analysis of the art of reading claiming that , according to my memory of it, it is actually the eating of one’s father’s faeces, symbols of his reproductive organ. It was written by James Strachey, (Lyton’s brother) and the first translator, I believe, of Freud into English, and the lover of Rupert Brooke .

Not terribly relevant perhaps -Just providing a bit of food for thought.

James Strachey, “‘Some Unconscious Factors in Reading'”, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 11 ( 1930) …

If anyone manages to find an electronic version of this article, do please share with this blog.

9 03 2018

I’d be grateful if teachers could disseminate and complete this survey on teacher identify for an UG dissertation at Swansea University. The themes are recognisable and of interest and the students would be delighted to broaden their responses.


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