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.


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