Investment, Identity, and Language Learning

In my early research with adults in Canada (published in the TESOL Quarterly, 1995), I observed that existing theories of motivation in the field of language learning were not consistent with the findings from my research. Most theories at the time assumed motivation was a character trait of the individual language learner and that learners who failed to learn the target language were not sufficiently committed to the learning process. Further, theories of motivation did not pay sufficient attention to unequal relations of power between language learners and target language speakers. My research found that high levels of motivation did not necessarily translate into good language learning, and that unequal relations of power between language learners and target language speakers was a common theme in the data. For this reason, I developed the construct of “investment” to complement constructs of motivation in the field of language learning and teaching.

Inspired by the work of Bourdieu (1991), the construct of investment signals the socially and historically constructed relationship of learners to the target language and their sometimes ambivalent desire to learn and practice it. I have argued that if learners “invest” in the target language, they do so with the understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic resources (language, education, friendship) and material resources (capital goods, real estate, money), which will in turn increase the value of their cultural capital and social power. As the value of language learners’ cultural capital increases, so learners’ sense of themselves, their hopes for the future, and their imagined identities are reassessed. Hence there is an integral relationship between investment and identity, an identity which is theorized as multiple, changing, and a site of struggle.

While scholars such as Dörnyei & Ushioda (2009) have sought to accommodate these theories of identity in new constructs of motivation, the construct of motivation remains a psychological construct with a quantitative orientation, while investment must be seen within a sociological, qualitative framework, seeking to make a meaningful connection between a learner’s desire and commitment to learn a language, and her or his complex and changing identity.

The construct of investment provides for a particular set of questions associated with a learner’s commitment to learning the target language. In addition to asking, for example, “To what extent is the learner motivated to learn the target language?” the teacher or researcher asks, “What is the learner’s investment in the language practices of this classroom or community?” A learner may be a highly motivated language learner but may nevertheless have little investment in the language practices of a given classroom or community, which may, for example, be racist, sexist, elitist, or homophobic. Thus despite being highly motivated, a learner could be excluded from the language practices of a classroom and in time positioned as a “poor” or unmotivated language learner. Alternatively, the learner’s expectations of good language teaching may not be consistent with the language practices promoted by the teacher in the classroom. The learner may therefore resist participating in the language practices of the classroom, with equally dire results.

In sum, a learner can be highly motivated to learn a language, but not necessarily invested in a given set of language practices. However, a learner who is invested in a given set of language practices would most likely be a motivated language learner.

Dr. Bonny Norton will deliver a keynote address titled “Identity and Language Learning Across Time and Space” at the TESOL 2013 International Convention & English Language Expo, 8:30 am, Saturday, 23 March.

About Bonny Norton

Bonny Norton
Bonny Norton is professor and Distinguished University Scholar, Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia, Canada. She is committed to the integration of theory, research, and practice, and served as Teaching Issues editor of TESOL Quarterly for 14 years. Dr. Norton is also an American Educational Research Association Fellow.
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2 Responses to Investment, Identity, and Language Learning

  1. Homeb says:

    I wonder how what s investment is different from extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation seems to help adults in pursuing language learning, but at the same time it can cause stress that can hinder language learning.

  2. Marcelo says:

    I think motivation plays on of the most fundamental aspect of language learning. Thank you for sharing this article

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