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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10 Responses to Investment, Identity, and Language Learning

  1. Hi!
    Nice to read this whole blog as it has some quality information which is very beneficial for people like me. I hope you will post more such as that, By the way, Thanks for sharing such a great experience with us.

  2. Hum chan says:

    Dear Prof. Bonny,

    Thanks for your great article. It really inspires me to conduct the study of English writing and investment: a case of Cambodian students. Therefore I would like to request permission from you to use the investment model and theory. One more thing I would like to seek advice from you with regards to this study.

    Best reagrds


  3. Adam says:

    Investment, Identity, and Language Learning, I like the whole concept. Very interesting facts and approach of the question of motivation. Motivation always provide a power tablet to perform work with full dedication.

  4. Mary89 says:

    Very interesting and original approach to the study of the question of motivation. This topic became interesting for me long time ago but this approach I have not seen. Your article has revealed to me the subject more deeply and now I understand how global is the question of motivation for language learning. Thank you for your article.

  5. Dr. Mustafa Haifawi says:

    Dear Dr. Bonny,
    I do wish to express my high respect and admiration for the language work that has been mentioned and highlighted. I also wish to introduce my plan of having a partner to establish a language center for summer schools and English courses in England for students and those who are interested in seeking language learning courses in UK. I hope that you kindly find a time for discussing this serious plan upon your convenience.
    Thanks and allow me to extend my best regards

  6. Bonny Norton Bonny Norton says:

    Dear Pingu and all,

    Thank you for your interest in my research on identity and investment. I am working with my doctoral student Ron Darvin on providing a more comprehensive model of investment. This is being published in the Annual Review of Applied Linguistics this year (2015) and a draft is available on my website under “Publications”.

    Best regards,

    Bonny Norton.

  7. Pingu says:

    Hi Bonny,

    thanks for this blog post. I’m writing a thesis, using the notion of ‘investment’ and theories of subjectivity as the theoretical underpinnings. These are then linked to acculturative stressors, in investigating the coping strategies of international academics in a Western university.

    I just want to ask if you could further elaborate on examples of what you would consider as ‘investment’?



  8. Kate says:

    Sometimes it happens when a learner who is invested in a given set of language practices turns out to be not so motivated learner as we could expect considering his investments. But it’s an exception rather than rule. Thanks for describing the relationships between learner’s motivation and investments in such a clever way.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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