Graduate Research Papers


Open Access Graduate Research Paper


Second language acquisition; Identity (Psychology); Motivation (Psychology);


In recent years the role of identity in SLA has emerged in the literature as the linguistic community develops an understanding of the significance of identity in language learning (McKay & Wong, 1996). Norton (2000) refers to identity as “how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is constructed across time and space, and how the person understands possibilities for the future” (p. 5). An understanding of identity in language learning and the relationship of the language learner to the learning environment helps to illuminate what previous theories about the role of affective variables failed to explain, namely, why some learners succeed and others fail with seemingly similar abilities and motivation levels and under similar circumstances. Previous research on learner differences attempted to identify characteristics in learners which explained why some individuals are ‘good language learners’ and others are not (Norton Peirce, 1995). Those studies focused on factors such as anxiety levels, extroversion vs. introversion, age, aptitude, and motivation. Motivated individuals were found more likely to seek opportunities to practice in the target language than individuals who were not motivated (Gardner & MacIntyre, as cited in Norton Peirce, 1995). However, theories about motivation carry an implication that learners who avoid interaction fail to create such opportunities for themselves (Norton, 2000). Moreover, motivation theories have not explained why an individual can be motivated and seek out interaction with target language speakers in some circumstances, but be reticent, unmotivated, and uninvolved under other circumstances (Norton Peirce, 1995). Research on identity is beginning to shed light on this seeming dichotomy in second language learning. Drawing on recent literature, this paper seeks to show that second language learners do not always have agency to create language learning opportunities in circumstances in which they might find themselves, and to further show that power differential between interlocutors in language learning contexts can affect the ability of Identity in SLA Page 3 language learners to interact with target language speakers, ultimately affecting their ability to become proficient in the target language. The question raised for second language acquisition is, “Can learners access interaction through development of a social identity which empowers them to take social risks?” The implication of that question for second language teaching is, “What can be done to effectively foster a social identity in students that facilitates their learning of the target language?”

Year of Submission


Degree Name

Master of Arts


Department of Languages and Literatures

Date Original


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