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Identity and Additional Language Learning

The study of identity in the context of additional language learning has become a focus of interest among applied linguists whose theoretical perspective is grounded in a socio-cultural theories of language acquisition ¹.

A focus for many studies in the field of second language acquisition (SLA) is on how learners of an additional language acquire an additional abstract linguistic system. The theoretical perspectives that form the basis for many of these studies see the goal of language acquisition research as understanding the development of a system of formal linguistic structures in the individual mind/brain.

Research interested in the connectedness of the social world and an individual's language development within that social world sees language and culture not as "scripts to be acquired" but rather, "conversations in which people can participate" (McDermott, 1993, p. 250). From this perspective, the goal of research on the learning of an additional language is the understanding the development of systematic socio-linguistic practices for social interaction that are part of the culture of the language being learned.

Participation in almost all aspects of the social world involves language-mediated activities that facilitate a change in a learners' participation in future socio-linguistic practices in similar activities. The change in participation (Lave & Wenger, 1991) or use of these practices can be seen as a change in a learner's proficiency in that language. This change in participation in social practices is inseparable from an immigrant-learner's concomitant shifting identity as a member of a new language-culture.

For example, adult immigrants to the U.S. may interact socially in their first languages at home or in communities where their first language is spoken. But in many instances, as adults, these immigrant-learners of English must also engage in social interaction in English. By living in an environment in which English is recognized as the primary language of the dominant culture, many of these immigrant-learners in the U.S. use English to carry out many of their everyday activities. In this way, for immigrant-learners, the process of becoming a member of the culture of the U.S. is an inseparable part of their process of becoming English language users and is a fundamental part of their English language learning.

In our project, we take identity, like language, to be co-constructed and context-dependent (Berger & Luckmann, 1967) and "the nexus of multi-memberships" (Wenger, 1998). For adult immigrant-learners of English, this nexus involves continual negotiation and (re)creation of identity as they move from being novice English language users in various social contexts toward more full members of that community. While history, agency, and engagement are at the core of identity in learners' first language and in any additional languages they learn, these aspects of identity are developed and reified in a myriad of contexts for social interaction. For adult immigrant-learners of English, the necessity of using English in a culture that is, predominantly, English language speaking necessitates that history, agency, and engagement be (re)created at sites of multi-memberships. This aspect of identity makes it relevant and important in the study of the language learning of adult immigrants.

¹ Pierce, 1995; McKay & Wong, 1996; Norton, 1997, 2001, 2003; Day, 1998; Gee, 2000/2001; Kramsch, 2000, 2003; Lemke, 2000; Pavlenko & Lantolf, 2000; DeFina, 2003; Duff, 2003; Miller, 2003; Miron & Inda, 2004; Watson-Gegeo, 2004; and cf. overview in Norton & Toohey, 2002.

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