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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Learner Identity and Motivation: Connections to Aspiration

Learning can be a risky business, especially when it has to do with a learner’s sense of self and their identity.  For example, how might a person who is learning a language for the purpose of becoming part of a group comes to realize that the act of learning is modifying who and how she is?  Is the change in one’s identity a good thing? If so, how and why? What impact does it have on learner motivation?

A good example is the case of learning a language. While learning a language may be for the purposes of assimilating in a society (or, in a broader sense, fitting into a group or workplace) it is important to keep in mind that assimilation should not go too far, and seek to efface or obliterate the identities of the learners. 

susan smith nash - learning spanish in jalisco
Learning a language requires changes in one's sense of self. Motivation to continue often involves the learner's aspirations, dreams, and ultimate life goals. Learning language in Jalisco.
Learning involves socialization processes, and the degree to which one can both maintain autonomy and feel a part of a group is an important influencer in student satisfaction and motivation. In other words, a balance must be maintained.

An over-emphasis on testing, assessment, and individual achievement (rather than group dynamics) can destroy motivation.

Individual autonomy can be effectively instilled by giving learners the ability to critique texts and instructional materials, have choices with respect to their topics of study, and choose ways in which they are assessed.

It is useful to incorporate aspirational elements in motivation, especially in learning a language, or a skill set / knowledge base that gains entrance to a group (especially a highly desirable group).

Reflective learner journals can be helpful, not only in developing meta-cognitive skills but also in the ways in which instructors can learn to tailor their instructional strategies in order to be more effective.

Perhaps the most surprising insight is that in order to encourage the mediation of identity that occurs when learning a language (whether a formal language or the informal “language” of a workplace or community of interest), it is useful to look at aspirational elements of the learner’s identity framework.

In other works, what’s the learner’s dream?  What is the learner striving to be or become?

By appealing to the learner’s dream identity, or aspirations, you as an educator or instructional designer, will make it easier for the learner to tolerate the ambiguity and/or frustration that he/ she may feel when learning a language (and hence tending to give up her own identity).

In order to increase a sense of autonomy (and comfort with the process), it is helpful to give the learner the ability to influence his / her own methods of interacting and being assessed.


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior.  New York: NY: Plenum Press.

Lamb, M. (2011).  Future selves, motivation and autonomy in long-term EFL learning trajectories . in G. Murray, X. Gao, & T. Lamb (eds). Identity, Motivation, and Autonomy in Language Learning. (pp. 177-194). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Lamb, T. E. (2011). Fragile identities: Exploring learner identity, learner autonomy and motivation through young learners' voices.  The Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, Special Issue. 14:2, 68-85.

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