14 September 2016

Investment in language learning

By Dr Melinda Kong

The term “investment” can not only be used in the financial world but is also applicable in language learning and an individual’s identity (a person’s views of him/herself based upon how s/he relates to society). The use of investment in language learning was proposed by Bonny Norton, Professor and Distinguished University Scholar at the University of British Columbia. The notion builds on the idea of motivation. Norton suggests that motivation is much more complex and needs to be mediated by considering an individual’s investments in a specific target language. While motivation is a yardstick for dedication in learning a language, investment is related to an individual’s identity, power relations and language learning.

The concept of investment implies that when individuals speak, they are not only exchanging ideas with users of the language. Instead, they are simultaneously organising the ways in which they connect to the social world and their sense of identities. Consequently, when individuals make investments in a particular language, they are also making investments in their social identities.

Individuals will most likely invest in learning a language if they think that their endeavours can result in positive returns. Examples of these returns are increased access to symbolic resources, such as international communication and access to information, and material resources, such as finance and career. Norton believes that the concept of investment is an attempt to link individuals to a social world that is ever changing. Individuals are viewed to have multiple desires and complex social identities. Their social identities have to be elucidated in connection to power relations that influence social structures. Such relations of power have significant effects in social interactions between learners of a particular language and users of the language. For instance, the concept of power can be interpreted as being subtly projected (unintentionally) by native speakers and/or advanced users of the target language at times. This is especially when they speak very fast or very fluently, causing some learners to feel inferior and/or ashamed of themselves for having poor language abilities and skills.

Norton argues that individuals possess social identities that ought to be examined in relation to larger social structures that are reproduced in social interactions every day and that are many times inequitable. Moreover, individuals can often be denied or given access to social networks that provide them opportunities to use the target language, by others who are perceived as more powerful. The concept of investment, therefore, takes into consideration different social factors that may affect individuals. For example, some learners may choose to be silent in some social contexts although they are motivated.

Dr Lee Su Kim, Associate Professor of English at University Kebangsaan Malaysia, extends Norton’s idea of investment, by her research findings that individuals will only invest in a particular language if the benefits are deemed worthwhile. Lee suggests that in settings such as Malaysia, investment in a target language is driven by contexts. For instance, in some circumstances when some of her research participants used English, others from similar sociocultural backgrounds might think that they had rejected their own sociocultural identities and mother tongue. Consequently, while individuals may reap certain positive outcomes when they invest in English and use the language, this may not happen all the time. Instead, some individuals may face negative repercussions in certain situations because using English may result in non-acceptance and resentment. As a result, individuals need to have an awareness of both the benefits and negative consequences of using English. These individuals have to invest in English strategically, by familiarizing themselves with the contexts and discerning if it is suitable for them to use English in specific settings. Lee’s study supports the view that individuals are social and cultural beings who are tied to various sociocultural environments with varied expectations of behaviour and language use, as well as layers of interactions. In such situations, individuals need to make investments in strategic ways.

To summarise, when individuals invest in learning and using a language, they are simultaneously investing in their social identities, which are subject to change across time and contexts. Moreover, these individuals may experience unequal relations of power with advanced users and/or native speakers of the language. They may also make investments in strategic ways when they choose not to use English in some circumstances, for example, when they want to invest in the sociocultural identities of their communities who use a different language. Since language learning is a complicated process, it is therefore, crucial to understand an individual’s investments in a particular language.

Dr Melinda Kong is Associate Dean (Academic Practice) with the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable at mkong@swinburne.edu.my