Language learning, identity, and agency : a multiple case study of adult Hispanic English language learners

Sacchi, Fabiana Andrea
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For the past 30 years, researchers in the field of Second Language Acquisition (Block, 2007; Lantolf and Pavlenko, 2001; Norton, 2000) have emphasized the need to integrate the language learner and the language learning context and to analyze relations of power and how they affect the language learner, the language learning processes, and the learner’s identities. Several researchers (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001; McKay & Wong, 1996; Skilton-Silverstein, 2002; Vitanova, 2005) have studied the connections between language learning, identity, and agency. The participants in these studies were immigrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, or Africa living in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Few studies (Menard-Warwick, 2004, 2009) have analyzed the experiences of adult Hispanic immigrants in the U.S. in relation to English learning and identity construction. This dissertation reports on a study exploring how five adult Hispanic immigrants learning English in a major city in Texas negotiated their identities as English speakers and exercised agency in contexts where English was spoken. The study also analyzed the learners’ investment in learning English. The sociocultural theory of self and identity developed by Holland, Lachicotte, Skinner, and Cain (1998) was the framework which helped conceptualize identity and agency. The work of Norton (2000) on language learning and identity and her notion of investment were used to understand the participants’ experiences learning and using English inside and outside the ESL classroom. A qualitative multiple-case study was conducted to understand the experiences of the participants who were learning English in a community-based ESL program, where the researcher became a participant observer during the six months of data collection. The findings of the study show the complex identity negotiations that the participants underwent in the different contexts where they interacted in English. Social class, immigrant status, and other social factors, such as lack of access to English-speaking contexts, high prevalence of Spanish in contexts where the participants interacted daily, and positioning of the participants (by others and by themselves) as limited English speakers strongly influenced how they negotiated their identities as English speakers. Despite these social factors, the participants exercised agency and were highly invested in learning English.