What is learner identity?

elt identity learner identity Oct 22, 2021

By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

Discussions in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) tend to focus on variables that pertain to the individual rather than the social context (Peirce, 1995). This is seen in ways that learners are described: motivated or unmotivated, introverted or extroverted, or high or low self-confidence.

SLA discussions also tend to view a classroom as a stand-alone unit, apart from the world (Hirano, 2008). This view limits teachers from considering the impact that learners’ perception of themselves (shaped by their interaction with the social world they live in) has on learning.

A holistic view

Identity refers to “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” (Norton, 2000). Identity is dynamic, contextual and evolves over time.

To understand the relationship between learning difficulty and learner identity, let’s consider Hirano’s (2008) case study of an adult EFL learner in Brazil. The teacher in the study noticed that the learner often gave up easily on tasks, claiming that they were too challenging. When he was able to accomplish a task, he would attribute it to external help or say that the task was too easy. Despite trying different teaching approaches, the student still wasn’t making much progress. Eventually, the teacher discovered that a poor learner identity was preventing the learner from seeing his progress. After keeping a reflective journal, the student started to display a stronger sense of competence and showed improvement in his learning.

Theory and practice

A poor learner identity is often a result of many negative learning experiences in the classroom, and discouraging language experiences outside the classroom. Teachers can help learners transform their identity by asking them to keep a reflective journal and review the entries once every few weeks.

Learners can write about things that they have learned in the classroom, and the ways in which the learning is relevant or useful outside the classroom (Hirano, 2008). This record helps them see their progress more explicitly.

Learners can also record unusual events (Pierce, 1995). These may include casual conversations where learners participated actively and confidently, and times when communication was more difficult. Learner reflection on these events, and discussion with teachers, can lead to a better understanding of the events.


Hirano, E. (2008). Learning difficulty and learner identity: A symbiotic relationship. ELT Journal, 63(1), 33-41.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and language learning: Gender, ethnicity and educational change. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.

Peirce, B. N. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 9-31.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based Independent Researcher and a Research & Development Consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/KELENY