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Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA

Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA

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Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA

383 pages
6 hours
Feb 3, 2014


Instead of viewing different perspectives on the self as competing with each other and considering one perspective on the self as being inherently ‘better’ than another, this book takes the view that a fuller, more comprehensive picture of the self in SLA can be gained by examining and combining insights from different perspectives. This original collection of papers thus attempts to provide a thorough overview of the ways in which the self can be conceptualised in SLA contexts. The editors have brought together a diverse range of theoretical perspectives on the self to allow the reader to appreciate the insights that each approach contributes to overall understandings of the self in the domain of second language acquisition and foreign language learning.

Feb 3, 2014

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Top quotes

  • Murray, G. (2011) Imagination, metacognition and the L2 self in a self-access learning environment. In G. Murray, X. Gao and T. Lamb (eds) Identity, Motivation and Autonomy in Language Learning (pp. 75–90). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

  • Hsieh, P.H. (2012) Attribution: Looking back and ahead at the ‘Why’ theory. In S. Mercer, S. Ryan and M. Williams (eds) Psychology in Lan-guage Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice (pp. 90–102).

  • Mercer, S. (2012) Self-concept: Situating the self. In S. Mercer, S. Ryan and M. Williams (eds) Psychology in Language Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice (pp. 10–25). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • In 1998, the sociolinguist, Susan Gass, made the important argument that the theoretical relevance of identity to second language learning needed to be established.

  • Erikson, M.G. (2007) The meaning of the future: Toward a more specific definition of possible selves. Review of General Psychology 11 (4), 348–358.

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Multiple Perspectives on the Self in SLA - Multilingual Matters


1 Introduction

Marion Williams and Sarah Mercer

What This Book is About

In recent years, the key role of the self in second language acquisition (SLA) has increasingly been gaining recognition from SLA writers, and there has been a dramatic increase in research on this topic. However, accompanying this growth in interest in this area, there has been an escalation in the range of theoretical conceptualisations of the self. While this is a positive indication of the vibrancy of developments in this field, there exist a number of confusions owing to the variety of definitions and overlapping terms. The aim of this book is to bring together a range of perspectives on the self, which are often seen as competing, to unite what is currently a somewhat fragmented field and to provide an overview of some of the different ways in which the self has been conceptualised. Our aim is to provide an insight into the way in which each perspective contributes to our overall understanding of the self in SLA. We hope that viewing these perspectives collectively in one volume will lead to a deeper understanding of the concept and an appreciation of the merits of the theoretical and methodological diversity in this area.

Why We Compiled This Book

For a number of years both editors have shared an interest in the insights that can be gained from the field of educational psychology in furthering our understanding of language learning processes. For example, Williams, in her book together with Burden (1997) Psychology for Language Teachers, examined a number of psychological areas that were receiving attention at the time and linked these to language teaching. Some 15 years later, while together compiling the book Psychology for Language Learning (Mercer et al., 2012), both editors were struck by the growing focus in the field on perspectives related to the self and the many different ways of conceptualising these that exist. For example, in her chapter on motivation in the 2012 book, Ushioda, referring to Dörnyei’s (2005) L2 self system of motivation, theorises the motivation construct from a self-related viewpoint, arguing that concepts of ‘self’ have come to dominate research on motivation in education, and that examining the self system reframes the motivation construct in enlightening ways. In addition, recent work in other areas of language learning psychology, such as goals, self-determination, attributions, mindsets and perceptions of successes and failures, all centre around notions of the self.

Similarly, in writing her book Towards an Understanding of Language Learner Self-Concept, Mercer (2011) found considerable overlap between various self-related terms, such as self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-concept and identity. Brinthaupt and Lipka (1992: 1) explain that there is ‘wide disagreement about how to define the self, measure it, and study its development’ and highlight the problems that researchers thus face in selecting constructs, differentiating between terms and comparing studies. However, we do not see this diversity as inherently problematic, but rather we choose to view it as a potential strength; if employed and integrated appropriately, epistemological and methodological diversity can give rise to a richer, more comprehensive view of the self than a single perspective alone.

As the self is a field of study that is expanding rapidly within SLA, it seems to be timely to examine the different perspectives that exist and consider the implications of the various viewpoints for the future of this growing field of research. We therefore felt a need to bring the different perspectives together to help us to see their commonalities, differences and areas of overlap to facilitate a more unified view of the self. Our intention is to see how different views might complement each other and, when combined, elaborate our understanding of the self. If we want a full picture of the self, we need to bring all the pieces of the picture together.

In working on the book, we have been delighted by the enthusiastic response of the contributors and it has been extremely rewarding and enlightening to work with such a collection of distinguished scholars, each with a different perspective on the field. While we may embrace different conceptualisations of the self, we all share a passion and conviction of the importance of the self in SLA and the need to better understand its nature and role in language learning processes.

Who This Book is For

This book is essentially aimed at those interested in the topic of the self in language learning, whether carrying out research in this field or teaching on postgraduate programmes, training teachers, studying at postgraduate level or teaching a foreign language. In order to ensure the volume remains accessible to those working at various levels of specialisation in the field, we have attempted to explain different concepts clearly as they arise. In addition, each chapter ends with guidance for further reading in the particular area, and we hope this will motivate a whole new generation of specialists in the self in SLA to keep moving the field forward.

Organisation of the Book

The book is organised into 12 chapters, with 10 of them focusing on a different perspective on the self. The introductory chapter is intended to set the scene, whereas the concluding chapter attempts to pull together the main threads and considers directions for the future. While each chapter presents a particular viewpoint, we have allowed the contributors flexibility in whether their main focus is on a theoretical perspective or an empirical research study. Indeed, we deliberately intended to encourage diversity, enabling contributors to draw out their own emphasis. The chapters have been loosely ordered sequentially from more tightly defined constructs to more holistic views of the self.

The volume begins with Mills’ chapter on self-efficacy, in which she explores Bandura’s social cognitive theory focusing on how self-efficacy is formed. She reports on several studies in which the subsequent implications of the theory for pedagogy are empirically investigated and concludes that it is crucial for learners to ‘feel competent and capable in their ability to acquire a foreign language’. Chapter 3 by Sampasivam and Clément focuses on the construct of second language confidence (L2C) and explores the literature to consider the role of different types of contexts and situations in L2C, such as inside/outside the classroom or in computer-mediated communication. In order to create some coherence to a complex area, they propose a taxonomical framework for classifying different forms of language contact. In the next chapter, Rubio addresses the two constructs of self-concept and self-esteem and proposes a neurogenerative model to help understand how the two facets of the self might be interrelated and develop over time. As well as considering possible ways of researching these two self constructs, he also reflects on the important implications for pedagogy of a sensitivity to and understanding of the nature of self-concept and self-esteem.

Chapter 5 continues with an exploration of poststructuralist theory by Norton who considers its usefulness for helping teachers and administrators to make informed decisions about classroom practices designed to support learners in constructing and negotiating their identities through the use of language. She employs the concept of ‘investment’ as a way of conceptualising learners’ motivation and engagement with the language practices within the classroom and argues that support is needed for teachers as well as learners working in diverse linguistic communities. She also raises important issues regarding the distribution of power and potential for social change in language teaching and learning contexts and their effects on identity positioning. The construct of identity is also addressed in Chapter 6 in which Hemmi reports on a study conducted with Japanese/English bilingual women living in Japan. She describes how the majority of the women possess multiple or at least dual identities created, in their opinion, by cultural and linguistic differences in the languages. She highlights how being bilingual can be perceived as either positive or negative; however, in the case of these women, she concluded that they hold primarily an additive view of their bilingual selves. In the next chapter, Taylor explores different types of relational selves, that is, the different sense of self one has when moving from one social interaction to another. Using three theoretical frameworks, she reports on research that has revealed the seeming contradictions and potential conflicts a learner may experience between their public and personal selves as they interact within and across different relational contexts. She draws important conclusions about the need for learners to feel accepted, and highlights the multiplicity of identities learners bring with them into the language classroom.

In Chapter 8, Ryan and Irie explore how we construct the story of ourselves and the key role played by imagination in this process. They consider how possible and imagined selves can be generated through the processes we use to create visions of ourselves beyond our actual experiences and current settings. They conclude that imagination is a powerful resource for learning and identity construction, which can also be harnessed to foster learners’ sense of agency. Indeed, agency, self-regulation and motivation are key themes picked up in Chapter 9 by Ushioda. In her chapter, she explores the developmental aspects of how processes of motivation become internalised within the self. In doing so, she highlights the complex interaction of current selves, experiential factors, social-environmental influences and future-oriented dimensions of the self that affect these motivational processes. In Chapter 10, Northoff offers a less familiar perspective on the self in SLA as he explores philosophical issues about the existence of self and the role of consciousness and linguistic processing in the construction of our sense of self. He turns to neuroscience and considers findings there concerning the representation of self in terms of specific regions of the brain. He too makes the connection between self and agency, and raises important questions about the embodied self and the role of language in self representations. Finally, in Chapter 11, Mercer takes a holistic view of the self and considers how complexity perspectives can help integrate various perspectives on the self. She focuses in particular on the dynamics of the self and reports on a study examining the situational dynamics of English as a foreign Language (EFL) learners engaged in a series of speaking tasks. She concludes that a complex understanding of context is necessary in which the personal relevance of contextual factors for an individual is taken into account when exploring the interaction between self and contexts.

In the final chapter, we pull together some of the main themes that emerge across the ‘multiple perspectives on the self’, including definitional concerns, the interplay between self and contexts, the temporal dynamism of the self, various approaches to researching the self and a range of pedagogical implications for teachers wishing to work in self-sensitive ways. Most of all, we hope that you will enjoy reading all of the chapters. They do not need to be read sequentially, but we hope that in their entirety they will help contribute to a fuller, more comprehensive understanding of the self in SLA.


Brinthaupt, T.M. and Lipka, R.P. (1992) Introduction. In T.M. Brinthaupt and R.P. Lipka (eds) The Self: Definitional and Methodological Issues (pp. 1–11). Albany: State of University of New York Press.

Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mercer, S. (2011) Towards an Understanding of Language Learner Self-Concept. Dordrecht: Springer.

Mercer, S., Ryan, S. and Williams, M. (eds) (2012) Psychology for Language Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Ushioda, E. (2012) Motivation: L2 learning as a special case? In S. Mercer, S. Ryan and M. Williams (eds) Psychology for Language Learning: Insights from Research, Theory and Practice (pp. 58–73). Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Williams, M. and Burden, R.L. (1997) Psychology for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2 Self-Efficacy in Second Language Acquisition

Nicole Mills


Ushioda and Dörnyei (2009: 1) claim that ‘second language (L2) motivation is currently in the process of being radically re-conceptualized and retheorized in the context of contemporary notions of self and identity’. This process of re-conceptualization has been associated with parallel developments in various research domains including sociolinguistics and educational psychology. Diverse theoretical foundations including social cognitive theory, socio-cultural activity theory, and self-determination theory have played key roles in re-theorizing L2 motivation and emphasizing notions of the self. The synergy between educational psychology and second language acquisition developed as L2 motivation scholars looked toward theoretical foundations in educational psychology to guide their research and transform their understanding of language development.

Influenced by the research developments associated with the relationship between the self and cognition in the field of educational psychology, foreign language (FL) motivation research transitioned from the social psychological period to the cognitive-situated period during the late 1990s. During the social psychological period, FL motivation research concentrated on integrative and instrumental aspects of motivation (Gardner, 1985). Integrative motivation refers to learners’ desire to learn a FL to integrate into the FL community. Instrumental motivation refers to a desire to learn another language to attain particular career or academic goals (Shrum & Glisan, 2000). Crookes and Schmidt’s (1991) influential article ‘Motivation: Reopening the Research Agenda’ countered the social psychological approach with their claim that although the wide-ranging research in integrative motivation was both valuable and informative, the emphasis on integrative motivation in FL research had often neglected other motivational theories from educational psychology. Reaffirming Crookes and Schmidt’s (1991) concerns, Dörnyei called for:

…a more pragmatic, education-centred approach to motivation research, which would be consistent with the perceptions of practicing teachers and which would also be in line with the current results of mainstream educational psychological research. (Dörnyei, 1994: 273)

At this juncture, cognitive psychological influences, which had long been underplayed in FL motivation research, came to the forefront, and researchers began to heed theories of the self in educational psychology (Graham, 2006, 2007; Mills et al., 2006, 2007). Attribution theory and social cognitive theory became key theoretical foundations of the cognitive-situated period in FL motivation research. By introducing the notion that one’s perceptions of one’s abilities and prior performances were fundamental aspects of FL motivation, social cognitive theory and the cognitively defined construct of self-efficacy received increasing attention.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social cognitive theory is a theory of human functioning that views individuals as proactive, self-reflective, and self-regulating beings. According to this theory of human behaviour, an individual’s system of self-beliefs allows the person to exercise control over his/her thoughts, feelings, and actions. In other words, ‘what people think, believe, and feel affects how they behave’ (Bandura, 1986: 25). This notion suggests that there is interplay among personal, behavioural, and environmental influences in human functioning. This mutual interplay, or triadic reciprocality, suggests that human behaviour is collectively influenced by personal agency, self-beliefs, and external environmental factors. Because human functioning is embedded in social environments, individuals are regarded as both products and producers of their own environments.

Within this system of self-beliefs, individuals may show control over five specifically human capabilities: symbolizing, forethought, vicarious learning, self-regulation, and self-reflection. Individuals are therefore able to make decisions, self-assess their performance, and interpret the outcomes, develop beliefs about their competence, and, finally, mentally store this information to guide future behaviour. Of the five highlighted human capabilities, Bandura (1997) considered the practice of self-reflection to have the most noteworthy influence on human agency. Through reflective self-examination on the adequacy of one’s thoughts and actions, people may alter their own thinking and exert influence over subsequent behaviour. Self-reflection therefore has important implications in academic settings, as the self-examined beliefs that students hold true about themselves are vital forces in their academic successes and/or failures.

Social cognitive theory and self-efficacy

Within social cognitive theory, perceptions of self-efficacy are among the most central mechanisms of self-reflection (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy refers to ‘beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments’ (Bandura, 1997: 3). More simply, self-efficacy refers to an individual’s beliefs in his/her ability to perform a designated task or complete an activity, and may be used as a predictor of future performance. Bandura (1997) suggests that self-efficacy beliefs can influence one’s decisions, expended effort and perseverance, resilience to adversity, thought processes, affective states, and accomplishments. Schunk (1991) contends that self-efficacy beliefs may better forecast success than prior achievements, skills, or knowledge. For these reasons, Bandura (1997: 19) claims that self-efficacy beliefs ‘affect almost everything [people] do; how they think, motivate themselves, feel, and behave’.

Self-efficacy beliefs are formed by the collective analysis of four main sources of information: mastery experiences, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasions, and affective indicators (Bandura, 1997). These various sources of information influence one’s self-efficacy beliefs; either raising or lowering an individual’s perceived ability to perform a designated task. Self-efficacy beliefs represent future-oriented conceptions of the self and may therefore be malleable if the aforementioned sources of self-efficacy are fostered (see Pajares & Urdan, 2006). According to Bandura (1997), mastery experiences are the most influential source of efficacy information. Whereas successes raise self-efficacy beliefs, failures weaken one’s sense of efficacy. After repeated successful performances, it is unlikely that occasional failures will undermine beliefs in one’s capabilities. Successful performances contribute, therefore, to the anticipation of future success.

Vicarious experiences, or the appraisal of abilities in relation to the accomplishments of peers, are an additional source of self-efficacy beliefs. Visualizing the successes of comparable individuals in terms of age, level, and ability can raise a person’s efficacy beliefs by fostering the belief that s/he could also master comparable tasks. Conversely, observing a peer’s failure can weaken an individual’s belief in his/her ability to succeed. Vicarious experiences can therefore provide individuals with valuable information about their own perceived capabilities (Bandura, 1997).

Verbal persuasions, or people’s judgment of another’s ability to accomplish a given task, may be an additional source of self-efficacy beliefs. Verbal persuasions from mentors or teachers, such as feedback or encouragement about task performance, can provide valuable information about personal competence. Teachers, in particular, can enhance students’ self-efficacy with credible feedback and guidance that encourages and motivates students. Bandura (1997: 101) claims that ‘it is easier to sustain a sense of efficacy, especially when struggling with difficulties, if significant others express faith in one’s capabilities than if they convey doubts’.

Finally, self-efficacy beliefs are also formed from emotional indicators during task completion. Whereas positive emotions may raise efficacy beliefs and contribute to the expectation of future successful performances, high levels of anxiety, stress, or fatigue can weaken one’s sense of efficacy. Bandura (1997: 108) notes that ‘it is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted’.

Self-Efficacy and Academic Performance

Because of the relationship among self-efficacy beliefs, behaviour, and motivation, self-efficacy has received increasing attention in the realm of educational research over the last 30 years. Graham and Weiner’s (1996) review of motivational research in the Handbook of Educational Psychology reveals that self-efficacy beliefs consistently predicted academic achievement in various academic domains over and above other motivational constructs and affected academic performance in various ways. Students with high self-efficacy to perform academic tasks tend to exhibit lower levels of anxiety, display increased persistence when faced with obstacles, exert greater effort, show more flexible learning strategy use, and display higher levels of intrinsic interest in academic tasks. Students with low self-efficacy, in contrast, often choose less challenging academic tasks, apply minimal effort and strategy use, and show higher signs of anxiety in the face of obstacles. Such findings revealed that confidence in one’s academic capabilities is a central element to academic success (Pajares & Schunk, 2001).

Self-Efficacy and Other Self Constructs

Although emphasis has been placed on the investigation of self-efficacy beliefs in various domains of educational research in the past three decades, second language acquisition (SLA) scholars have tended to emphasise other self constructs in L2 motivation research. Research on linguistic self-confidence, self-concept, and self-regulation have instead been the object of much FL research. Although seemingly akin to self-efficacy, these constructs differ in their theoretical foundations and research purposes.

Linguistic self-confidence (see Sampasivam & Clément,

Chapter 3, this volume)

Embedded within social psychology, Clément’s theory of linguistic self-confidence defines self-confidence as ‘self-perceptions of communicative competence and concomitant low levels of anxiety in using the second language’ (Noels et al., 1996: 248). Linguistic self-confidence is a socially defined construct based on one’s ability to communicate and identify with the L2 cultural community (Dörnyei, 2005). Research from the social psychological period in the 1990s found that linguistic self-confidence was associated with target culture identification (Noels et al., 1996), linguistic acculturation (Dion et al., 1990), and lower levels of anxiety (MacIntyre et al., 1997). By linguistic acculturation, the authors mean the process by which members of a culture acquire cultural features of another culture through language use. Whereas self-confidence measures self-perceptions from a socially defined perspective, self-efficacy assesses self-perceptions from a primarily cognitively defined perspective (Dörnyei, 2005).

Self-concept (see Rubio, Chapter 4, this volume)

Self-concept is an additional self construct that has received attention in the field of FL education research (Arnold, 2007; Mercer, 2011). Pajares and Schunk (2002: 21) describe self-concept as ‘a description of one’s own perceived self accompanied by a judgment of self-worth’. Generalized perceptions of self are described as global self-concept. Self-concept, however, may be divided into more specific components. Whereas non-academic self-concept can comprise self-concepts about social, emotional, or physical aspects of self, academic self-concept refers to one’s perceptions of self and judgment of self-worth in academic domains (Pajares & Schunk, 2001). Academic self-concept may be further divided into specific academic-domain self-concepts, such as science self-concept or Spanish learning self-concept. Moreover, a language-specific self-concept may be separated into further domains such as Spanish reading self-concept. One’s evaluation of competence and feelings of self-worth associated with Spanish would refer to an individual’s Spanish learning self-concept, whereas one’s Spanish reading self-concept would refer to one’s perception of one’s overall competence to read in Spanish. In his discussion of the L2 motivational self system, Dörnyei (2009) extends the traditional notion of self-concept to the notion of possible selves. Whereas self-concept refers to an individual’s self-perception at the present time, possible selves ‘represent the individual’s ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are afraid of becoming’ (Dörnyei, 2009: 11) (see also Ryan & Irie, Chapter 8, this volume; Ushioda, Chapter 9, this volume).

Furthermore, self-concept is an evaluative judgment of one’s perceived self, possessing both cognitive and evaluative elements. Self-efficacy, in contrast, is one’s judgment of one’s capability to perform a task or engage in an activity. To further assist in defining the constructs, self-efficacy survey items often include the question ‘how confident are you that you can…’ and ask students to evaluate their competence to do particular tasks. Responses to such self-efficacy items ask students to evaluate whether they have high or low confidence to engage in particular activities. Self-concept questions, on the other hand, often involve questions of being and feeling, such as ‘how do you feel about yourself as a French student’. Answers to self-concept items reveal negative or positive feelings of self-worth associated with the subject area and how individuals feel about themselves in particular academic domains. Therefore, although self-concept beliefs may be specific to an academic domain (e.g. Spanish self-concept, German self-concept, etc.), these beliefs are not assessed at task-specific levels like self-efficacy beliefs.


A large body of FL research has been conducted in autonomy and language learning strategies in FL acquisition (Chamot, 2001; Cohen & Macaro, 2007). Learning strategies have been defined as ‘any thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, or emotions that facilitate the acquisition, or later transfer of new knowledge and skills’ (Weinstein et al., 2000: 727). FL research suggests that learning strategies play an important role in language learning and that autonomous students tend to be

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