Questions of Investment
Norton doesn’t give a clear, single definition of “investment” in language learning, but I believe that is because of the unique and individual nature of investment for each learner. Investment deals with the notion that language learning is rooted in identity, power dynamics, potential gain, and a multitude of other factors that go deeper than just “motivation” to learn a new language. The idea of investment takes into account the “relationship of learners to the target language” and looks at how factors such as the context in which the language is learned, the power dynamics present in students’ interactions and, most importantly, language’s impact on a student’s identity, as factors in their willingness and ability to acquire an additional language.
This idea differs from that of “motivation” in its multi-faceted approach. As Norton states in the article, previous researchers have looked at motivation as a quantitative character trait. If a student lacks motivation, they cannot learn a language as well as a student who is highly motivated. While this does have some merit, the study of motivation does not take into account the multitude of factors that impact a student’s motivational level, and also often fails to account for the idea that motivation is dynamic and can shift with changing power dynamics and student growth. All in all, the study of investment in language learning is a much more holistic, contextual, and qualitative view of language acquisition.
The concept of investment differs greatly from how I thought of language instruction before beginning my language acquisition work at Michigan State, and differs from the way in which I have been taught language in the past. Often times and in my experience, language learning is thought of similarly to academic disciplines - if students are taught the rules and how to apply them, they study hard, and they have sufficient opportunities to practice, then they will be successful at learning a language. This is certainly how I was taught when I attempted to learn French: instruction, studying, practice, repeat. The idea of investment conflicts with this approach, as student identity and social influences play little to no role in their ability to study something and then apply it by memory. Through my work at Michigan State, particularly through my classes on language acquisition and my current 494 practicum class, I have learned that language learning is a much more complicated and dynamic process than this. There are factors that impact language acquisition like student stress level, the quality of input, the opportunity to produce genuine and meaningful output, exposure to fluent speakers and, most importantly, the link between language and identity. The concept of investment ties in quite well with this new way of thinking that views language learning as something that exists within a context of social power and shifting identity and students’ experiences of the world as learners and as global citizens.
I think Norton’s ideas about language teaching differ from Krashen’s slightly, but not drastically. Krashen’s beliefs center around the student experience, as do Norton’s. Krashen’s belief that “acquisition requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding” fits in well with Norton’s beliefs that language is about more than just rules, and that language acquisition is impacted by social context. Something that conflicts, however, is Krashen’s idea that “any subject matter that held their interest would do just as well” when discussing the role of grammar instruction and language acquisition. This viewpoint seems to come from one concerned with student motivation, where a student’s desire to learn is the most important factor as long as the material is being presented in a meaningful way and in the target language. This fails to take into account all of the factors that we discussed earlier (power dynamics, classroom language use and customs, student identity, and relationships) that make investment different from motivation. While it is true that student interest and the use of the target language are probably a good minimum starting point for effective grammar instruction, more factors like language practices in the classroom and power dynamics that exist around language use have to be taken into account when looking at how well a student acquires the grammatical structures that they are being taught. Norton’s theories on investment serve as a complement and enhancement to Krashen’s language acquisition theories and, when you combine the two, can both be utilized to lead to more effective and meaningful classroom language instruction.
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As an educator, Abigail Johnson reflects on several relevant topics impacting today's students in mainstream classroom settings.