Investment and the right to speak in the 21st century (by Ron Darvin)

We are thrilled have this wonderful guest post by Ron Darvin, a PhD candidate and Vanier scholar at the Department of Language and Literacy Education of the University of British Columbia.  His research examines to what extent social class differences shape the digital literacies of adolescent learners. He has published in Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, TESOL Quarterly and Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, and his chapter, “Language and identity in the digital age” will be featured in The Routledge Handbook of Language and Identity in 2016. 

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When Bonny Norton and I sat down to think about what our paper for the 2015 Annual Review of Applied Linguistics issue on identity should focus on, the first question we asked ourselves is how has the world changed since Bonny first theorized identity and investment two decades ago? When her ground breaking article, “Social identity, investment and language learning” was published in TESOL Quarterly in 1995, the response was phenomenal as it brought to the fore how language learning is historically and materially constructed, and circumscribed by power. The stories and voices of the immigrant women whom she wrote about—Eva, Mai, Katarina, Martina and Felicia—served as a means for language teachers and scholars to understand how learners in a country of settlement can be positioned by powerful others by virtue of their race, gender, ethnicity, and class. During this period before the iPhone or Skype was invented, immigration was seen a one-way movement.  Immigrants traveled to a new country, a fixed location, where their task was to integrate, find employment, and learn an official language, so that they can claim the right to speak.

Bonny’s work resonated on so many levels with my own work on social class and Filipino adolescent learners. In Canada, Filipinos are the 4th largest visible minority, but as they fill mostly service occupations of restaurant workers and caregivers, they are often described as “overshadowed”, “silent” and “invisible”. Filipino women who come to Canada under temporary migrant worker arrangements can be separated from their children an average of seven years, impacting the social and educational trajectories of migrant Filipino youth in many ways. As a personal and political project, my work has been largely dedicated to helping carve a space for this invisible minority, so that they too may assert the right to speak.


Ron Darvin. Faces of English.jpeg
Ron Darvin talks about the need to develop digital repertoires in the 21st century during the Faces of English Conference in Hong Kong (June 2015)



In answering the question we began with, Bonny and I recognized that one of the biggest transformations in recent years was how technology had ushered us into the age of accelerated mobility. Indeed, migration has always been part of history, as people of different ethnicities and languages moved across boundaries in search of a better life. We see it this very day as thousands of Syrian refugees risk everything they have to find their way across Europe to imagine a new beginning for themselves. What has changed, however, is that in the 21st century, through the digital, we are no longer confined to finite boundaries. We’re able to occupy more spaces than we can ever imagine, and move fluidly from here to there and back again as we converse with friends in a coffee shop while messaging someone on Facebook a thousand miles away. This mobility has given us greater freedom to choose the communities we want to be part of, and the people we want to be aligned with.

As the spaces learners occupy become more diverse and unbounded, they are interpolated by the multiple ideologies that govern them. These ideologies can collude or compete with each other, positioning learners in more complex ways, as their knowledge, languages, and relations can be valued in one space, while devalued in another. It is because of this fluidity, this constant state of flux, that the new model of investment anchors itself to the constructs of identity, capital and ideology. It recognizes that as language learning extends to new digital frontiers, learners perform multiple identities, while drawing on the capital they possess. No longer confined by the physical boundaries of home, classroom, community or country, learners can traverse spaces where they can be privileged or marginalized in new, often taken for granted ways. In the online world, they are disembodied, no longer tied to the identity markers of race and gender, affording them new agentive possibilities. Those who do not feel particularly welcome in particular contexts can choose to retreat into virtual spaces. They can choose not only to invest but also to disinvest as they discover which spaces recognize them as legitimate members, and which do not.

Through IMing, text messaging and online commenting, learners have begun to speak through writing, and thus, literacy has become even more critical in asserting their right to speak. They need to know how to “play the game” by shifting registers, styles and modalities, so that they can perform different identities, and to enter and participate in spaces that they may have otherwise been barred from. The paradox of technology, however, is that while it connects people to diverse others, it can usher us into private spaces that both isolate and insulate us.  While it provides us greater freedom to choose our communities and affiliations, it fragments societies further and shapes new forms of inequality. While it constructs new arenas for us to express ourselves in creative ways, it can also lead us away from the spaces that enable real change.


Bonny Norton. Faces of English.jpeg
Bonny  Norton presents her model of investment during her keynote address in the Faces of English Conference in Hong Kong (June 2015) 

Responding to these paradoxes, the new model of investment seeks to lay bare the mechanisms of power that have become increasingly invisible because of the mobility and complexity of the new world order.  It challenges us to examine not only the inequalities of specific communicative events, but also the macrostructures and patterns of control that have sedimented these events into regulated practice.  It encourages us to think about how we recognize and value the histories, knowledges and cultures of refugee and immigrant learners as they find their place in new cities so that they can remain invested in their own imagined futures.

The model also invites us to raise questions about the assumptions we may have of this brave new digital world: How is our knowledge being shaped through the hidden ideologies of search engines and MOOCs? How does online communication privilege certain languages over others and maintain hegemonic relations? As technology becomes a more integral component of classrooms and teachers expect learners to possess certain digital literacies, who is privileged and who is left out? Are the digital projects we assign students providing them the literacies that really matter? These are only some of the questions that we hope the new model of investment can provoke us to think about, as we empower learners of diverse backgrounds to assert their identities, to find their voice and to claim their right to speak.





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