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Review of  Beliefs, Agency and Identity in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching

Reviewer: Andrea Eniko Lypka
Book Title: Beliefs, Agency and Identity in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching
Book Author: Paula Kalaja Ana-Maria Ferreira Barcelos Mari Aro Maria Ruohotie-Lyhty
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 27.3302

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Current second language acquisition (SLA) research on identity and agency has been guided by poststructuralist and sociocontextual lenses (Menard-Warwick, 2004; Norton 2013; Ollerhead, 2012, 2016). Moving this research agenda forward, “Beliefs, Agency and Identity in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching”, coauthored by Paula Kalaja, Ana Maria F. Barcelos, Mari Aro, and Maria Ruohotie-Lyhty, is a collection of seven studies that explore the intersection between second language (L2) learner and teacher beliefs, agency, and identity in the field SLA. The authors, experts and researchers in this field, claim that the interrelationship between these key concepts in L2 learning and teaching is integral to SLA.

Written for researchers, novice and experienced pedagogues, and students, the ten chapters in this volume bring together the interrelated and dynamic concepts of beliefs, agency, and identity and explore these overlapping constructs using innovative, interdisciplinary data collection, analysis methods, and theoretical frameworks. The seven studies in Chapters 3-9 differ in theoretical frameworks, data collection methods, analyses, participants, foci, and contexts. However, they all adopt a longitudinal, qualitative research design and contextual approach to reveal evolving L2 learning or teaching trajectories from an emic or insider perspective.

This work is divided into five parts: introduction, L2 learning for young adults, university students, and L2 teachers, and conclusion. Seven studies are presented under the headings “Learning English as a foreign language: From school children to young adults,” “Studying foreign languages: From first year university students to graduates,” and “Teaching foreign languages: From novice teachers to experienced professionals.” The initial two chapters are of particular interest for novice scholars; these chapters provide an overview of the book, synthesize relevant research, and discuss key concepts of beliefs, agency, and identity in SLA. The research participants in Chapters 3 and 4 are young learners; and Chapters 5, 6, and 7 are dedicated to older L2 learners and users, including students of foreign languages and student teachers. Chapters 8 and 9 are concerned with novice and experienced language teachers’ perspectives about L2 learning and teaching. The final chapter summarizes the studies in this volume, including the practical, methodological, and theoretical evaluations of these studies, concludes with a discussion of the limitations and contributions, and provides recommendations for future research.

Viewing beliefs, agency, and identity as social constructs negotiated in everyday, discursive practices, the studies in this volume reveal the key concepts as longitudinal, contextual, and interconnected. The authors illustrate the evolution of these constructs from cognitive, sociocultural, and anthropological approaches in the contexts of relevant SLA studies and theories to argue these terms have evolved from being fixed, individual traits into dynamic, contradictory, and fluid concepts bound by space and time, discursively enacted and negotiated. For example, initially connected to learner autonomy and intrinsic motivation, within sociocultural approaches to SLA, L2 learner agency has evolved into “learners’ ways of making informed choices, which can be constrained by the social contexts” (p. 19). Beliefs are “the personal meanings assigned by the learners and teachers to various aspects of learning or teaching foreign languages’ (p. 5). Identity, “people’s understanding of their relationship to the world” (Norton, 1997), is a multidimensional, fragmented, relational, performed, and contradictory process. By examining the links between these concepts, the studies in this volume highlight the complexities of L2 learning and teaching. Inquiry on the interplay between beliefs, agency, and identity in school and out-of school contexts and from an emic perspective is important because it helps reveal how power relations and access to linguistic resources are discursively negotiated across time and space.

The seven studies are presented in Chapters 3-9. In Chapters 3 and 4, Mari Aro presents two related studies that track the English learning experiences, identities, and agency of young learners in Finland over the course of 14 years. Analysis of semi-structured interviews conducted with participants from the age of 7 to the age of 21 reveals that learners’ beliefs and agency have been initially linked to their student identities, family, teaching practices in school, and English as a lingua franca ideology. For example, Emma viewed that the literacy-based teaching practices conflicted with her multimodal learning preference, and restricted her L2 learning. In contrast to Emma’s L2 learning trajectory, Helen perceived that her learning process has been aligned with the teaching practices. However, over time, participants could reposition their L2 speaker and user identities and learning in the context of their current needs and individual experiences.

The next three chapters expand the research focus to university students of English and other foreign languages. In Chapter 5 Ana Maria F. Barcelos discusses six student teachers’ professional identity development, agency, beliefs and motivations to become EFL teachers in Brazil. The analysis of written narratives, open-ended questionnaires, and semi-structured interviews collected over the course of three years reveals that becoming a teacher is a complex, sometimes contradictory process. Participants’ initial low investment in becoming teachers was linked to extrinsic factors, including limited financial rewards, students’ poor behavior, and the bad working environment. At the beginning of their teaching careers, participants started to draw on intrinsic factors, such as how they are perceived by their students in the classroom.

In a related study, Paula Kalaja compares student teachers’ beliefs about their L1 (Finnish or Swedish) and L2 (English) at a university in Finland from a discursive lens. The analysis of three questionnaires and interviews collected over five years suggests that though initially participants perceived that their linguistic resources encompassed both languages, over time, when their identities have shifted from language learners to language users, participants perceived English as part of their professional identities and related more instrumental values to English, such as using English to communicate in international contexts, finding employment or traveling.
Building on SLA studies that used visual data (for example, Giroir, 2014; Graziano, 2011; Nikula & Pitkänen-Huhta, 2008) in Chapter 7, Kalaja taps into the affordances of multimodal narratives to explore student teachers’ identities and beliefs about their foreign language teaching. In contrast to their past literacy-driven language learning experiences, the visual narratives reveal the preference toward using authentic activities and multimodal sources in their future classroom and connecting course content to students’ lives. In such future language teaching contexts the participants envisioned the teacher as guide.

Studies by Maria Ruohotie-Lyhty in Chapters 8 and 9 shift from multimodal narratives to a focus on written narratives and from student-teachers to novice teachers at the beginning of their teaching practice. The author examines 11 female novice teachers’ beliefs about foreign language teaching and agency using interviews and reflections collected in years 1, 2, 3, and 4 at work in Finland. Results suggest that most participants’ professional identities were predominantly mediated by their beliefs about teaching. They viewed the school environment as restrictive to their professional development and positioned themselves as dependent on standards and less autonomous as teachers. The follow-up study in Chapter 9 examines five experienced L2 teachers’ narratives about their experiences in L2 teaching and evolving professional identities. Findings highlight the relational aspects of L2 teaching; the teachers developed teaching practices and strategies by positioning themselves in relation to their beliefs about teaching, emotions, school environment, and students.


The book furthers the field of SLA by adopting a transdisciplinary and multimodal perspective to examine the links between literate L2 learners’ and users’ beliefs, agency, and identity in non-US contexts. It is also unique that it examines SLA from the perspectives of language learners and users. The contribution of this volume is that it adopts a longitudinal approach to track shifts in beliefs, agency, and identity.

The book is well-organized, detailed, and readable. Each chapter follows the same organization: background, aims of the study, data collection and analysis, findings and discussion, and conclusion. Chapters 3 through 9 conclude with a summary in table format of the particular study. Chapters include both written and visual summaries of the information provided. For example, Chapter 1 summarizes the seven studies and highlights the common traits and differences in these studies. Chapter 2 concludes with a table format summary of the seven studies reported in this volume. The table shown on page 24 informs the reader about key issues addressed, participants and contexts, and methodological approaches. Specifically, among the key issues addressed include development of beliefs about L2 learning, development of L2 learner agency, development of beliefs about L2 teaching and motivation to teach, development of beliefs about first and second languages, and L2 teacher identity development. Participants in these studies range from school children in Finland, English and Portuguese majors at a university in Brazil, preservice teachers in an MA programme for experienced language teachers in Finland). Data collection methods include interviews, learner-created drawings, and questionnaires. For example, in Chapter 7, the primary data consists of participant-created drawings and verbal commentaries collected over the course of five years at a university in Finland. In addition to a detailed overview of data collection methods, the data analysis frameworks include content analysis (Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 7), discourse analysis (Chapters 6 and 8), and narrative analysis (Chapter 9). The chapters also provide theoretical approaches that guide the studies, including contextual approach and dialogical lenses (Chapters 3, 4), person-in-context relational view of motivation (Ushioda, 2009) (Chapter 5), contextual and discursive (Chapters 6 and 7), sociocultural theory (Chapter 7), and ecological theory (Chapter 8). An in-depth discussion of these studies is offered in the appropriate chapters.

One of the shortcomings of the book is that it focuses on literate learners’ SLA. Though much has been written about literate L2 learners’ identity, and agency (e.g., Norton, 2000, 2013), compared to literate learners, low literacy L2 learners’ SLA has been less explored. The affordances of the multimodal and multilingual narratives as data sources could have been explored more in-depth. It might be worthwhile to explain the affordances of the multilingual interview excerpts. Also, it might be relevant to discuss how multimodal narratives in qualitative research design as visual sources expand on linguistic resources and create potential for meaning making by engage the individual’s agency in more complex ways (Kress, 2010).

In “Beliefs, Agency and Identity in Foreign Language Learning and Teaching” the authors have provided research-based evidence on the interrelated nature of beliefs, agency, and identity in SLA. Findings of these studies further the call for examining L2 learning practices beyond academic contexts, in multimodal discourses with a focus on learners’ needs and using a longitudinal approach. I would recommend this book to researchers and graduate students interested in conducting qualitative research using multimodal data sources.


Giroir, S. (2014) (a). “Even Though I Am Married, I Have a Dream”: Constructing L2 gendered identities through narratives of departure and arrival. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 13(5), 301-318. doi:10.1080/15348458.2014.958037.

Graziano, K. J. (2011). Working with English language learners: Preservice teachers and photovoice. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 13(1).

Kress GR (2010) Multimodality. A Social-Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Menard-Warwick, J. (2004). “I always had the desire to progress a little'': Gendered narratives of immigrant language learners. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 3(4), 295-311. doi: 10.1207/s15327701jlie0304_5

Norton, B. (2013). Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation. Bristol, England: Multilingual Matters.

Nikula, T., & Pitkänen-Huhta, A. (2008). Using photographs to access stories of learning English. In P. Kalaja, V. Menezes, & A. M. F. Barcelos (Eds.), Narratives of learning and teaching EFL (pp. 171–185). Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pietikäinen, S. (2012). Experiences and expressions of multilingualism: Visual ethnography and discourse analysis in research with Sámi children. In M. Martin-Jones & S. Gardner (Eds.), Multilingualism, discourse, and ethnography (pp. 163–178). New York, NY: Routledge.

Ushioda, E. (2009). A person-in-context relational view of emergent motivation, self and identity. In Z. Dornyei & E. Ushioda (Eds.), Motivation, language identity and the L2 self (pp. 215–228). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Andrea Lypka is PhD candidate in the Second Language Acquisition and Instructional Technology (SLA/IT) program at the University of South Florida (USF). Her research interests include language learner identity, discourse analysis, and visual research methods.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781137425942
Prices: U.K. £ 65.00
U.S. $ 100.00