Bonny Norton

NNEST of the Month
January 2011
bonny [dot] norton [at] ubc [dot] ca
1. From Ana Wu, City College of San Francisco:
a. Would you tell us how and why you decided to become an educator?
Dr. Norton:This is an interesting question. In many ways, I did not “decide” to become an educator; it was one of the few options available to me as a young woman growing up in a large South African family in the 1960’s and 1970’s. When I observed working women in our society, the few professionals were mainly teachers and nurses. I remember my father saying to me, half-jokingly, “Why do you want to go to university? You are just going to get married and have children.” Because of our family’s limited resources, it was essential that I get a scholarship to fund my university education, and this was available through the education department. Fortunately, I found teaching a meaningful, challenging, and enjoyable profession, and was very happy to become a full-time educator.
b. Besides having published extensively, you have been a keynote speaker in more than 40 countries/cities, including in Gramado, a beautiful city in Brazil known for their chocolate, hydrangeas, and annual film festival (As a Brazilian away from home, I am always nostalgic). Would you share some of your most vivid experiences visiting and giving a presentation in a country for the first time?
Dr. Norton: I have immense curiosity about the world, and find that professional invitations to speak in different countries provide the perfect opportunity to gain insight into a country and its people. Before I leave (and on long plane journeys) I always read about the history of the country I’m visiting, the different groups in the country, its political structure, its cultural practices, its languages. Wherever possible, I seek out English language newspapers, and read these on a regular basis. This helps me to understand the people I meet and the educational practices I observe. I also read novels from authors in the host country, and I’m particularly interested in learning about struggles for greater social justice and educational opportunity.I remember well my visit to beautiful Gramado, which was so different from other regions of Brazil I had visited. In Rio, for example, I jumped on a local bus and visited a favela on the outskirts of the city (my hosts were shocked when they learnt of this activity!). The poverty in the favela reminded me that Brazil remains a country where extreme wealth and extreme poverty co-exist, with disturbing consequences for educational opportunity. Gramado was an idyllic town with an alpine character. Was I really in Brazil?

2. From Young Mi Kim, Assistant Professor of English, Duksung Women’s University, Seoul, Korea
In teaching my university students in Korea, I became interested in the study of ICC (intercultural communicative competence). Byram (1997) said that the goal of ICC is for students to strive to extend their ability to perceive events in a new cultural context, and in this way come to have a broader intercultural identity that will enable them to move fluidly though a range of cultural contexts.

I think it is very important for students to be aware of positive and negative changes in their identity through EFL courses and other events such as watching American television programs ( a variety of American television programs such as ‘CSI,’ ‘Gossip Girl,’ and ‘America’s Top Model’ are available to watch on cable TV in Korea with Korean subtitles). However, during interviews it is very difficult to get students to talk about any changes in their identity. They always say my courses and watching the TV programs don’t effect their identity at all. They don’t think about the relationship between language, media, English learning and identity at all.

First of all, I would like to know whether you think it is better for students to be made aware of changes in their identity through the course explicitly and also to be able to describe these changes in order to increase their communicative competence in English. If it is better, how can I increase their awareness? What kind of strategies can I teach my students to develop their awareness of changes in their identity? In general, in order for my students to have positive development of their identity, what should I do as an EFL teacher at the University level?

Byram, M. (1997) Teaching and Assessing Intercultural Communicative Competence Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, Ltd.

Dr. Norton: Thank you for these questions. When I consider issues of “identity” among the students in my classes, I seldom use the term “identity” as such. At some level, this is an abstract term that is difficult to relate to. What I consider, instead, are the ways in which students relate to one another, to classroom practices, to me as a teacher, and to the wider society. As I said in my 2000 book (p.5): “I use the term identity to reference how a person understands his or her relationship to the world, how that relationship is structured across time and space, and how a person understands possibilities for the future.”

Discussions about a student’s relationship to the world, in the different domains of their lives (the home, the classroom, the playground, the workplace etc) all give me insight into a student’s complex and multiple identity. That identity, of course, also changes across time, as students engage with new ideas and relate to different people. The central questions I ask in my classroom are, “What is the student’s investment in the language practices of my classroom? How can I ensure that I structure classroom activities in ways that foster and encourage investment?. A student’s investment is integrally related to their identity: i.e. the way they relate to the world and their hopes for the future. If students have little investment in the language practices of my classroom, they may become bored, resentful, and resistant. A challenge for any teacher!

3. From Terry Doyle, Civic Center Campus of CCSF, ESL Instructor
a. In your article “Identity as a sociocultural construct in second language research” (2006) you mention that in the 1970s and 1980s second language researchers made a distinction between social identity and cultural identity. In recent years you and other researchers have come to the realization that one’s social identity cannot be separated from one’s cultural identity, and in this article you argue for the need to adopt an interdisciplinary and critical approach to identity research which entails studying identity in language education using a sociocultural construct. In your opinion, is such an interdisciplinary approach better able to describe the identity formation of new second language teachers, especially those who are teaching a language other than their “native” language?
Dr. Norton: This is a thoughtful question. Traditional conceptions of “social identity” are associated with the field of sociology, which is in turn primarily concerned with practices in (mainly urban) institutions such as schools, homes, law courts, and hospitals in a given society. Sociology assumes a “top-down” more macro-analytic approach to an investigation and understanding of these institutional practices. “Cultural identity” is associated with the field of anthropology, and assumes a “bottom-up” more micro-analytic approach to cultural practices. Such cultural practices include child rearing, marital conventions, religious belief systems, etc.

More recently, interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge construction have collapsed distinctions between the social and cultural. A second language teacher, for example, works within a given institution, which is part of larger set of social institutions (departments of education etc), but is simultaneously grappling with diverse cultural practices in her classroom (ways of talking, interacting, reading, and writing). In this context, both top-down, macro-level and bottom-up, micro-level analysis is needed to understand her practice. A second language teacher who is teaching in a language other than her native language faces a different set of challenges than a teacher teaching in her native language. Consider, for example, the current challenges faced by non-native English teachers in the state of Arizona, in the USA.

b. In your 1997 article “Language, identity, and the ownership of English” in TESOL Quarterly (1997) your introduction to the special topic issue on “Language and Identity,” there is quite an extensive review of articles on NNEST issues and the ownership of English. Since that time, the literature on both identity and language learning and also NNEST and the ownership issues have developed greatly. In your opinion where do these two literatures intersect? In particular, how may research on identity in second language education inform the education of new second language teachers, especially those who are “non-native” teachers?
Dr. Norton:This is another important question. My first and immediate response is to note that the vast majority of teachers who teach English internationally are not native speakers of the language. Interestingly, it is often in western, English-dominant countries such as the USA and the UK that the “non-native” standing of English teachers is a topic of debate. In many countries in Africa, for example, the English teacher is an English teacher, and not a NNEST. Having said this, however, I am aware that in Asian countries like China, Korea, and Japan, many institutions give disproportionate value to the “native speaker,” often causing concern and distress amongst local NNEST. The work of Aneta Pavlenko has been particularly powerful in encouraging NNEST to consider themselves “bilingual teachers” rather than NNEST. Manka Varghese, Vaidehi Ramanathan, Brian Morgan, Kelleen Toohey, Karen Johnson, Margaret Hawkins, Bill Johnston, Matthew Clarke are other scholars who are grappling with these issues, amongst others. Issues of power are central.

c. I am currently doing research on the role of the mentor-student teacher relationship in the teacher education process and the identity formation process of ESL teachers. In particular, I have been thinking about development of collective identity of student ESL teachers. Danielewicz in her book Teaching Selves defines a new teacher’s collective identity as “being recognized by others as a teacher”. She writes that the development of collective identity comes about when a student teacher is working in an actual classroom with a mentor teacher and also that what kind of affiliation occurs between the mentor teacher and student teacher is very influential on that student teachers’ collective identity development. In your opinion, how does collective identity come about for new teachers? How can a mentor teacher encourage and promote collective identity development? What is the role of the mentor teacher in the development of collective identity of student teachers? For example, what kind of feedback might be appropriate after student teacher lessons during the practicum?

Danielewicz, J. (2001). Teaching Selves: Identity, Pedagogy, and Teacher Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Dr. Norton: As someone who has taught for nearly thirty years, and served as a teacher educator for the last 15, I know that I am continually refining my own practice. My own learning has never stopped. Every class I teach offers a new challenge and a new set of possibilities. So in mentoring new teachers, I reassure them that teaching is a journey, and that every class is unique. I make mistakes; I have lapses in judgement. However, what I try to do in every class is to learn more of each student in the class, and seek to establish some kind of relationship with each student, so that I can adapt my practice to students’ needs and investments. This is what I model for my student teachers. In every class with student teachers, I am constantly assessing how the student teachers are responding to my instruction, and determining if I need to adjust my practices. The mentor teacher serves as a model for student teachers, but also seeks to encourage the student teacher to find her own comfort level, and to build on her particular strengths.

Clearly, student teachers have complex and multiple identities, with diverse investments in the language practices of their classrooms. These will likely relate to past experiences of learning and teaching, and their imagined identities as teachers. The mentor needs to seek to understand these investments and identities, so that the mentoring experience is rewarding for both parties. At the same time, the mentor teacher needs to be aware that some of the challenges a student teacher has may have little to do with preparation, energy, and commitment. Sometimes student teachers may be disempowered if their race and/or gender, for example, is not valued in the classroom. These issues relate to dominant social practices in the society at large.

d. Also, how important is how the two participants in this process refer to each other? Danielewicz used the terms “mentor teacher” and “student interns,”but I prefer to refer to both participants in this collaborative process as “co-teachers.”For as Danielewicz points out, it is the act of naming more than experience itself which makes us who we are. What is your opinion about this?
Dr. Norton:This is a complex question. Although both participants are indeed “co-teachers,” there is also a power imbalance between them. It may be most productive to name this difference, rather than assume it doesn’t exist.

e. Related to my previous question about the role of the mentor-student teacher relationship in the teacher education process, and what might be particularly interesting for readers of this blog, is a question about the collective identity development of student teachers who are international students working with teachers in an ESL context.

Can you see any difference in the collective identity development of international (NNES) MA TESOL students and United States-born (NES) MA TESOL students?
Dr. Norton:With regard to collective identity development, issues of “imagined communities” and “imagined identities” might be relevant here. (See Kanno & Norton, 2003; Norton, 2001; Pavlenko & Norton, 2007). If an NNES MA TESOL student wishes to remain in the United States rather than return to the country of origin, the imagined professional community would differ from that of the NNES student who is returning home. Similarly, the NES MA TESOL student who plans to teach internationally rather than in the USA would also likely have different investment in the future than the NES student who plans to remain local.

f. Do you think it is useful and appropriate for new and also experienced teachers to focus consciously on their identity formation? What seminal papers and books would you recommend to NNES and NES professionals to learn more about research on identity in language learning and also in teacher education?
Dr. Norton:As I have noted in my publications, every time a person speaks, reads, or writes, they are engaged in the negotiation of identity. A teacher may not use the term “identity”, but there is no doubt that a teacher’s sense of self is implicated in all classroom exchanges. If students do not listen to a teacher, she will feel discouraged; if students are excited by a class exercise, she will feel happy and successful. Such feelings are all implicated in a the teacher’s sense of “self” and identity.

I have a chapter on Identity in an edited volume by Nancy Hornberger and Sandy McKay, which has just been published by Multilingual Matters (Norton, 2010). My chapter highlights current research on identity and language learning. I have another chapter, co-authored with Margaret Hawkins, on Critical Language Teacher Education. (Hawkins & Norton, 2009). As mentioned above, the work of Aneta Pavlenko, Vaidehi Ramanathan, Manka Varghese, Brian Morgan, Kelleen Toohey, Margaret Hawkins, Karen Johnson, Bill Johnston, Matthew Clarke and others all address identity and teacher education in innovative and intriguing ways.

Ana Wu: It’s a great honor to have you in our blog. Thank you for this informative interview!


Hawkins, M., & Norton, B. (2009). Critical language teacher education. In A. Burns & J. Richards (Eds.), Cambridge guide to second language teacher education. (pp. 30-39) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kanno, Y., & Norton, B. (Guest Eds.). (2003). Imagined communities and educational possibilities [Special issue]. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 2(4).

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

Norton, B. (2006). Identity as a sociocultural construct in second language education. In K.Cadman & K. O’Regan (Eds.), TESOL in Context [Special Issue], 22-33.

Norton, B. (1997). Language, identity, and the ownership of English. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 409-429.

Norton, B. (2001). Non-participation, imagined communities, and the language classroom. In M. Breen (Ed.), Learner contributions to language learning: New directions in research (pp. 159-171). Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Norton, B. (2010). Language and identity. In N. Hornberger & S. McKay (Eds). Sociolinguistics and language education. (pp. 349-369). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Pavlenko, A., & Norton, B. (2007). Imagined communities, identity, and English language teaching. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (pp. 669-680). New York: Springer.


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