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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning




This chapter examines six Japanese language learners’ L1/L2 use in their social network contexts. Drawing on the concept of investment (Norton Peirce 1995; Norton 2000), this chapter focuses on how opportunities for L1/L2 use between learners and their social network participants are socially and contextually constructed.

The principal analysis is based on the learners’ ethnographic interview data. The analysis reveals the wide variety in language use patterns in the learners’ social networks as well as numerous factors that affected these language use patterns. Among these factors, participant-related/social factors, including ‘investment in relationships as well as L2’, were found to be closely related to each other, and the combination of these factors seemed to play the most significant role in the learners’ language choice behaviour. It is argued that opportunities to use L2 were not necessarily created easily in the learners’ social network contexts. Rather, it was often natural and comfortable for both the learners and their network participants to use two languages in these contexts.


There have been a significant number of studies that highlight the importance of learners’ exposure to their L2 in out-of-class contexts (Rubin 1975; Seliger 1977; Stern 1983; Stoller et al. 1995; van Lier 1996; Archangeli 1999; Yorozu 2001). Very few of them, however, have been concerned with the social and contextual factors that affect the construction of opportunities for L2 use in these contexts. In addition, although L1/L2 use in language classrooms has always been a central focus in language learning research, L1/L2 use in the informal environment of learners’ social networks has received little attention to date. In particular, research on language use in social network contexts of foreign language (FL) learners, who study their target language (TL) in their home-country settings, has been underdeveloped. The current study, therefore, was motivated by the desire to consider how L1/L2 use is socially and contextually structured in learners’ social networks. Utilising six Japanese language learners’ ethnographic interview data as well as relevant samples of their actual interaction, I first examine the patterns of their language use, and then explore the social and contextual factors that influence these patterns.


One of the most influential studies that deal with the social factors affecting the opportunities for learners to use L2 outside classrooms is Norton’s examination of the L2 learning experience of immigrant women in Canada (Norton Peirce 1995; Norton 2000). In these works, Norton argues for the necessity of a comprehensive theory of identity that integrates language learners and the language learning context. She then proposes a theory of social identity by explaining three defining characteristics of learners’ social identity: identity as non-unitary and contradictory, identity as a site of struggle, and identity as changing over time. Norton maintains that these three conceptions of identity carry important implications for how the immigrant women in her study responded to, and created opportunities to practise English. Furthermore, her studies indicate that learning L2 is a social practice that engages the identities of learners in complex and sometimes contradictory ways as well as a skill that is acquired with dedication (Norton Peirce 1995; Norton 2000).

Subsequent to Norton’s (1995, 2000) research, an increasing number of studies have investigated the negotiation of identities of L2 users or learners in relation to their linguistic competence and ability to claim a voice in an L2 (Goldstein 1996; McKay and Wong 1996; Siegal 1996; Angelil-Carter 1997; Morgan 1997; Harklau 2000; Miller 2000; Toohey 2000; Duff 2002a, 2002b; Blackledge 2004; Canagarajah 2004; Kanno 2004; Kinginger 2004; Miller 2004; Pavlenko 2004). Among these studies, there is only one case study that dealt with a learner in a FL learning setting (Kinginger 2004). In this study, Kinginger examines the characteristics of an American student’s dispositions toward learning French in terms of claims to a renegotiated identity. Drawing upon Norton’s (1995, 2000) concept of investment, this study suggests that this learner’s investment in language learning, and the meaning that she attributes to FL competence can only be understood by examining the sociocultural worlds from which they emerge, and their dynamism over time. Kinginger finally proposes that the categories emerging from research on language learning as social practice, such as the concept of investment, are relevant to the FL area.

As regards studies carried out into using or learning Japanese as a FL in out-of-class informal settings, there has been very little empirical research to date. A significant study related to these settings, but not directly concerned with the social contexts that affect learners’ L1/L2 use, was conducted by Ogawa (1998). Ogawa found that through interaction with Japanese native speakers (NSs) in Australia, the learners in her study seemed to expand their sociocultural knowledge about Japan as well as their linguistic knowledge. She calls for more research into the relation between interaction with Japanese residents in the learners’ home country, and the development of learners’ Japanese competence. Subsequently, I undertook an examination of the social networks of four upper-intermediate level Japanese language learners studying at an Australian university (Kurata 2002, 2004a, 2004b). The results of this study revealed that the learners made significant investments in interaction in clusters (segments of networks which have relatively high density) and, in turn, that they were exposed to Japanese culture as well as Japanese language usage in natural settings. It was argued that this exposure would increase the learners’ linguistic and non-linguistic awareness.

Although the above-mentioned studies have provided insights into the link between learners’ out-of-class social contexts and L2 learning, these studies tell us very little about the learners’ actual language use and language choice between L1 and L2 in these contexts, particularly, in FL settings. In addition, we have not yet gained a satisfactory understanding of the social and contextual factors influencing the learners’ language use and choice. Therefore, this study will examine L1/L2 use of six Japanese language learners at an Australian university as they interact with their Japanese friends or acquaintances as well as other learners of Japanese in their natural social network settings.


Specifically, this study addresses two questions:

  1. What types of L1/L2 use occur in Japanese language learners’ social networks in their home-country settings?
  2. How is this L1/L2 use socially and contextually constructed?


As a means of examining the factors influencing L1/L2 use in learners’ social networks, Grosjean’s (1982) factors in language choice in bilingual settings are drawn upon in the present study. Grosjean presents four categories, and he further itemises a number of factors under these categories as follows:

1.   Participants

  • language proficiency
  • language preference
  • socioeconomic status
  • age
  • sex
  • occupation
  • education
  • ethnic background
  • history of speakers’ linguistic interaction
  • kinship relation
  • intimacy
  • power relation
  • attitude toward languages
  • outside pressure;

2.   Situation

  • location/setting
  • presence of monolinguals
  • degree of formality
  • degree of intimacy;

3.   Content of discourse

  • topic
  • type of vocabulary; and,

4.   Function of interaction

  • to raise status
  • to create social distance
  • to exclude someone
  • to request or command.

Based on these four categories, the current study attempts to discover the factors that account for L1/L2 use between six learners of Japanese and their respective social network participants. Grosjean (1982) proposed these categories and factors based on the previous studies that dealt with speakers in bilingual communities, such as German-Hungarian bilinguals in Austria. Therefore, it is expected that the factors affecting the language use of the informants in the present study might be significantly different from those of Grosjean.

A number of the social factors that account for the informants language use were analysed by utilising Norton’s notion of investment (Norton Peirce 1995; Norton 2000). Norton conceptualises this notion with economic metaphors, stating that learners invest in their L2 with the understanding that they will obtain a broad range of resources, which will in turn increase the value of their cultural capital. Norton further explains that the concept of investment signals the socially and historically structured relationship of the learners to their L2 and their occasionally ambivalent desire to learn and practise it. This concept thus facilitates an in-depth analysis of the social factors that play a crucial role in the informants’ language use, focusing on their socially constructed relationship to their L2.



The current study involves six first-year undergraduate students who were enrolled in intermediate level Japanese subjects at an Australian University. First-year students were selected in order to investigate the features of their social networks that they established in the first year of their university lives as well as those of the L1/L2 use in these networks. Intermediate level learners were chosen because it might be reasonably expected that students at these levels, in comparison with less advanced students, would be more likely to pursue informal out-of-class contacts. The personal details of the informants are presented in Table 1. They have been assigned pseudonyms for the purpose of anonymity.


In order to elicit detailed information regarding language use in the informants’ interaction with their network participants, an ‘interaction interview’ format was employed, as recommended by Neustupný (1994). This type of interview avoids general questions about what informants usually do and concentrates on specific questions to find out what actually happened in a particular situation, usually within a set period of time (Neustupný 1994: 19). Neustupný suggests that such a style of questioning can reveal actual human behaviour more accurately than can general questions. I conducted interviews with each informant every alternative month, that is, five or six times over a period of nine months (two university semesters in 2004) to closely examine how their language use would change as well as what social and contextual factors affected this language use.

Table 1 Background of the informants

* Each level represents one semester of study. Level 5 is the entry level for students who have studied Japanese at high school, whereas Level 7 is available to students with higher competence, usually those who have spent time in Japan.

A number of samples of the informants’ natural interaction in their social network settings were also collected. These include email messages, on-line chat scripts, SMS messages and audio-recorded conversations. The informants were also requested to record details associated with their exposure to Japanese in out-of-class contexts in a diary for approximately one week. Subsequent to the collection of the samples of the informants’ interaction and their diary entries, follow-up interviews were also conducted to elicit their reflections on the language use in their social networks based on these data.



Table 2 presents the varieties of language use between the informants and their network participants. The network participants in this table include not only native speakers of Japanese but also non-Japanese participants with whom the informants used Japanese regardless of the amount of their Japanese use. CJF1 refers to Cindy’s Japanese female network participant No. 1; CNM1 is Cindy’s non-Japanese male network participant No. 1. All the non-Japanese network participants, except for JNM3, are native speakers of English, and JNM3, whose home language is Chinese, immigrated to Australia when he was a high school student. The names of network participants in bold letters (for distinguishing purposes) indicate that their interaction was with an informant through the written channel, such as email or on-line chat. The informants’ bilingual language use was categorised into three types: ‘the basically Japanese variety’, ‘the basically English variety’ and ‘the mixed variety’ based on categories suggested by Nishimura (1992). Nonreciprocal use of languages between the informants and their network participants, such as where one participant used the basically English variety and the other used the basically Japanese variety, was categorised as ‘nonreciprocal use’. Language use marked with an asterisk (*) was confirmed on the basis of actual interactional data; no asterisk indicates that the categorisation was based on interaction interview data.

In terms of informants’ social networks, what Table 2 clearly displays is that all the informants, except for Grace, became acquainted with Japanese students who were studying at the same university during the informants’ first year of university. All the informants also had non-Japanese network participants with whom they used Japanese at their university. The informants’ social networks in Japan and outside university, on the other hand, do not include any non-Japanese network participants, apart from one of Jim’s network participants outside university, that is, his sister. As expected, Cindy, Grace and Patty who had resided in Japan for over one year had more Japanese network participants in Japan than the rest of the informants who had limited or no in-country experience.

The informants’ network participants at university were all students. They became acquainted through friends, social clubs, classes, private Japanese tuition, volunteer work and language exchange lessons. The relationships between the informants and their network participants outside university, on the other hand, varied, and included a former host sister, a former teacher of Japanese at high school, co-workers at a hotel where the informant worked part-time, and neighbours. The network participants in Japan were mostly the informants’ former host family members or former classmates with whom the informants had regular contact during their stay in Japan and with whom they had maintained contact afterwards.

With respect to language use, Table 2 illustrates the wide range of language use patterns of each informant, even with network participants who belong to the same category, such as native speakers of Japanese at the university. Max, for instance, had interaction in the basically English variety with the majority of his Japanese network participants at the university, although he used the basically Japanese variety or the mixed variety with the rest of them. Moreover, there are multiple language use patterns between an informant and each of his/her network participants in most cases, and they change according to contexts. The three types of varieties in which Cindy and CJF3 interacted are typical examples of this tendency. Interestingly, all the informants, except for Max, show the pattern of nonreciprocal use of varieties with a number of their network participants. This pattern occurred mainly in the written channel, including email and letters. Unlike face-to-face interaction in which speakers usually choose one language to communicate, these written channels do not involve real-time transmission of messages. Therefore, interactants are more likely to select their preferred language, which might be different from the language that their network participants chose to write to them. For example, PJM3 asked about models of mobile phones in Australia in the mixed variety, but Patty replied to his email explaining about the models in English. In her interaction interview, she claimed that she had chosen English in order to avoid using katakana for English words. There are, however, a few cases of nonreciprocal use of varieties in the spoken channel. Grace, for instance, spoke English when she talked with her former host sister (GJF2) on the phone. On the other hand, GJF2, who had arrived in Australia for the purpose of studying English, spoke Japanese to Grace. Grace claimed that she chose English with the intention of helping GJF2 practise English, but GJF2 seemed uncomfortable using English with Grace since they used to interact only in Japanese when Grace was an exchange student in Japan.

Table 2 Language use in the informants’ social network contexts

Closer examination of the language use patterns by the categories of network participants reveals that opportunities to use the basically Japanese variety were not created in most of the interactions in which the informants engaged with Japanese students at their university, and the majority of interaction was in the basically English variety. In contrast, the language use with the Japanese network participants outside the university includes more instance of the basically Japanese variety. One of the main factors that seem to affect this difference is the informants’ perception of the relatively low English proficiency of the Japanese network participants outside the university. Unexpectedly, almost half of the instances of the interactions with the network participants who resided in Japan were in the basically English variety. This trend is partly associated with the type of channel through which the informants and their network participants in Japan interacted with each other. More specifically, the majority of the interaction between them was by the written channel, mainly email. There are a number of cases of interaction in which some of the informants used Japanese with their Japanese network participants in face-to-face interaction, whereas both of them preferred to use English for email messages.


As discussed earlier, there is a wide variety of language use patterns which vary according to the participants as well as the contexts. These patterns are very complex, and numerous factors influence the language choice. In addition, some of these factors seem to be related to each other and the combination of several factors may contribute to language choice. Drawing on, but extending Grosjean’s (1982) categories of factors influencing language choice in bilingual settings, the following factors were found relevant to the informants’ L1/L2 use in the current study:

Participant-related factors

  • Perceived L2 proficiency of learners and their social network participants
  • Investment in L2 by learners and their social network participants
  • Investment in relationships with network participants as well as in L2
  • Awareness/sensitivity to network participants’ language needs and their identities in relation to their L2 proficiency
  • History of linguistic interaction;

Situation-related factors

  • Location/setting
  • Presence of monolinguals
  • Fatigue and lack of time
  • Channel/use of new technology

Discourse content-related factors

  • Topics
  • Type of vocabulary

Interactional function-related factors

  • Exclusion
  • Assistance to an L2 learner.

Although interesting examples and issues were found regarding ‘discourse-related’ and ‘interactional function-related’ factors, in this study I will focus on those factors listed under ‘participant-related’ and ‘situation-related’, where I have identified several new subcategories. The factors under these two categories are discussed and illustrated in turn in the following sections.


As Grosjean (1982) stated, the language proficiency of the speaker and of the interlocutor plays a significant role in their language choice. In his investigation into the linguistic behaviour of the second-generation children of Italian migrants in Germany, Auer (1988) also found that their imbalanced bilingual competence – their lack of competence in Italian – is related to their switching from Italian into German. Similarly, a number of the informants of the current study reported that their Japanese proficiency did not allow them to produce certain utterances in Japanese and they thus switched to English or that their Japanese network participants’ limited English proficiency led them to choose Japanese in several cases in their interaction. Interestingly, however, closer investigation of their interaction reveals that it is the informants’ perceived relative L2 proficiency of the informants themselves and their network participants that predicts their language choice more reliably. In other words, the difference in L2 proficiency that the informants perceived between them and their network participants seem to be more important than the absolute level of language proficiency of the speaker and the interlocutor, which Grosjean (1982) regards as a major factor of language choice. A particularly telling case is that of Jim.

As shown in Table 2 above, the language choice between Jim and JJF1 was basically English, whereas the choice between Jim and JJF2 was both basically English and the mixed variety. Jim had undertaken formal study of Japanese over 10 years and invested a lot of time and effort in his Japanese learning (cf. Table 1). JJF1 was a Japanese undergraduate student who had resided in English-speaking countries for many years. JJF2, on the other hand, was an international undergraduate student who had studied in Australia for just a few months. Comparing the English proficiency of JJF1 and JJF2, Jim claimed that JJF2 was practising her English as her second language just as he was practising his Japanese; on the other hand, JJF1 was a bilingual, fluent in both languages. Jim also explained that this difference contributed to how comfortable he was interacting with each of them. More specifically, Jim felt more relaxed and comfortable in interacting in Japanese with JJF2 than with JJF1 because he perceived that his Japanese proficiency was considerably lower than JJF1’s English proficiency, but was relatively similar in level to JJF2’s English. Therefore, Jim’s perception that JJF1’s L2 proficiency was much higher than his seemed to result in a sense of inferiority, which in turn led him to feel inhibited and disinclined to speak Japanese to her. There is further evidence from the other informants to support this factor: the learner’s relative perception of his/her L2 proficiency and that of his/her network participants. This includes Grace’s reluctance to speak Japanese to her first host mother and sister whose English proficiency level was very high, and Cindy being intimidated by another learner’s very high Japanese proficiency.

Grosjean (1982) considers the participants’ attitude toward a language and thus toward the group that speaks it as another important participant-related factor. He gave the example of the children of a minority community who may decide not to use their native language so that they are not differentiated from the children of the majority group. The setting of this example is very different from that of the current study. This factor, however, does seem to apply to the foreign language learning area. Drawing upon Norton’s concept of investment, I wish to argue that this factor should not be regarded as simply a property of the learners but should include an awareness of the socially and historically constructed relationship of learners to their L2 (Norton Peirce 1995; Norton 2000).

As previously explained, Norton proposed the concept of investment, which conceives of the language learner as having a complex social history and occasionally ambivalent desire to learn and practise the language (Norton Peirce 1995; Norton 2000). She also claimed that this concept helps explain the contradictions between the motivation of the immigrant women in her study to learn English and their ambivalent desire to speak it. Although the settings of the informants in my study are quite different from those in her study, I found that all of my informants also felt uncomfortable using Japanese or sometimes refused to use it under certain conditions, despite being highly motivated to learn Japanese. Norton further asserts that the learners’ investment in their target language is closely related to the ongoing production of their social identity, and the notion of social identity as multiple, a site of struggle, and changing over time allows her to explain the conditions under which her participants were comfortable or uncomfortable speaking English. As mentioned, the informants in my study were learners of Japanese at an Australian university, that is, foreign language learners in their home country (except for Max), and most of their network participants were those in the same social position as well as the same age bracket as the informants. In this study, therefore, it seems appropriate to focus on the informants’ identity in relation to their Japanese proficiency in order to consider their investment in Japanese as one of the important factors influencing the complex process of their language selection.

The series of interactions of two of my informants, namely Jim and Simon, will be highlighted to support my argument, particularly by focusing on Simon’s ambivalent desire to use Japanese and his identity in relation to his L2 proficiency. These two learners became acquainted through a social club to which they belonged, and they regularly attended club activities together. Based on their diary entries and interaction interviews, it is clear that both Jim and Simon were eager to be exposed to Japanese and pursued social contact with native speakers of Japanese. Jim engaged in volunteer work at a Japanese comic book library at the university where a lot of native speakers of Japanese frequently gathered. He was also very keen to learn Japanese colloquial expressions through websites and attempted to use them in his interaction with Simon and some of his other network participants. Simon, on the other hand, had private tutors (SJF1 and SJF2) to improve his Japanese and he persistently attempted to talk to me, being a former teacher of his, in Japanese, even though I spoke to him in English for the purpose of the research interviews.

As shown in Table 2, the language use patterns between Jim and Simon cover four types: basically English, basically Japanese, mixed varieties and nonreciprocal usage (Jim: basically Japanese; Simon: basically English). These patterns changed, depending on the context of the interaction, such as location/setting and presence of monolinguals. These factors will be discussed below. It was also found that the patterns changed across time, and this transition was closely connected with Jim and Simon’s investment in Japanese, in particular, Simon’s ambivalent desire to use Japanese and his identity in relation to L2 proficiency. In the following discussion, I demonstrate how and why their language use patterns changed over time by analysing their investment in Japanese and how this factor interacts with the previous factor, namely learners’ perception of relative L2 proficiency.

In the third interview with Simon in June, he reported that Jim loved Japanese so much that as soon as he found that Simon could speak Japanese, Jim initiated a Japanese conversation. Simon also claimed that they used the mixed or sometimes the basically Japanese varieties during their club activities and it was fun for them to talk in Japanese. In the next interview in September, however, Simon reported that Jim started to use Japanese slang expressions and strange lexical items with which Simon was not familiar. In addition, Jim started to correct Simon’s Japanese utterances. Regarding the language use on the day of their common friend’s birthday party in September, Simon claimed that although Jim was very keen to speak Japanese to Simon, Simon did not listen to Jim’s Japanese and told him to speak in English. This example illustrates their nonreciprocal use of languages, with Jim speaking in the basically Japanese variety but Simon refusing to do so and responding in English. Simon further explained that on that day he felt intimidated by Jim’s Japanese and thus disinclined to speak Japanese, but at the same time he wished to utilise this type of interaction to improve his Japanese so that he could speak like Jim. This episode exhibits Simon’s ambivalent desire to use Japanese. In other words, in this situation he refused to speak Japanese to Jim, despite his eagerness to use this interaction to practise and learn Japanese.

Further in-depth interviews with Simon illuminated the factors contributing to his ambivalence about using Japanese. He claimed that Jim’s frequent correction of his Japanese utterances made him feel embarrassed and Jim’s persistent use of Japanese colloquial expressions also intimidated him. Simon explained that since Jim was studying Levels 5 and 6 and Simon was studying Levels 7 and 8, Simon’s level of Japanese proficiency was supposed to be higher than Jim’s. Simon, however, perceived his Japanese proficiency was lower than that of Jim and this led him to think ‘I should know what Jim knows’ whenever Jim produced unfamiliar Japanese vocabulary/expressions or he corrected Simon’s Japanese. It seems that Simon’s perceived relatively lower L2 proficiency in relation to Jim contributed to the construction of Simon’s identity as an inadequate user of Japanese for Levels 7 and 8. This construction of his identity, in turn, seemed to result in his failure to reciprocate Jim’s use of Japanese.

Nevertheless, Simon’s identity as an inadequate user of Japanese was not established and fixed but was a site of struggle and change across time, similar to the experience of the immigrant women in Norton’s study (Norton Peirce 1995, Norton 2000). In the fifth interview in November, he described Jim’s use of slang expressions as ‘a bit showing off’ and said: ‘I did it (felt intimidated by Jim’s Japanese) at first, I didn’t like it, but now, it’s OK, because I am not so intimidated’. In the following interview by email, he explained what made him less intimidated: ‘Although speaking with Jim in Japanese was intimidating, I thought that I shouldn’t be always intimidated by not understanding him and use the opportunity to talk with him in Japanese because I could use it to learn and get better’. He also explained that this change was his own conscious decision; that is, he changed his opinion about Jim’s Japanese and his own use of Japanese in reciprocation deliberately. These statements of Simon show that he was able to reconstruct his identity from an inadequate user of Japanese to a positive learner of Japanese, who became more tolerant of his own perceived lack of L2 proficiency and who was able to accept Jim’s Japanese use as an opportunity to learn. Simon’s investment in Japanese, therefore, was significantly structured by his identity in relation to his perceived Japanese proficiency.

Jim, on the other hand, in the third interview in June, evaluated his interaction in Japanese with Simon as enjoyable and as a good opportunity to practise. Towards the end of the year of data collection, he noticed Simon’s change regarding his language use as follows: ‘Simon used to, he doesn’t so much these days, but he’d always just tell me to speak in English, so I would be reluctant to speak in Japanese, but now he’s speaking more and more in Japanese’. Jim, however, did not know the reason for Simon’s change and stated, ‘I think he’s getting used to it’. As mentioned earlier, Jim himself felt inferior to JJF1 due to her high English proficiency and was thus disinclined to use Japanese to her. In spite of this experience, he did not realise that Simon had been intimidated by his own use of Japanese. This point, whether interactants are sensitive to each others’ identity in relation to L2 proficiency, will be discussed below as another important factor.

Simon described in more detail what made him decide to be less stressed about Jim’s intimidating linguistic behaviour, including his frequent correction of Simon’s Japanese use. It was when Simon realised that Jim was not aiming to show off with his Japanese competence but was trying to assist him to learn Japanese, as an older brother would. Simon realised this because he had seen that Jim was persevering patiently in his efforts to use Japanese. This was consistent with Jim’s claim that he faced difficulties in understanding the way Simon constructed some Japanese sentences. In this situation, Jim simply told Simon that he did not understand what Simon said and then they constructed Japanese sentences together, with Simon’s occasional English explanation about what he meant. Here, what seems to be a salient point is that both Jim and Simon invest in their friendship as well as in their L2. Since to correct interlocutors’ L2 can become face-threatening behaviour, interactants tend to avoid it, especially if they are not close to each other. Moreover, as Miller (2004) notes, in spoken interaction both a listener and a speaker share the responsibility for keeping the communication alive, and the collaboration of the listener is necessary for the speaker to claim the right to speak in an L2. Simon realised that Jim had not meant to show off his Japanese competence but sincerely sought to practise and learn Japanese with Simon as well as to assist him to learn it. Simon also noticed that it required considerable patience for Jim to interact with him in Japanese, and that Jim’s patience indicated his caring for Simon and their developing friendship. Their investment not only in Japanese learning but also their friendship seems to have been essential for the reconstruction of Simon’s identity in relation to his perceived Japanese proficiency. Therefore, this factor, investment in relationships with network participants, also plays a significant role in L1/L2 use in learners’ social networks. This factor will be discussed next in more detail.

Grosjean (1982) itemises the degree of intimacy as an important factor. The current study, however, highlights the necessity of an investment in a relationship as well as in L2 for the negotiation of language use, rather than just the degree of intimacy. An example which supports this point is evident in the interaction between Cindy and CJM2. As shown in Table 1 above, Cindy sojourned at a university in Japan as an exchange student where she met CJM2 who studied the same subject as herself and with whom she had social contact outside class during her stay in Japan. It is clear that Cindy was a highly motivated learner of Japanese since she had regular private Japanese lessons with CJF1 as well as language exchange with CJF3. In addition, she often participated in the activities of a Japanese social club and enjoyed interacting in Japanese with her social network participants who were NSs of Japanese and those who studied Japanese as well. Cindy remembered that CJM2 also wished that he had had more people with whom he could speak in English and she described him as ‘the one who wants to improve his English’. During the year of the data collection, they exchanged email only once, and she described the frequency of interaction as ‘very rare’ in her first interview. Regarding his email that she received a couple of weeks before the third interview in July, she could not remember the content but explained that it was short and a ‘sort of catch up letter’ written in English. Two months later, she replied to his email in Japanese. Therefore, as indicated in Table 2, their language use was nonreciprocal.

Cindy claimed that she was surprised rather than happy to receive CJM2’s email because she had not contacted him for a while. She also reported that she did not intend to stay in contact with him because they did not have any common interests, except for their respective L2s. As a result, she believed that the content of their email was always boring for both of them. As mentioned above, it is clear that both of them had a strong desire to learn their respective L2s and invest in them, but they did not seem to invest in their relationship. More specifically, Cindy appeared to perceive that CJM2 had sought an instrumental relationship with Cindy or had regarded his interaction with her as a means to practise English. Cindy, on the other hand, was reluctant to have an instrumental relationship with him and seemed to resist the position of an English trainer by replying to him in Japanese. Accordingly, investment in relationships as well as in L2, is one of the most crucial factors that accounts for language use in learners’ social network contexts.

As mentioned above, participants’ sensitivity/insensitivity to their interlocutors’ language needs and identity in relation to perceived L2 proficiency has an impact on their language use. The interaction between Simon and SNM2, who was a member of Simon’s social club, is a good illustration of this. In his third interview in June, Simon claimed that it was easy for him to talk to SNM2 in Japanese because they had the same level of Japanese. In the fourth interview in September, however, Simon stated that after being intimidated by Jim’s use of Japanese and sensing that Jim had not realised how Simon felt about his Japanese, Simon started wondering how SNM2 found using Japanese with him. In other words, Simon suspected that it was easy for him but not for SNM2 to interact in Japanese together, because SNM2 was studying Levels 3 and 4, which were two levels lower than Simon’s. He therefore started to attempt to use expressions that he thought would be taught up to Levels 3 and 4 so that SNM2 could understand. These claims reveal that Simon’s perception of SNM2’s Japanese proficiency level changed and he also became more aware of SNM2’s language needs and identity in relation to his Japanese proficiency. In other words, Simon deliberately altered his language use to suit SNM2’s level of Japanese proficiency, having SNM2’s identity in relation to his Japanese competence under consideration.

The last factor concerning participants’ attributes is the history of their linguistic interaction. Grosjean (1982) explains that it is very common to find bilingual speakers who have an agreed-upon language of interaction when the situation or topics do not force them to choose a particular language. As a typical instance, he cites children of immigrant families who tend to continue to speak their minority language to their grandparents or parents, even if the children became more proficient in their majority language. For the informants who were foreign language learners as well as their network participants in the current study, it is difficult to identify which pairs of interactants had an agreed-upon or a customary language pattern. This is because the language use between most of these pairs varied, depending on various contextual and social factors, including those that I discussed above. However, I found two cases of the basically English variety use between two of the informants and their respective Japanese tutors (Cindy and CJF1; Simon and SJF1). Since both pairs always used the basically English variety during their lessons, it seemed customary for them to use it even when they socialised outside their lessons. As mentioned earlier, both Cindy and Simon were highly motivated to learn Japanese and pursued interaction in Japanese with their network participants. Nevertheless, they seemed to find it natural and comfortable to interact with their Japanese tutors in the basically English variety, regardless of the context of the interaction.

There is an interesting case which indicates participants’ agreed-upon nonreciprocal language use, which is different from the customary use of one particular language that was discussed above. Grace, another highly motivated learner of Japanese, interacted with two of her Japanese friends in Japan (GJF5 and GJF6) once or twice a month mostly by email during the nine months of data collection. Table 2 indicates that the patterns of language use between Grace and GJF5 and those between Grace and GJF6 were the same: the basically English, the basically Japanese varieties and nonreciprocal use. Most of the email messages that they wrote, however, belong to the category of nonreciprocal use. More specifically, Grace wrote messages to them in English only once due to her time constraints before her exams and GJF5 and GJF6 wrote in Japanese only once as well. It seems reasonable to claim that their customary language use was nonreciprocal, that is, Grace used the basically Japanese variety and GJF5 and GJF6 used the basically English variety. One of the actual email samples that Grace gave me shows that her message to GJF6 was all in Japanese, except for their common friends’ names and a few other lexical items with which she was not familiar, and on the following day, GJF6 replied to Grace’s message completely in English. Grace commented about their nonreciprocal language use saying that she was keen to use Japanese in her email messages to them, particularly to use lexical items she had learned as much as possible, and she was not very sure but she speculated that GJF5 and GJF6 might enjoy using English. She also claimed that she never minded about their English use, although she wrote to them in Japanese and she had a strong desire to be exposed to Japanese. Grosjean (1982) notes that nonreciprocal language use normally results in embarrassment and even anger between bilingual speakers because, amongst other things, it can signal lack of group solidarity. In the case of email exchange, however, nonreciprocal use of languages does not seem to lead to such serious conflict over language preferences as face-to-face interaction. In addition, in the case of Grace and these two network participants, it was rather natural and comfortable for them to write email in their preferred language and receive it in the other language. In other words, it seemed that they tacitly agreed on this nonreciprocal language use and this language use pattern became customary.


Two of the situation-related factors that Grosjean (1982) lists were found to be influential in determining language use in a number of the cases in the current study: location/setting and presence of monolinguals. Jim, for example, interacted with JJF2 in either the basically English or the mixed variety (cf. Table 2). It was found that when Jim happened to see JJF2 on a bus or on their campus, they tended to use the mixed variety. In the club activities in which they engaged together, they always spoke in the basically English variety. Jim claimed that he thought that English use would be more appropriate in the situation of a club gathering because JJF2 was very keen to meet Australian people and to demonstrate to these Australian students that her English was good. Jim also mentioned that most of these students did not speak Japanese, so their presence as monolinguals affected his language choice as well.

Interactants’ fatigue and lack of time is one of the factors affecting language choice, particularly in written channels. Not surprisingly, the frequency of interaction between all the informants and the majority of their network participants, particularly those in Japan, tended to decrease before the informants’ exams and the due dates for their assignments. In the third interviews that were conducted just after their exams around the end of June, most of the informants claimed to have been busy and tired due to their commitments to study. I suggest that these factors, namely tiredness and lack of time, affected their language use. As mentioned earlier, Grace wrote email messages to GJF5 and GJF6 in English only once, due to time constraints before her exams, although she did so in Japanese all the other times. Similarly, just before his exams, Jim chose English when he had a short on-line chat with JNM3 with whom he used the basically Japanese variety when they had long conversations once or twice a month.

Last but not least, a factor which does not seem to belong to any of Grosjean’s categories, but which is relevant to participants’ situation, is type of channel, and in particular, the use of new technology in the informants’ interaction. Not surprisingly, all the written interaction between the informants and their network participants inside and outside their university was by email, SMS or on-line chat and it did not include any interaction by letter. All the written interaction with those in Japan was also by these new means of communication, except for letter exchanges between Cindy and CJF6, Grace and GJF3, Grace and GJF8, and Patty and PJF4 (cf. Table 2). The pair of Cindy and CJF6 and that of Patty and PJF4 exchanged letters a number of times, but they chose letters rather than email because they posted some gifts together with these letters to each other. It is clear that these new means of communication were dominant forms within the written channel in the informants’ social network contexts.

My data suggests that the use of new technology including not only email and on-line chat but also electronic and web dictionaries and Japanese input method editor (IME) on computers help the informants reduce the time and effort that is required when interacting in Japanese with their network participants, and in turn, facilitated their Japanese use. In his second interview in April, for example, Simon claimed that it was too much effort to use his dictionaries when he wrote Japanese email to his former host sister, SJF4, so he tended to produce messages within the limits of his present vocabulary. In the following interview in June, however, with his new electronic dictionary, he was willing to try new lexical items as much as possible since it was so much fun and quick to use it. Grace highlighted the usefulness of Japanese IME and on-line communication, stating that unlike writing letters, it was easy to produce kanji by email and on-line chat because it was not necessary to know each stroke of kanji when using the IME. Jim and Cindy utilised the IME pad in which they drew unfamiliar kanji that their interactants wrote, which helped them find out the reading and meaning of it easily, without using a kanji dictionary that usually involves a complicated procedure to consult. Moreover, Cindy accessed the search engine, Google, in order to apologise properly for not emailing CJM1 for a long time. She looked up ‘writing letters in Japanese’ and came across a few websites that she could use as reference materials. She also cut and pasted some of her Japanese expressions into Google to see how many hits she obtained and then she looked at some of them to find out how these expressions were used in different contexts. I suggest that without these types of new technology, the frequency of interaction in the informants’ social network contexts would decrease, and their L2 use through the written channel in these contexts might be more limited.


Through close and detailed examination of the six informants’ L1/L2 use with their network participants, the variety in their language use patterns and the complexities involved in language choice have become apparent. The findings of this study also clearly demonstrate that numerous factors affected the informants’ language use, and some of these factors interacted with each other. In spite of the differences between the settings of the current study and those that Grosjean (1982) refers to, a number of factors, including ‘history of linguistic interaction’ and ‘presence of monolinguals’, were common to both settings. Furthermore, Grosjean points out that some factors are more important than others and thus play a larger role when combined with other factors, depending on the bilingual community. In the case of the FL settings of the current study, participant-related factors, such as ‘perceived L2 proficiency’, ‘investment in relationships as well as L2’, and ‘sensitivity to network participants’ language needs and their identities’, were found to be closely related to each other, and the combination of these factors seemed to play the most significant role in learners’ language choice behaviour.

The findings of the current study, however, exhibit considerably more complex features of the social/participant-related factors that account for language choice than those presented by Grosjean (1982). The difference in L2 proficiency that the informants perceived between them and their network participants helped me explain their language use patterns in a great deal of their interaction more accurately than by simply labelling such influences as ‘language proficiency’, as listed by Grosjean. I have also argued that Grosjean’s factor of ‘attitude toward languages’ should not be just a property of the speakers, but should include an awareness of their socially and historically constructed relationship to their L2. More specifically, the learners’ investment in an L2, which seems to be structured by their identity in relation to their relative L2 proficiency, contributes to the learners’ actual L1/L2 use in their social networks. Furthermore, as the analysis of Cindy’s case demonstrates, ‘investment in relationship as well as L2’ appears to be essential for the negotiation of language use between learners and their network participants.

The current case study has provided useful insights into the construction of opportunities to use L2 in the learners’ social networks. As previously stated, it indicates that these opportunities are not necessarily created easily in the learners’ home-country networks nor in in-country settings. Bilingual interaction, including the mixed variety and the nonreciprocal use of two languages, is common and the process of language selection is influenced by numerous social and contextual factors in very complex ways. As Liebscher and Dailey-O’Cain (2005) point out, it is not possible for L2 learners to become monolingual speakers of L2, but only to become bilingual speakers of both an L1 and L2. Consequently, it is necessary for both learners and language teachers to be aware of the complexities of the process of language choice in social network contexts, and, in turn, the fact that opportunities to use only L2 are not easily constructed. Rather, it is often natural and comfortable for both learners and their network participants to use two languages just as do the speakers in bilingual communities that Grosjean (1982) cites. However, more investigation into learners’ L1/L2 use in social networks is required – in particular, the microanalysis of their natural interaction – in order to investigate what opportunities for L2 learning occur in this L1/L2 use.


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Cite this chapter as: Kurata, N. 2007. ‘Social and contextual factors influencing L1/L2 use in learners’ social network contexts: A case study of learners of Japanese in Australia’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 15.1 to 15.19.

© Copyright 2007 Naomi Kurata
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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

   by Helen Marriott, Tim Moore and Robyn Spence-Brown